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Jannis Kounellis at Ambika P3, 2010. © Michael Maziere. Courtesy: Sprovieri Gallery, London.


The Dramaturgy of the Labyrinth


by Floriana Piqué

K for Kounellis. K for Kafka and for the main character of The Castle. K for the tenth letter of the Greek alphabet.


On the wooden bridge leading from the main road to the village K. stood for a long time gazing into the illusory emptiness above him.

Since the beginning of his career in the Sixties, Jannis Kounellis, one of the great living artists and a key figure of the Arte Povera movement, has always challenged boundaries in his work, defying different kinds of beauty, at times in unusual spaces.

Kounellis treated the huge concrete underground space beneath the University of Westminster in London, called Ambika P3, as the nave of a Gothic cathedral.

Space conceived as an atto unico [a one-act play]. Kounellis’s dramaturgy begins with the sign of the K traced on the ground, translating the pure immediacy of the artist’s thoughts.

The artist built vertical steel walls over this drawing on a flat surface. Labyrinthine and rising from its horizontal base, the stage unfolds to comprehend the memory of the infinite.

The arms of the letter K appear simultaneously as open lines stretching toward infinity and the dead end of the labyrinth where the only choice is to go back where one came from.

As usual with Kounellis, each steel module forming the metal walls has the same proportions; each one is topped with black pieces of coal, a memory of times of harshness, of labour and fatigue.

Jannis Kounellis, Untitled at Ambika P3, 2010. © Michelle Coudray. Courtesy: Sprovieri Gallery, London.

Empty glass bottles – clear, brown, green – fastened to these modules with steel cords are reminiscent of the polychrome surface of the stained-glass windows of a cathedral.

But the light here is controlled, partially hidden by fabrics and black coats, draped or twisted to suggest dead bodies.

The human presence and its perennial condition.

The elements of Kounellis’s visual vocabulary may seem recurrent but the narrative is unique.

Kounellis’s research into constant measure and proportion is evident in every work, particularly in the special projects that began with an installation at Galleria L’Attico in Rome in 1969 for which he brought live horses into the gallery, and is visible in the change of scale in the work here, like in his fractal universe, from the imposing K to the stillness of the adjacent spaces.

Natural raw materials, objects of memories, and constant proportions open paths where narrative, observation, and meanings combine in a powerful way.

 Jannis Kounellis, Untitled at Ambika P3, 2010. © Michael Maziere. Courtesy: Sprovieri Gallery, London.

We leave the vastness of the nave to encounter smaller, much more intimate spaces where the theatricality of the works exists in a syntax we’ve seen before but is conjured here differently.

The first, a vestiary where twelve black coats are left hanging, anticipating and implying the human presence, the spectator.

And the artist, present in his absence once he divests himself of what is – as he defines it – his culture of chiaroscuro.

Above the coats, three steel modules, smaller in size, with bottles, and an old sewing machine, allude to windows of dimmed light.

Again in search of a constant harmony.

Nothing in Kounellis is description. He distills traces, symptoms, biographical notes of an entire life.

But then the images reassemble in our minds to perform the chorus of the human tragedy.

A coat-stand, where a coat and a hat hang, hangs in turn from a pillar in a hall as a reminder of the uncertainty, the transitoriness of human life.

While, in the extreme corner, a black bundle of clothes, possibly, is set as a memento of mourning and death: a definite certainty.

The exhibition Jannis Kounellis is at Ambika P3, University of Westminster, London, 23 April - 30 May 2010. 

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Floriana Piqué is an art critic and independent curator. She lives and works in London. 

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