Jannis Kounellis: XXII Stations on an Odyssey 1969–2010

This weighty volume documents what are arguably Kounellis’s most important works—an ongoing series of interrelated, ephemeral installations that have been unfolding in various alternative venues since 1969. Like Beuys and Kiefer, Kounellis is a mystic, a material alchemist who steeps his assemblages of coal, gasoline, wool, coffee, lead, and live animals in a solution of myth, history, and memory. Thus transformed, these elements become catalyst, metaphor, and medium, alluding to and supporting the full weight of Western civilization. Kounellis’s work may be contemporary in form, but its spirit is anything but new. It draws strength from age and decline, failed endeavors and lost hopes, and sounds these reverberations across time and space. Such work is never quite at home in the sanitized purity of conventional art spaces; like a gold-ground altarpiece, it requires a sympathetic setting that can echo and reinforce its resonance while sharpening its conceptual and affective focus.

Abandoned factories and warehouses, medieval fortresses and Renaissance chateaux, deconsecrated churches and bombed libraries, even a cargo ship, have all lent their powers of evocation to successive iterations of Kounellis’s Herculean undertaking—the creation of an elusive, peripatetic gesamtkunstwerk without end. Each intensely charged encounter is brief, just a piece of something larger, a possible configuration of the truth before it morphs into something else. These works mark an individual, and a universalizing, search for meaning, embodying the quest of the hero and the drive toward self-knowledge. They reveal Kounellis as a humanist, a believer, despite all evidence, in the value of civilization.

In fact, Kounellis is part of that last generation of European artists for whom the ancient mytho-poetic ethos still lives and breathes. Marc Scheps, former director of the Museum Ludwig in Cologne and author of this volume, shares something of Kounellis’s outlook (he also worked with him on The Front, The Thought, The Storm [1997] at Cologne’s Halle Kalk, a former steel factory). His title phrase “stations on an odyssey” goes to the heart of Kounellis’s project, opening an associative stream of human redemption that leads from Ithaca (the beginning and end point of perhaps the greatest quest for self-knowledge and Kounellis’s birthplace) to Calvary.

Scheps has done a great service in assembling a portable archive of Kounellis’s 22 transitory stations, from Rome, Berlin, Sarajevo, and London to Mexico City and Chicago. Like many European art books, this one does double-duty as critical study and reference volume. Though marred by typos and clumsy language (it’s not clear whether the text was translated into English), Scheps’s introductory essay sustains the kind of analysis implicit in his title. He works in the old tradition of European art criticism, a mode that relies on a classical education and frame of reference; like Kounellis’s work, the essay is dense, but it draws fascinating connections, and readers who stick with it will come away with some new insights. Scheps is particularly good when he discusses Kounellis’s approach to these unique venues, which date from the 14th to the early 20th centuries, how he unearths their histories and absorbs their ghosts into his own social and political message.

Scheps devotes most of the book to individual sections that explore each station in chronological order. Headings provide title, location, and dates, as well as information about the site (its architecture, original use, and later adaptations), the installation’s organizers, and the catalogue. In these project-focused essays, Scheps gathers together accounts and responses from those writers and critics who experienced Kounellis’s interventions first-hand—observations from Dan Cameron, Rudi Fuchs, Mary Jane Jacob, and Thomas McEvilley, among others, provide an invaluable framework for readers trying to imagine their way into the space. Generous selections of duotone photographs capture the essence of each station through overhead and wide-angle establishing shots, views into individual rooms and passageways, and details of individual objects. Black and white photography not only intensifies the tactile quality of surfaces and textures, it also heightens the dualistic sense of time and its absence.

For specialists, Scheps includes an analytical catalogue of the many individual sculptures and objects that have migrated through the stations over the years. Though the information provided here is exhaustive, the tool itself is cumbersome—it might become more intuitive with repeated use.

More than anything else, Stations on an Odyssey succeeds in conjuring convincing approximations of these unique events. We might not have experienced them in the flesh, but with this book, we can intuit how Kounellis’s work and distinct architectural environments once merged to create something new, something rooted in the past but projecting forward, beyond the repetitive cycles of human history. The one great journey that goes unmentioned here is Dante’s. Scheps ably steps into the shoes of Virgil, guiding us through the unknown terrain shaped by Kounellis’s imagination. This is as good as armchair travel gets.

—Twylene Moyer

Book Information:
Jannis Kounellis: XXII Stations on an Odyssey 1969–2010
by Marc Scheps
New York: Prestel, 2010. Hardcover; 360 pages, 400 duotone illustrations
$120. ISBN: 978-3-7913-5012-7

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