Installation view of JANNIS KOUNELLIS’s solo exhibition at Massimo De Carlo, Hong Kong, 2018. All photos by Winnie Yeung. All images courtesy the artist and Massimo De Carlo, Milan / London / Hong Kong.

Jannis Kounellis

Massimo De Carlo
Hong Kong Italy Greece

My eyes were drawn to the knife hanging vertically from an iron rebar along a central pillar as I entered the gallery. The sharp kitchen knife points downward, mere inches from the floor; violence is suspended. An object seen in any household kitchen, the knife carries a latent danger that comes to the fore in this unusual arrangement, removed from its typical domestic use. 

Massimo De Carlo opened the late artist Jannis Kounellis’s first solo exhibition in Hong Kong this May. Although relatively small in scale and mainly focused on the artist’s later work from the 1990s to early 2010s, it “captures the artist’s soul in the space, as if Kounellis was here with us,” to quote Beijing-based curator Huang Du, who worked with the artist in 2011, and gave a talk discussing his continuing artistic relevance at the show’s opening. 

As one of the leading artists in the Arte Povera movement that took place from the late 1960s to early ‘70s in Italy, the artist constantly challenged audience’s perception and definitions of art and exhibition. Through using materials of “the poor” that could be found in daily life, artists of Arte Povera attempt to bridge the ordinary and the artistic. 

Installation view of JANNIS KOUNELLIS’s Untitled, 1994, sheets of lead, fabric, three oil lamps and hook rods, 435 × 320 × 30 cm, at Massimo De Carlo, Hong Kong, 2018. 

Kounellis’s meticulous attention to materiality can be seen in Untitled (1994). As one approaches the work, one soon picks up the scent of the oil lamps, which are suspended from hooked metal rods affixed to the ceiling, and intermittently re-lit by the gallery assistant. The work consists of two iron boards, one covered by sheets of lead and the other by a worn, brown military-issue blanket. We can see the countervailing power of different materials as extremes are assembled in this installation: hot and cold, hard and soft. The flickering flame of the oil lamp is juxtaposed with the cold, dark metal, while the fabric, folded at an odd angle and positioned with its corner pointing toward the floor, contrasts with the sheets of lead, also folded but along a gentle curve at the bottom, subverting expectations of the materials’ physical properties.

Installation view of JANNIS KOUNELLIS’s Untitled, 2012, iron, military blankets, sculpture, 400 × 200 × 50 cm, at Massimo De Carlo, Hong Kong, 2018. 

Installation view of JANNIS KOUNELLIS’s Untitled (detail), 2012, iron, military blankets, sculpture, 400 × 200 × 50 cm, at Massimo De Carlo, Hong Kong, 2018.

On the other side of the gallery, an untitled 2012 sculpture consists of iron panels mounted on the wall like a metal “canvas” spanning four meters across, from which a shelf extends, holding a rolled sheet of iron covered by a military blanket, arranged like a resting body. The multiple scar-like notches on the rolled sheet of lead bring to mind Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvases, embodying a sense of creative destruction, yet also perhaps speaking to the vulnerability of the body. 

Installation view of JANNIS KOUNELLIS’s Untitled, 1991, charcoal, wire and photograph on plate, 100 × 70 cm, at Massimo De Carlo, Hong Kong, 2018.
Installation view of JANNIS KOUNELLIS’s Untitled, 1991, charcoal, wire and photograph on plate, 100 × 70 cm, at Massimo De Carlo, Hong Kong, 2018.

Another attempt to break through two-dimensionality using the conceit of a classic rectangular canvas can be seen in Untitled (1991). Utilizing an iron plate as a base, charcoal stones, firmly tied by wire, seem to rupture the surface of the piece, bursting out into the gallery space. At the bottom right of the canvas is a photo of a man stubbornly biting onto two stones, presenting a contrast between the three-dimensional stones attached to the plate and the two-dimensional photographic representation. 

Beyond his sculptural installations, Kounellis also created what he termed “anti-paintings,” an untitled 2010 example of which hung at the back of the gallery. A large steel board is wrapped in a piece of canvas featuring large, abstract blocks and smears of inky color that look as if they might have been splashed or stamped using a wide, flat paintbrush. A black coat hangs from a hook in the middle of the composition. Here, the artist challenges the definition of painting through devising an unconventional technique—in fact, the work was created through dipping the coat in tar and applying it to the canvas.  

At the opening of the show, Huang Du showed clips from a documentary on Kounellis, including one in which the artist proclaims, “Each artist is born genuine, but the society turns them into warriors. The spirit of rebellion and resistance flows through their blood.” This fighting spirit and commitment to disrupting traditional aesthetics suffuses the exhibition, making it a refreshing and overdue Hong Kong debut. 

Pamela Wong is an editorial intern of ArtAsiaPacific.

Jannis Kounellis is on view at Massimo De Carlo gallery, Hong Kong, until June 30, 2018.

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