Presence and Memory: Thoughts on Kounellis’s Work

Presence and Memory.
Thoughts on Kounellis’s Work

by Urs and Christel Raussmüller

The following text on Jannis Kounellis (1936-2017) was written in 2017 for a book dedicated to the artist and published in 2018 by Phaidon Press.


To think of Jannis Kounellis is to think of the vital energy of his activity, which – like a tireless flywheel – drove the artist and his work forward. Now that the wheel is no longer turning, the question of his oeuvre poses itself anew. In memory of Kounellis, we have recorded the following thoughts on his work.

Jannis Kounellis and Urs Raussmüller in Milan in 2015
Photo: Fabio Fabbrini, © Raussmüller.

If someone says they know Jannis Kounellis’s oeuvre, they must have travelled a great deal and for many years. Kounellis staged many exhibitions all over the world in which the power of his works – which he called ‘pictures’, even if they filled entire rooms – communicated itself with great impressiveness. After a few months or even weeks however, these installations were usually dismantled and the chance to experience them was gone.

In general we understand the artwork and the exhibition as two separate things, but in the case of Kounellis, they are often one and the same.  Kounellis’s works are at times so directly related to the site of their exhibition that they are almost impossible to transfer to other surroundings. Compared with the high number of large-scale temporary Kounellis installations, only a minority of works have found their way into institutions where they can be permanently maintained and experienced.

For Kounellis, exhibitions were always a stimulus – a reason and incentive for creative action. Unafraid of dimensions or attributes, he formed them as imaginatively encrypted sceneries with close ties to their respective site and its history. (We are thinking, for example, of Kounellis’s interventions in former industrial buildings, such as our Hallen für Neue Kunst in Schaffhausen and the unforgettable Halle Kalk in Cologne, or, among many other works, his Doors in the fire-bombed National Library in Sarajevo.) Kounellis always generated specific, real situations, which coalesced with the reality of their setting. The whole was then the work, even if it was made up of many parts and individual works. Kounellis thereby used elements that were versatile in terms of their deployment. They possessed distinct physical properties, whose material qualities – such as sound and smell, weight and structure – he made into characteristic components of his ‘pictures’, in each case granting them different emphases. Kounellis disposed of a fund of objects and motifs, which he employed and modified like moveable set pieces, constantly adding to them and charging them with new meanings depending on context. They are facets – in Kounellis’s language, ‘fragments’ – of a holistic approach whose multi-layered manifestations are intended to be experienced in the full breadth of their meaning and content, in order to be understood as expressions of a constantly expanding world view.

Over the course of the decades Kounellis produced a concentrated pictorial commentary on contemporary and cultural history. His political and cultural convictions translated themselves into powerful metaphors. As his way of proceeding became increasingly expansive, his works likewise grew larger in size and the dramatic aspect of their appearance intensified. Kounellis lived the principle of change and did not just take it as his theme. Nomadism was one of his characteristics and saw him travelling from country to country and from exhibition to exhibition – or performance. From the 1960s onwards, he also worked in theatre, creating stage sets for modern plays, operas and Greek tragedies. He considered movement, mental as well as physical, a condition of existence and artistic practice. His works arose out of the spirit of progress and change. How long they would endure was a matter he left to others. His own concern was the ongoing creative process.

The wish to preserve Kounellis’s installations exerts great demands.  On the whole, this demand is too great, for public or private collections. As such, the closure of his exhibitions usually meant the end of the works, with which they were so often identical. With the loss of the environment, the situation that Kounellis was able to condense into such a convincing whole was also deprived of its essential prerequisite. Gone was the space that determined the dimensions and appearance of the objects; gone was the light that influenced the choice and effect of the materials; gone, above all, was the reference to place that so impressively determined the character of his works. With the closing of an exhibition, the crucial framework uniting all the parts was inevitably taken away. After each action, the artist was richer by an experience in his creative process and moved forward as long as he could. Fresh challenges lay before him. But the works? It is hard to accept that they were ‘only’ to be stations in a lifelong process of creating new situations relating to different times and contexts, all consequently of limited duration. We ask ourselves: is this really their condition? And does it correspond to the artist’s intentions?

Certainly not, many will reply. Kounellis, it will be pointed out, furnished his works with an emphatically physical quality – and made them in a quantity, moreover, that ought to guarantee their long-term existence. There are the steel plates, for example, that run like a constant through Kounellis’s oeuvre since the 1980s. In the wealth of their individual forms, they are conspicuously present in the manifestations of contemporary art. There are also his works from the mid-1970s onwards featuring coal, soot and jute bags, or plaster fragments of copies of antique statues, which Kounellis combined with other elements in manifold ways. By their very nature, however, Kounellis’s individual works in their many variations can only match the intensity of a concentrated situation in piecemeal fashion. Their value lies in the fact that, as smaller parts, they point towards a larger whole and that they deliver their impact as fragments of an overarching idea and as reminders of complex relationships. The picture that revealed itself in Kounellis’s scenic installations was, in effect, a different one. These works, which coalesced with their surroundings and drew a specific energy from their connection with their setting, grew far beyond the character of objects: multi-layered and physically extensive as they were, they were events. And having this quality, they were indeed governed by its condition of a limited lifespan.

It is more than a claim, it is an experience: if you want to understand the scope of Kounellis’s concept of art, you must take his complex ‘exhibitions’ as your yardstick. They are the true embodiments of the creative phenomenon, acting in broad contexts, that was Kounellis. They mirror his working process and the leitmotif of his art: metamorphosis. Like everything by this artist, the forms assumed by his exhibitions underwent continual change. In the 1960s they were generally smaller in scale and based on the size of the galleries of that epoch. Today such works can still be transferred into other spaces, too, without losing the boldness of their impact. Later on, the installations grew in scale and complexity. Kounellis’s increasing collaboration with theatre professionals, such as the director Carlo Quartucci and the playwright Heiner Müller, heightened his feel for the stage and for space (on a broader scale) as the site of an event. He consequently developed a growing preference for large spaces, whose situational characteristics he deliberately incorporated into his installations and whose dimensions influenced the size and composition of his ‘exhibitions’. In a certain sense, all places became stages for Kounellis, on which an event unfolded whose elements were never fictive.

In retrospect it becomes clear that Kounellis gave the settings of his large-scale stagings priority over their long-term existence. It even seems as if he built his installations in spaces imbued with history consciously without claim to permanence or even finality. Perhaps this is also a reason why his ‘scenic’ works have come to be called ‘exhibitions’ – a concept that embraces the end of the installation, however elaborate it may be, right from the start. Kounellis accepted the condition of the time limit and treated the venues placed at his disposal as stages that had been ceded to him for a finite period. He consciously conceived them in such a way that the elements with which he furnished them, in association with their surroundings, became actors in a temporary ensemble. For visitors this meant that, for a pre-specified length of time, they had the opportunity to become participants in an event that physically drew them in. With the removal of all protective distance between artwork and public, the immediacy of the situation was almost impossible to evade. And since everything in the room was as real and present as the spectators themselves, they were affected directly and without translation – unlike in the theatre or museum. Achieving this effect was an essential aspect of Kounellis’s intention. It succeeded not least because the reality of the created situation also included the consciousness of time and impermanence.

Despite the opening of art towards spheres outside the institutional context, in our materialistic society it is still a disconcerting thought that certain artworks, especially ones as elaborate as those of Jannis Kounellis, only exist because the artist constructed them at a certain point in time for a limited period in a location that interested him. That fine art can depend on its creator in such an elementary fashion, and that its existence, like its dissolution, is a condition of his processual approach, is hard to bring into line with the notion of the artwork as tangible asset. The problem is further accentuated by the dimensions to which Kounellis attached increasing importance. When a work goes beyond the character of an object, whether because it perhaps fills an entire factory building, monastery or prison, or because its components include living creatures, this stands in almost irreconcilable opposition to our need to hold on to things so that we can retrieve them whenever we want, or to possess them as a tradable asset.

In the work of Jannis Kounellis, reality plays such an elemental role that it has subverted the traditional notion of art. This reality also includes the course of time: a quality that is by no means obvious, since it appears to contradict the nature of static art. Once Kounellis dismantled his works called ‘exhibitions’, they were. If we didn’t see them, we missed the experience of an artwork. The significance of the exhibition-as-work distinguishes it from exhibitions in general. Its dismantling is all the more fateful. The fact of irretrievability is an unsettling constituent in physical, three-dimensional art. The objects that are left behind from Kounellis’s large spatial installations are not the actual work. They are the elements of a former entity – even if they possess the character of independent works and have already been incorporated into earlier installations or will re-appear later in new constellations in other settings. As materials for the artistic process, they constitute the fund of components upon which Kounellis drew all his life, in order to construct new ‘exhibitions’ with a different content in ever changing locations. The significance of these objects lies in their function as fragments. They are the visible building blocks of a non-visible, monumental oeuvre. In their materiality, they simultaneously embody a vision.

Once the lifetime of their installation has expired, Kounellis’s large scenic works, each with its own atmospheric aura, belong definitively to the past. With their disassembly, their presence is transformed into memory. What remains are photographs, which document the situations and fill increasingly extensive catalogues and books on the artist’s oeuvre. Kounellis began documenting the stations along his artistic path from an early date. He thereby decided upon specific photographers and the principle of black-and-white illustrations, which he consistently retained. He thus maintained a continuity at the level of reproduction, too. It is in the nature of the medium of photography, however, that it creates its own pictures. The aura of the real situation can be conveyed only as an idea; the spatial dimension that underpins the most powerful property of Kounellis’s works – their reality – is missing. For all its shortcomings, however, this body of documentary visual material is all that can now show how movement and variety were the basic principles of Kounellis’s works, themselves identical with life, and how the aspect of constant change, variations and metamorphosis determined his way forward. In the sustained approach pursued by this artist, hallmarked by reworkings, alterations and expansions, we can recognize an impressive, compelling desire to manifest his position in an ever-new and different way – and with it, a generous invitation to the recipients to take part. The photographs today help us to retrace this artist’s Promethean act.

Looking back over Kounellis’s oeuvre inspires a great respect for the achievement whereby he consistently made the physical nature of the artwork a fact – including even its limited lifespan. With his consciousness of the reality of existence, of materiality and sensory effects, he abolished the traditional distance between work and viewer and created holistic situations encompassing everything present. He fused diverging planes of reality into pictorial entities – without thereby divesting the elements involved of their natural character. The things (and living elements) remained what they were, but combined in each case into unexpected situations full of tension and poetic power. With animals and plants, coal and soot, aromas and noises, his “pictures” incorporated life itself – never in a confirmation of what we know, but so as to generate new realities that stimulate the imagination of the recipient.

Kounellis animated reality in order to create, with the energy of his works and for himself, too, a consciousness of connections and breaks. He never ceased to believe in the creative process as the basis for new discoveries. The pictures that he brought into the world, even if only for a short period, are challenges to perception and triggers for sensations that allow those seeing them – or more accurately, those involved in them – no refuge in conventional attitudes. This approach is paradigmatic and its message is enduring: it shows change as a principle of life and the artist’s work as its mastery. Within such parameters, we still have the privilege of feeling ourselves partners in a comprehensive act of creation. Kounellis’s demand that we participate in a creative process that is life, not that represents life, has placed our relationship with art on a new basis. This forward step is embodied with remarkable consistency in Kounellis’s oeuvre in all its different manifestations and must be understood, in its wealth of individual as well as collective possibilities, as a true opportunity and as genuine progress.


We first began working with Jannis Kounellis in the 1970s. In 1978 we opened InK, Halle für internationale neue Kunst in Zurich, with a spatial installation by Kounellis featuring sound and traces of soot. For the opening of the Hallen für Neue Kunst in Schaffhausen in 1984, Kounellis – referencing the pioneering transformation of a factory building into an art museum – created a poetic, multifaceted installation, titled Metamorfosi. In the thirty years during which we ran the Hallen für Neue Kunst, Kounellis saw no need to change his holistic installation, which in 2002 was joined by his lead-clad wardrobes (Senza titolo, 1997). We also mounted exhibitions of Kounellis’s works in other museums and art spaces, where his Senza titolo (Campi, Pappagallo, Cotoniera) of 1967, with its real-life parrot, attracted particular attention. After closing the Hallen für Neue Kunst in Schaffhausen in 2014, we are currently engaged in creating the framework conditions necessary to provide important works by Jannis Kounellis once again with a place and time.


Translated from German by Karen Williams