In a just short space of time La Monnaie de Paris, with its sumptuous 18th century salons, has defied to all expectations to become an important exhibition space for radical contemporary art. Hot on the heels of the solo exhibition by Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers, some of whose installations were subsequently transferred to New York for the excellent retrospective currently at Moma, La Monnaie now swings open it doors for a legendary figure in contemporary art from Greece but based in Italy, Jannis Kounellis.
Here he outlines the approach to his art intervention at La Monnaie.
The exhibition takes the form of a mini retrospective, bringing together a collection of pieces from different periods adapted and integrated especially for the space.
He is one of the key figures from the movement known as Arte Povera. The marriage of raw materials like felt, metal and reclaimed wood with the splendour of gilt, paintings and marble in the Quai de Conti salons creates a visual shock. In fact, he has perfected a vocabulary using diverse materials, which he deploys in his various works. He proceeds by association: one image is used to call forth the next. He says, for instance, that charcoal for him is a reference to Victor Hugo, to the rats, to a specific social reality.
Jannis Kounellis is a man for paradoxes. Any question you put to the artist, he tends to answer in the negative or to change the subject. He refuses any mention of the word installation in connection with his ‘installations’. ‘It’s an ugly word,’ he says. ‘I am a painter. Yes, I am a painter because I create images. When Van Gogh paints potato peelings, what you have in fact is an imaginary vision.’ In which case Kounellis is the painter without paint. When you ask him if his choice of materials has a symbolic value, he eventually answers that it is not a question of having virtual materials. ‘They all have a weight, an aspect.’
In an essay from 1994 he wrote, ‘I promise to be severe, to continue on the path of opposition, and to extract that breath of glimpsed poetics, even if I have to drag it out by the roots.’ Be that as it may, the aesthetic result with Kounellis is always outstanding. With his assemblages comes a stunning harmony. ‘That’s being an artist,’ he says.
The most spectacular work on display at La Monnaie is a series of giant iron easels on each of which he’s placed immense sheets of steel. One cannot help but be beguiled simply by this massive vision of mute paintings made from the materials of heavy industry. But on the reverse you notice the dates of birth belonging to different painters to whom he is paying homage.
In another room there are beds where, under the covers, he’s placed sheets of rolled up metal. Are they 20th century gisants?
He insists: ‘My entire imaginary finds is origin in the 19th century. How can anyone not recognise that Courbet’s L’Origine du monde is the birth of modernism?’
Then he steps out onto the Quai de Conti balcony for a cigarette.
Until 30 April