Bells 1993 is comprised of three wooden beams, three bronze bells and several lengths of rope. Depending on the dimensions of the space in which the work is installed the beams are stacked and either wedged between two walls of the gallery or between two upright supports, allowing them to rest at a roughly twenty degree angle in relation to the floor. The lower end of the beams rests on the floor, while at the higher end, each beam has a bell attached with a knotted rope, so that the three bells hang down in a loose arrangement. Each bell has a swag decoration on the outside and elaborate filigree patterning around the middle, while the inside is plain with a clapper hanging down from the centre.
This work was first displayed at the Palazzo Fabroni in Pistoia, Italy in 1993. The gallery shares a square with the city’s Cathedral of San Zeno, which was visible from the gallery windows. The hanging bells paralleled those in the cathedral’s bell tower, establishing a dialogue between the relatively poor materials of this piece and the rich surfaces of the Romanesque architecture. Although such site-specific associations are lost when the work is installed in different settings, ecclesiastical connotations are embedded in the material components of Bells.
Art historian Stephen Bann has suggested that the weight and downward gravitational pull of Bells might be understood in reference to depictions of the Deposition of Christ, with the cumbersome quality of the wooden beams evoking images of Christ’s body falling heavily from the cross (Bann 2003, p.160). Bann has also suggested that Kounellis may have seen images of the church bells that fell violently from the tower of St Mary’s in Lübeck, Germany in 1942, although, unlike the intact bells in Kounellis’s work, the bells of St Mary’s were smashed beyond repair (Bann 2003, p.156). Yet like the shattered bells of St Mary’s, Kounellis’s bells are robbed of their function and silenced by being tethered to the beams. In this silence, which exists because of the inertia of the bells, lies a latent potential and the desire that they ‘may make music once again.’ (Bann 2003, p.158.) Indeed in reference to another work that includes bells, Kounellis has said that ‘the bells represent language, a magnified human voice – and the enthusiastic roar of liberation.’ (Quoted in Dieter Roelstraete, Kounellis, exhibition catalogue, Stedelijk Museum Voor Actuele Kunst, Gent 2002, p.22.)
Despite the religious associations of this work, the artist has declared himself an atheist. For Kounellis Christian iconography is a necessary cultural inheritance from both Greece (his place of birth) and Italy (where he lives), as he states: ‘I make no reference to religion because I am an atheist, but I cite culture because it has come to me by way of religion.’ (Quoted in Bann 2003, p.185.) The artist has referred to works such as this, made of architectural fragments, as ‘the iconography of iconoclasm’ (quoted in McEvilley 1999, p.135). This suggests that while his works may engage with religious iconography and ecclesiastical traditions, Kounellis intended works such as Bells to question religious belief rather than to assert a statement of faith.
Thomas McEvilley, Sculpture in the Age of Doubt, New York 1999, pp.117–45.
Gloria Moure, Jannis Kounellis: Works, Writings 1985–2000, Barcelona 2001, reproduced pp.218–19.
Stephen Bann, Jannis Kounellis, London 2003, pp.156-8, reproduced p.157.
Georgina Bolton and Ruth Burgon
The University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.