Coal Sculpture with Wall of Coloured Glass 1990–2005 is an installation made up of two constituent parts: a screen made of glass pieces and a coal store made of steel. The screen is comprised of a steel frame from which hangs a curtain of jagged glass lumps in many colours, threaded onto thirty-four vertical wires. Each wire holds about twenty to twenty-five pieces of glass. In front of the screen, on the left hand side, is a coal store made of rolled steel, in which there is a pile of black coal that spills out slightly onto the floor. Hanging above the pile of coal from a hooked steel rod is an unlit paraffin lamp. The lamp has a bulbous crystal glass lantern with a crenulated rim.
This work has undergone multiple changes over its lifetime, in line with the fact that Kounellis considers none of his work to be entirely finished. It was originally two separate works: Untitled (Coal) or Coal Sculpture 1990 and Wall of Coloured Glass 2005. Kounellis first created the latter work for a group exhibition called ‘Visioni: 20 Artisti a Sant’Agostino’ in Bergamo, Italy, where he made it in situ. The two works were first displayed together for an exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh in 2005–6 to form one new work (see Schneider 2007, p.204). The exact configuration of the work varies depending on the dimensions of the space in which it is installed. When it was shown at the Middleborough Institute of Modern Art (mima) in 2012 the installation included the addition of sixty-eight black and navy coats on wooden coat hangers, arranged in four rows of seventeen, so that they covered the entire wall behind the glass curtain. This was in order to create an illusion of depth, since the piece had to be installed close to the gallery wall (normally it would be installed further away). The colourful glass pieces stood out in front of the background of dark coats. The coats are not part of the work included in the ARTIST ROOMS collection.
For Kounellis the physical reality of the materials in his work is important. When, for example, he uses coal it is important that it is real and weighty, as he states: ‘A hundredweight of coal, not plastic painted like coal, not an abstract weight. A weight is what hides, its history, its morality. For the artist a hundredweight of coal is the moral history of an aesthetic.’ (Quoted in Gloria Moure, Jannis Kounellis: Works, Writings 1985–2000, Barcelona 2001, p.313.) It is important to Kounellis to use materials that are what they appear to be. He sees them as authentic and honest, and their presence thus contains moral authority. The coal and glass in this work share this integrity, with their juxtaposition bringing together darkness and light, blackness and colour, into one work.
Many of the glass lumps in the installation appear to be natural, meaning that, like the coal, they have been formed over millennia by the heat and movements of the earth and later hewn from it. The process of mining is alluded to by the paraffin lamp – a vital piece of equipment for anyone working below ground. The coal store is also suggestive of heavy industry and this is important for this artist. Kounellis has stated that, ‘Iron and coal are the materials that best evoke the world of the industrial revolution, the origins of contemporary civilization … If I build a coal store, I mean to evoke that world, those sensations, and I try to do it in the most credible and recognizable way possible, nevertheless keeping within the bounds of specific dimensions.’ (Kounellis quoted in Codognato and d’Argenzio 2002, p.237.) In this way, the artist’s insistence on using actual coal and glass makes the labour of accessing the material present in the gallery. For art critic Alastair Sooke, writing about a work by Kounellis that contains many of the same elements as Coal Sculpture with Wall of Coloured Glass,
the coats have a vivid anthropomorphic quality … they feel like stand-ins for anonymous factory workers bent and oppressed by the capitalist machine. Indeed, the whole piece conjures an atmosphere of fossil fuel-powered heavy industry. This is a memorial to 20th-century manufacture as well as a lamentation and a critique – recording the Martyrdom, as it were – of the everyman.
(Alastair Sooke, ‘Jannis Kounellis at Ambika P3’, Daily Telegraph, 10 May 2010, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-reviews/7706830/Jannis-Kounellis-at-Ambika-P3-review.html, accessed 29 October 2014.)
Likewise, Coal Sculpture with Wall of Coloured Glass, could be read as a memorial, with its coal and glass representative of heavy industry and its paraffin lamp (or its coats) standing in for workers and coal miners.
Bruno Corà, Kounellis, exhibition catalogue, Centre per l’arte contemporanea Luigi Pecci, Prato 2001, (Untitled (Coal) reproduced p.148).
Mario Codognato and Mirta d’Argenzio (eds.), Echoes in the Darkness: Jannis Kounellis, Writings and interviews 1966–2002, London 2002.
Angela Schneider (ed.), Jannis Kounellis in the Neue Nationalgalerie, exhibition catalogue, Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin 2007, reproduced p.204.
The University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.