‘Something we need to reach today is unity between life and our art practice’, said Jannis Kounellis (born 1936, Piraeus) in 1968. He demonstrates this unity through the transformation of the gallery into a theatre where real life and fiction merge.
Born in Greece, he moved to Rome in 1956 due to civil war. His early works were ‘sign’ and ‘alphabet’ paintings, which incorporated large black letters, arrows or mathematical symbols, and were often stencilled to diminish evidence of the artist’s touch. In 1966-7, Kounellis began to incorporate three-dimensional materials into his paintings. By the following year, they had become installations resembling stage sets, in which the viewers were the actors.
His materials, which include iron, cotton, coal, coffee, wood, fire, stones, earth, sacks, plants, and live animals are used symbolically, often chosen for their smell, or for their historical association with the place in which the work is shown. In installations such as the three part Untitled, 1967, a dream-like environment is created, where cacti and cotton wool emerge from iron structures, juxtaposed with a perch, which is sometimes occupied by a live parrot. One of Kounellis’ most famous works, created in 1969, was Untitled (12 horses), an installation in L’Attico Gallery in Rome consisting of twelve live horses tethered in the gallery for some days. This was an extreme manifestation of the desire to make art that could not be sold. He chose horses for their art-historical links to heroic paintings and equestrian statues. Kounellis’ poetic later works are also laden with references to history and myth.