Jannis Kounellis

Untitled (Knife and Train)


Not on display

Jannis Kounellis 1936–2017
5 knives, 2 trains, metal and glass box
Object: 530 × 398 × 98mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008


Untitled (Knife and Train) 2002 is a wall-mounted work consisting of a portrait-orientated rectangular steel box containing five kitchen knives and two toy train engines. The knives are regularly spaced and arranged horizontally so that the base of each handle, on the right, and the tip of each blade, on the left, touch the edges. The sharp edge of the blade faces outwards, towards the viewer. The top two blades act as shelves for two 00 gauge toy train engines. The box is glass-fronted with a water-marked interior. From 1989 to 2005 Kounellis made a series of works produced in editions, described as multiples, in which he incorporated elements drawn from the vocabulary of his earlier practice. Untitled (Knife and Train) is one of these multiples, produced in an edition of twenty-five.

Kounellis (who, although Greek, sees himself as an Italian artist) had a boyhood fascination with trains, something he shared with the Greek-Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978). In his writings Kounellis has referred to ‘de Chirico’s little train that crosses the Piazza di Torino’, a motif that appears in many of the older artist’s paintings, such as The Uncertainty of the Poet 1913 (Tate T04109). Like the combination of classical bust and modern train in de Chirico’s work, Kounellis’s Untitled (Knife and Train) brings together two seemingly antithetical objects, constructing an uncanny sensibility. Both the knife and train sustain multiple meanings: the former could suggest a domestic setting, a violent threat or the precariousness of balancing ‘on a knife’s edge’. The latter could stand in for a journey, high-speed travel or, given the objects’ small scale, childhood and play.

This work recalls several occasions in which Kounellis has used toy trains. In Untitled 1977, for example, the artist placed a track and a miniature electric train running around a column in the cloister of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Kounellis repeated this gesture on a mass scale in an exhibition in a warehouse on Erie Street, Chicago, in 1986–7: the forty-two columns of the exhibition space were each affixed with a steel collar around which ran forty-two toy trains on tracks. These two contexts suggest different metaphorical associations. For curator Mary Jane Jacob, the Florentine train, ‘condemned to a Dantesque circle of eternal rotation’ in its ecclesiastical setting, ‘perhaps signified loss of the medieval and renaissance world’s faith in religion’s ability to ensure salvation’ (Jacob in Moure 1990, p.170). Although the train installation in Chicago was ‘both amusing and profound’ – referring to expansion, industry and mass production – it also represented an ‘ironic eulogy to an American dream of technological progress that failed to live out the century’ (Jacob in Moure 1990, p.170). In Untitled (Knife and Train) the trains seem to err on the side of the latter reading, their precarious positioning suggesting that industrial progress might not always offer a certain future.

Further reading
Gloria Moure, Kounellis, New York 1990.
Gloria Moure, Jannis Kounellis: Works, Writings 1985–2000, Barcelona 2001.
Stephen Bann, Jannis Kounellis, London 2003.

Ruth Burgon
University of Edinburgh
January 2015

The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

You might like

In the shop