Interview with Jannis Kounellis
By Elisabetta Lattanzio
You’ve asserted, to use your words, that “a journey, any journey, is essentially an initiation, an affirmative and conscious statement of love for knowledge”. Would you say an artist sets out on such a journey alone? Is it necessarily a solitary journey or can it be undertaken with other artists as travel companions?
Well, it’s difficult to say. If you’re really an artist then you set out on your journey drawn on by a positive emotion. As you know, we’re attracted to what we love. And what allures us can even be enlightening!
I remember in the seventies when the United States exerted an irresistible appeal on all of us artists. We had this veritable love affair going with the States. But which America did we find appealing? For instance, I was in love with America because I loved Pollock, a man who managed to convey a great sense of freedom combined with overwhelming intellectual acuteness. Then, for better or worse, America changed, and we artists changed along with it. We had to come to terms with the concept of “competition”. Actually, we weren’t aware of it as “competition”. It was simply a natural assertion of diversity. As an individual I’m different and strive to be better.
This is what we might call “competition”. What it amounts to is affirmative action by whoever leads a different life and risks discrimination because of this difference.
In general, where is collaboration most likely to occur in the art world and what, vice versa, arouses competition among artists? What’s at stake? Is it ideals, visibility, the market?
An artist as such tries to keep competition at bay. The world is already rife with it as it is! An artist delves into the origins of things, strives to feel a part of the world at large, reaches ever out and beyond. This may lead to performing extreme gestures, such as Van Gogh cutting off his own ear. But this sort of extreme gesture is not motivated by competition. The artist is not interested in confronting other artists as such, in beating them on the market. He’s simply sending a message, giving an image of himself.
I’ve often corresponded with friends and fellow artists and discussed with them, sometimes apologetically, about the dramatic times my generation has been through. I’ve talked with them about our faults and failings but also about our good qualities, about what Italy was like at the time. We’ve exchanged views on what our theatre was like, on the battles we fought. In mutual exchange of points of view the artist may be said to be collaborative. The artist is a story teller who recounts a community’s history, what it possesses that may be deemed beautiful, while at the same time bringing out into the open the apprehensions that grip those who belong to the community.
A journey entails casting doubts upon one’s deeply held beliefs. The next step is the creation of an image that is as much self-revealing as it is enlightening of the intrinsic value of things. I’d say this is what artistic competition essentially amounts to. It might be considered as a competition of ideas, or rather of the archetypes all artists work on as icons for conveying their ideas. I don’t really see it that much as a struggle for notoriety or leadership on the market.
In what way, if any, does the work of an artist differ from any other?
The first trade in history can indeed be said to be that of the artist. Cave paintings are there to prove it. The values of this profession were established there and then, in deep and secret recesses in pre-historical times.
It’s a trade quite unlike anything else. A man is born, a very curious man, and then illumination; the rest is idiom.
What do you mean by the idiom?
Painting is a matter of idiom. Cubism is an idiom. It’s all an idiomatic process.
Artistic endeavour is not so much aimed at working out a modality or style as such but at creating a unique image, unrepeatable and clone-proof. Mind you, we’re living in times of idiomatic fragmentation. Community identities are being torn asunder by globalisation.
And yet civic awareness and concern are important at some stage of the artist’s development. A cohesive national community heightens the artist’s awareness of the other. It’s important because it contributes to the essence of art as social practice, for the artist is essentially a soft caring voice telling a harsh and often indifferent story. But no, the artist cannot be made to fit into neat categories!
Nowadays there’s a lot of talk about generations. I’m convinced though that it’s not all that decisive. We can’t say now what the future holds in store. At the moment the prevailing opinion is that we’re living in an age of absolute artistic innovation. But what does all this originality really amount to? Thanks to my long years of university teaching in Germany I’ve many young friends and I can say that I honestly don’t think they’ve sprung from nowhere. They’re no different from so many others, carrying forward the same values as their forerunners. It’s not all that remarkable after all. As artists they’re indeed rooted in the past; there’s no way they can be wholly “new”.
But an artist is also cohesive with the basic values of her/his space-continuum. Beauty is a good example. A person can start out looking good in the morning and end up looking horrible at the end of the day. In this case, beauty depends very much on the time of day. Long-term beauty is art’s prerogative. It’s a very real instantiation and yet it holds a perennial value. Beauty is born and reborn an infinite number of times.
Interview by Elisabetta Lattanzio