A secret work from Jannis Kounellis in Rome

Sant’Andrea de Scaphis, the church of Trastevere in Rome which for some years has become the outpost in Italy of the great gallery owner Gavin Brown, hosts a “secret” work by Jannis Kounellis.

Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 1969. Installation view at Sant’Andrea de Scaphis, Rome 2021 © Estate of Jannis Kounellis. Photo Valeria Giampietro, Alessandro Cicoria

A phantom exhibition, which lasted a few hours without an audience, of which only a photograph and a video remain. In times of Covid it is not so surprising that Gavin Brown (who closed his New York gallery after 26 years) decided to remember the inauguration of Sant’Andrea de Scaphis, the small church in Trastevere, with the Easter culinary performance by Rirkrit Tiravanija in 2015, now with Without title (1969) by Jannis Kounellis: a work known only through an image taken by Claudio Abate in 1969 in the artist’s studio, where the artist had placed a series of lit metaldehyde blocks on the tiled floor, to give life to a pattern of flames that underlined the soil geometry. “We remade the work with the help of the Kounellis Archive to document it with a video and some shots”, Declares Giulia Ruberti, director of the space.


But what is the story of this work, revived in a new space in an interesting reenactment after more than half a century, and destined to be seen, today as then, only through images?
Let’s take a step back: fire plays a leading role in Kounellis’ research starting from 1967, when he exhibited for the first time an iron work in the shape of a daisy, connected to a gas cylinder that emitted a long flame in the group exhibition The Space of the elements: fire image water earth at the L’Attico gallery. “The fire problem is a particular problem. My interest in this element lies not only in fire as a problem but also in references to medieval legends. Fire in medieval legends is identified with punishment and purification”, Explains the artist.

Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 1969 © Estate of Jannis Kounellis. Photo © Claudio Abate

In the year 1969 alone, the metaldehyde flames are found in different works, starting with the five sling bars exhibited at the Modern Art Agency gallery in Naples. Here the artist presents another work, which consists of a niche with four metal shelves, on which sixteen lit metaldehydes are placed, which we find on one of the eight metal cots presented at the Musée des arts décoratifs in Paris in the collective Ceroli, Kounellis, Marotta, Pascali. 4 Italian artists more than life, inaugurated on 1 October, in conjunction with the Sixth Paris Biennale, hosted at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. “In history, fire is a sign of future vision, as well as the primordial principle of every transformation”Writes Germano Celant.


In this case, however, the fire almost takes the form of an ectoplasm, for a work destined to exist only in the form of an image, which is reborn today inside the church of Sant’Andrea de Scaphis, consecrated in 821 AD for the boatmen who sailed on the Tiber with small boats. And for an artist who called himself “consummate traveler”Is no small coincidence.

– Ludovico Pratesi

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