Immigrant Song: Jannis Kounellis’ Greek doors and Roman epitaphs

On hearing of the passing of Greek-Italian artist Jannis Kounellis, I went searching online for examples of his work to write about today, knowing that there would be a wealth of examples to choose from, bridging ancient and modern, Greece and Rome. I also felt that Kounellis is a fitting artist to think about on this ‘Day Without Immigrants’, as he was born in Piraeus, Greece in 1936, and lived there during the Second World War and the ensuing civil war, but moved to Rome in 1956. In Italy, he became a member of the Arte Povera group and perhaps is most well-known for his exhibition of live horses at the Galleria L’Attico in 1969.

The same year Kounellis made another untitled work that now resides in the Tate Modern in London. It comprises a flat, dry-stone wall, built into a doorway and on the museum website there is offered the following interpretation to his early life before emigrating to Rome:

Despite the artist refuting associations between his blocked doorways and his Greek heritage, some art historians have suggested that the randomly placed masonry stone evoke the blocked doors and windows of the houses left by Greek people who fled their villages during the country’s civil war in the late 1940s. Works such as Untitled have therefore been read as exploring notions of war and immigration.

Perhaps in response to this biographical interpretation, in 1980 Kounellis made another blocked doorway, this time with stone that very explicitly gestured to his Greek origins.

Yet, in one of his final exhibited works, another untitled piece, this time from 2006, Kounellis was part of an exhibition in the ancient sites of the Palatine Hill called Par tibi Roma nihil.

Here is how the exhibition website describes this work:

The artwork and poetics materialized on the body of history: three great marble plates laid on wood, lead and burlap sacks. The nature-culture that the artist re-assembles in one act, the minimum gesture sufficient for great masters to arrive straight at the heart of man. Three silent epigraphs that conceal the non-conformity of time, they raise reflection before a silent history, boulders of memory impossible to remove, monuments to human dignity. 

In addition to this description, the website also includes a curious quotation from the Southern Literary Messenger (Vo. vi. 4, p. 25). The context for this passage, written in 1840, is a celebration of industrial America – the railway, mills and other structures. Here is the specific passage that accompanies Kounellis’ Roman epitaphs:

“But, we ask, is this all that shall be said of us? Shall the monuments which we build up in this vast arena, and with all our elements of power, be nothing but magnificent fabrics- evidences only of our wealth and our physical strength? Shall we cleave archways through the solid granite, and link distant regions with bands of iron, and rear splendid dwellings, and build forges and wharves and bridges and mills- shall we do all this, and yet add nothing to the treasury of mind?”

In many ways, this juxtaposition of Kounellis’ work on the ancient Roman site invokes Horace’s own poetic epitaph in his Odes (3. 30) in which he compared his literary posterity to the longevity of the city of Rome itself.

I have finished a monument more lasting than bronze

and higher than the royal structure of the pyramids,

which neither the destructive rain, nor wild Aquilo

is able to destroy, nor the countless

series of years and flight of ages.

I will not wholly die and a great part of me

will avoid Libitina; I will continuously arise

fresh with later praise, while a priest will climb

the Capitoline with a silent maiden.

But Horace also imagines his poetic immortality not only leaving the the city and heading south, but also as grounded in his transformation of Greek lyric in Latin:

I shall be spoken of where the violent Aufidus roars

and where Daunus, poor in water, ruled

a rural people, powerful from humble origin,

the first to have brought Aeolic song to

Italian meters. Accept the proud honor

obtained by your merits and with the Delphic

laural, Melpomene, gladly encircle my hair.

In this way, lyric poetry, like Kounellis, migrates from Greece to Rome in the epitaph of Horace.

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