Jannis Kounellis was a pioneer of the arte povera movement who created spectacular contemporary sculptures out of mundane objects.
Jannis Kounellis, who has died aged 80, made a highly distinctive contribution to one of the most provocative artistic movements in postwar Europe. Associated with Arte Povera since the 1960s, Jannis Kounellis investigates the alienation inherent in contemporary society, juxtaposing the materials of mass urban and industrial civilization with symbols and values of the pre-industrial world.
Incorporating humble non-art materials such as cotton, wool, coal, grain sacks, glass bottles, meat hooks, fire, soot, smoke, bed-frames, doors, shelves, and clothing, Kounellis’ work is a melodramatic mixture of installation, environment, performance, and theatrical show. In a 1971 painting that explores the relationship between history and contemporary experience, Kounellis reproduced a score from Bach’s oratorio St. John Passion, intending that a cellist must play the music alongside the painting in order to fully “activate” the image. In later work, Kounellis presents objects rather than making them; for a 2011 exhibition in Beijing, Kounellis arranged 4,600 shot glasses filled with erguotou, a Chinese grain alcohol.