Untitled 1969 consists of seven burlap sacks lined up in an uneven row on the floor, against the wall. Each sack is filled with a different dried pulse or bean: chickpeas, coffee beans, green lentils, green peas, kidney beans, white beans and maize. The top of each sack is rolled back so that the contents can be seen. The sacks slump this way and that, some leaning against each other, some against the wall and some away from it.
The original version of this work was made for the exhibition Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form (1969), curated by Harald Szeemann for the Kunsthalle Bern and the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Untitled 1969 was a replacement for the work that Jannis Kounellis had originally intended to show in Bern, which had been intercepted at customs on its way to the exhibition (Christov-Bakargiev 1999, p.112). In his inventiveness, Kounellis went out to buy foodstuffs, placing them in sacks to create Untitled 1969. In this original version of the work the contents of the sacks also included other foodstuffs such as potatoes and rice. Since the work is made of perishable materials, the sacks were replaced when the work was first shown at Tate Modern in 2009, and the pulses and beans are replaced for each new display.
The humble materials that make up this work are typical of arte povera, a term coined by the critic and curator Germano Celant to describe the work of many artists in Italy in the late 1960s, including Kounellis. By taking the materials of everyday life out of context and placing them in an art gallery, Kounellis invites the viewer to experience them on a material and sensory level. When the work was originally displayed in 1969 visitors could not only smell the aroma of the coffee beans but, reportedly, also took handfuls of grain and either threw them on the gallery floor or chewed them whilst walking around the exhibition.
The materials used in this work are part of Kounellis’s repertoire, with sacks appearing in other works such as Untitled 1960–98 (AR00068) and Untitled (Sack with Z) 2001 (AR00583). In a 2002 interview the artist said,
You know that I used burlap sacks in many of my works. Those sacks are tied to the idea of maritime commerce. You can find them in every Levantine harbor. But you find them in New York or in South America too, the whole world over. A ship and a labyrinth also belong to the same territory. That is the territory where the Magna Mater once reigned. A ship and a labyrinth, like a sack, are also containers. […] A sack is also something which contains something else. A ship, a labyrinth, a burlap sack are things which are grandiosely maternal. They are protective, they surround you and, therefore, possess a profound credibility.
(Quoted in Codognato and d’Argenzio 2002, p.317.)
Such links with maritime commerce and the maternal might suggest Kounellis’s place of birth, Piraeus, the port of Athens. Though the artist left Greece to live in Rome at the age of twenty, the sights, smells and sensations of the busy seaport never left him, and resurface in this work. However, one should be wary of such biographical readings since, as art historian Stephen Bann notes, ‘Kounellis’s insistence on the use of the term ‘Untitled’ […] denotes among other things a determination not to foreclose interpretation with crude literary or anecdotal readings.’ (Bann 2003, p.54.)
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Arte Povera, London 1999, p.112, reproduced p.112.
Mario Codognato and Mirta d’Argenzio (eds.), Echoes in the Darkness: Jannis Kounellis, Writings and interviews 1966–2002, London 2002.
Stephen Bann, Jannis Kounellis, London 2003, pp.60, 91, reproduced p.93.
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