‘Everything needs to be centred on humanity’: Interview with Jannis Kounellis

Jannis Kounellis photographed at the Monnaie de Paris, March 2016.

Jannis Kounellis photographed at the Monnaie de Paris, March 2016. Courtesy Monnaie de Paris; photo: Manolis Baboussis; © Jannis Kounellis


A few months ago, the Greek artist Jannis Kounellis (b. 1936) was in Sicily, talking to the students of the Accademia di Belle Arti in Palermo. It was, he recalls, just after a great many drowned bodies of refugees had been found floating in the sea. ‘I found myself thinking about Piet Mondrian. I imagined him there in Sicily today, sitting in a studio confronted by this terrifying spectacle. Under those circumstances, Mondrian wouldn’t have been able just to paint a vertical line and a horizontal one – that wouldn’t have been enough.’ Continue reading “‘Everything needs to be centred on humanity’: Interview with Jannis Kounellis”

Gilbert & George Interview Extract

‘We always said that London was the centre of the universe,’ George reflects, ‘that it was the most typical planet Earth place. No one believed us in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Now everyone agrees.’ I remember Gilbert & George saying exactly this, and it did indeed once seem – like much that they proclaim – challengingly paradoxical. And, as with so many of their paradoxes, they pushed it just a little bit further: the epicentre of everything, they seem to imply, is chez G&G.

The strange thing is they have a point. Twenty-five or 30 years ago, London itself seemed more than a touch provincial in comparison with, say, New York, but Gilbert & George were not content with claiming global centrality for the metropolis of London. They insisted that the district where they themselves happened to live – Spitalfields, adjacent to Whitechapel, Bethnal Green and the City of London – was the trueomphalos:  the most representative spot in the modern world. It was there that I went to visit them in the early 18th-century house in which G&G have lived since the 1960s.

‘If a spaceship arrived,’ George suggests, ‘and the Martians said we’ve got three minutes to film planet Earth, where is the most typical place? We always said they should visit Liverpool Street Station. The whole world comes here. It’s extraordinary.’ At this point Gilbert puts in: ‘Everything which is going to happen, is happening here!’

In a way, it is. Within a few minutes’ walk of G&G’s front door on Fournier Street, one can witness the mega-wealth of the financial markets; the waifs and strays on the steps of Hawksmoor’s great baroque Christ Church; the debris of urban nightlife; and the clash of fundamentalist belief with secularism in the post 9/11 era. G&G encounter all of these as they walk around their neighbourhood. That is the subject, in a sense, of all their work – and certainly of the epic cycle of Scapegoating Pictures, which they have just completed.

The new Scapegoating Pictures are – like almost everything G&G have produced for decades – elaborately layered and reworked photo-collages. And, as always, this time the effect is a bit different from the hundreds of pictures that they have produced over the last four decades. G&G themselves are staple presences in their art, but in these pictures they have frequently been shredded, reduced to ribbons, so that they look skeletal or like medieval straw men. ‘It is not just us, it’s pieces of us,’ Gilbert says. ‘Cut into pieces, exploded, to turn ourselves into spirits: the spirit of the city.’

The imagery in the Scapegoating Pictures, as often in G&G’s work, is derived from the streets around their house. A ubiquitous feature is bomb-shaped canisters that in reality contain not explosives, but nitrous oxide. Laughing gas, George quotes, has a street name of ‘sweet air’ or ‘hippy crack’, and is ‘recreationally inhaled to induce euphoria, hallucinations and uncontrollable laughter’.  G&G, he goes on, ‘were out every morning at 6 o’clock, for one year, picking up the “bombs” in the back streets before the sweepers came’. Then he adds a characteristic observation: ‘They were normally found with human excrement and orange peel around them – we never found out why.’ […]

Squalor has always been a G&G trademark: drunkenness, obscene graffiti, bodily fluids, their own turds – all these have featured in pictures, along with trees, flowers and idyllic landscape. The Wildean line about lying in the gutter but looking at the stars fits them well.

This is an extract from an interview published in Apollo

Solitary Soul: Interview with Lee Ufan

Lee Ufan’s contemplative work includes minimalist paintings and sculptural interventions. The itinerant artist talks to Apollo about philosophy, stones, and why he prefers being on his own

For over 40 years I have been a kind of déraciné’, says Lee Ufan (b. 1936), ‘and I’m really still continuing on a pilgrimage around the world.’ We are sitting in the artist’s Paris studio on a brilliant early autumn day. A few minutes away is rue Victor Massé, where Degas lived in his later years, and a short walk uphill towards Montmartre is rue Lepic, where Vincent van Gogh shared an apartment with his brother Theo. This is the heart of painters’ Paris, and Lee is now, I suppose, a member of the École de Paris, the eclectic group of artists from far and wide who once made the city their home. Certainly, he is an eminent member of what you might call the École du Monde: that is, the global art world. He has exhibited in New York, London – where recent solo shows include Lisson Gallery and Pace Gallery – and at the Venice Biennale, and the Palace of Versailles has been surrounded by his works. On the Japanese island of Naoshima, there is a museum dedicated to his art.

Lee’s journey here began 79 years ago in Haman County, South Korea, where he was born in 1936. When he appears at the door of his work room to greet me and my interpreter, Kyoko, however, that date is hard to believe. His face is unlined and he looks, moves, and sounds like a much younger man. Although he has an assistant, who lets us in at the main door, you get the impression that his work is a solitary affair. As soon as we arrive, a pot of green tea is made for us, and it is Lee himself who makes it. For such a famous artist, his work place is surprisingly modest: a smallish room in an old building, with big canvases stacked around the walls. Only one of these is turned outwards, so the paint surface is visible – a work in progress. It seems to consist of a single, large brushstroke; a rounded, tapering oblong of pigment in the centre. This coloured area, however, is not solid, but delicately shaded from dense pink to pale. And it is the result not of one brushstroke, but many. ‘Do you see this picture?’, he asks (via Kyoko, since his English is limited and my Japanese and Korean nonexistent). ‘It seems very simple, but I start work on it at nine o’clock in the morning and carry on until three or four in the afternoon. And not only for one day; I repeat the same process for three, four, five times. If even then it doesn’t please me I start it again. After all these years, it is very difficult for me to say when a particular work of art is finished. Even Leonardo da Vinci struggled to finish the Mona Lisa; it is very difficult for artists to put down their brushes.’

When he paints, the canvas is laid on the floor while he lies on a wooden board, set up like a bridge, above it. Since childhood, he has preferred to work like this, with the picture horizontal on the ground. ‘One reason is because in that way I can really feel I am inside the canvas. I throw myself into it, so as to concentrate.’ Absolute concentration is essential to what Lee does. One of his most celebrated series of works, From Line, dating from the 1970s and early ’80s, consists of single strokes, amazingly long and even, descending from the top to the bottom of a white or yellow canvas. This looks, in painting terms, like a high-wire act: one slip and everything would be spoilt. Though subtly different, each mark has to be essentially the same – perpendicular, utterly confident. It is, you might say, painting as performance.  He prefers to use a sporting analogy: ‘Artists train themselves in the same way as athletes do. Let’s take tennis as an example. When you play you are facing your opponent, so you have always to think about how the adversary is going to respond to you. My painting is a game, with the canvas as my opponent. There is a tension between myself and the canvas, and the brushstroke is the product of that tension. So I am not entirely in control.’

In one way, as Lee describes it, what he does sounds very much like performance art. ‘The body is crucial, our body does not belong just to us. It creates a relationship with the world. And this relationship is the most interesting thing of all.’ His way of working, with the canvas on the floor so the artist is immersed within it, sounds rather like Jackson Pollock’s method. The results have more of the elegant austerity of Barnett Newman: one of the works dating to 1980 in his From Line series, comprises a single vertical stroke. In a way, this looks like Lee’s version of  Newman’s celebrated ‘zip’, but unlike the American master’s paintings, his is not a piece of clean geometry. Lee’s stroke is visibly the result of an action. You can see how the paint is denser and darker at the top, becoming fainter as the line continues and the pigment runs out. It is a trace in time.

Lee, however, does not accept this – or any – connection to other painters, eastern or western. ‘It may be true that some of my paintings look similar to the paintings of certain artists, although they are not really related. I admit that in the beginning of my career, I was a bit stimulated by Pollock or Newman. On the other hand, there are people who tend to associate my paintings with traditional Asian painting because I was born in Asia. However, my paintings are just Lee Ufan’s paintings.’ He adds: ‘I have always asked myself about how a painting comes into existence.’ It is indeed an interesting and elusive question. His remark reminds me of a recent comment made by a very different artist, David Hockney: ‘How would you know what a picture means? How would I know what my pictures mean?’

Lee and Hockney are near contemporaries. He was part of an international generation of artists who reconfigured the boundaries of art in the 1960s and ’70s. This incorporated not only art as action, but also, in the west, such movements as conceptual art, land art, arte povera, and minimalism. Lee was a leading member of a parallel group in Japan, which was given the name Mono-ha, or ‘School of Things’. Works from this school certainly have a family resemblance to their occidental avant-garde counterparts. The work that first attracted Lee to Mono-ha was Phase – Mother Earth(1968) by Sekine Nobuo. This outdoor sculpture consists of a deep hole in the ground of a park in Kobe, beside which is a perfect cylinder formed from the soil extracted from that hole – so, you might say, an exercise in minimalist land art. After he saw this, Lee wrote an essay about it, entitledBeyond Being and Nothingness – A Thesis on Sekine Nobuo. Subsequently, he became not only one of the leading artists of Mono-ha, but also its theoretician. It is not coincidental that Lee’s piece on Sekine Nobuo makes reference to Jean-Paul Sartre’s essay L’Être et le néant. He had started out as much a writer and philosopher as an artist.

As a boy, Lee learned to paint, but with no intention of becoming a professional artist. ‘At that time in Korea, and also in Japan, there was a tradition, especially in old fashioned families, in which boys were given personal education at home. This included painting, calligraphy and the reading of Chinese classics. But this was part of the general culture of a civilised man. By doing calligraphy, you learnt how to write, by drawing and reading literature we gained our culture.’ Lee’s route into the art world was an indirect one. ‘When I was a high-school student I was interested in literature; I really wanted to be a poet or a novelist. But my marks at school were not good enough for me to get into university to study literature.’

A school master encouraged him to apply to do art instead, since he was very good at painting. He began a course at the College of Fine Arts at Seoul National University, but after a couple of months his father asked him to travel to Japan to take some medicine to his uncle, who was unwell. Once there, this uncle suggested that he stay and study literature and philosophy at a Japanese university, which he did, thus beginning his life as a wanderer. Though he insists philosophy has no direct relationship to his art, he retains an enthusiasm for a number of philosophers, both eastern and western, among them the Taoist sage, Lao Tzu, and the pre-Socratic Greek thinker, Heraclitus.

‘I love Heraclitus!’ he exclaims, when I mention the latter, ‘Especially his sayings that you cannot step into the same river twice and that everything is ever moving, always changing. I totally agree – the idea of everything being in flux really attracts me.’ He does not accept the suggestion that his study of philosophy has affected his painting and sculpture. ‘In my everyday life, I use logical ways of thinking that I learnt. So in some sense it has been useful; but having said that, I don’t want to turn philosophy into art. Philosophy is based on reflection, thinking. Art is an action, based on our emotion or perception.’

On the other hand, there is a distinctly metaphysical, even cosmological aspect to his work. This emerges when we turn to the subject of stones, which feature very frequently in his sculptural installations. Lee is meticulous in the choice of these. He outlined his requirements to curator Alfred Pacquement, when discussing his extraordinary series of works which were shown in the grounds of Versailles in 2014. He wanted his stones, Lee explains, ‘to be massive, hard, characterless, with a squat shape’. ‘I need stones that have been polished by earth and water, wind and rain over a long period; they should not evoke any particular image, they must have a force of abstraction.’ At Versailles his installations included a monumental but simple steel arch framing the facade of the palace, anchored on each side by a natural boulder, with a metal mirror beneath. This managed to be at once minimal, grand, eastern and western – in conversation with, but quite different to the baroque classicism of Versailles’ architecture and the formal fountains, parterres, topiary, and hedges designed by Le Nôtre. Its title was Relatum – The Arch of Versailles. Other works were placed around the site, each with titles beginning withRelatum (‘Refer’) – as all his sculptures have begun since the late 1960s. For the last five years, most of these works comprise steel plates in juxtaposition with rocks that look as large and smooth as they did when the artist first found them.

There have been plenty of stones in the art of the last half century, but they are not used by other artists in quite the same manner as Lee. Richard Long’s stones, for example, arranged in lines and circles, speak of place, as suggested by their titles: Norfolk Flint Circle, for example, or Georgia Granite Circle. They are concerned with the differing geology and topography the artist encounters in his walks across the world. Lee, in contrast, is preoccupied by time. ‘Stones are the oldest thing we ever encounter in our world. There is an unimaginably long time inside them: a kind of concentration of several hundred million years. And within a stone there are elements we can use to forge a metal such as steel.’ He goes on: ‘I really value what does need to be made, the uncreated, the not made. My aim is to make the not-manmade speak. I really want you to hear the voice of these things: to put the manmade and non-manmade in juxtaposition. This combination is fundamental for me.’

There is a meditative quality in Lee’s art, a depth to its apparent simplicities. His installations are confrontations between human culture and nature, the present moment and eternity. In the museum dedicated to his work on Naoshima, the small island in the Inland Sea of Japan known for its displays of contemporary art, there is a room containing four works painted directly onto the walls. The idea is that you remove your shoes on entering, then just sit on the floor and contemplate. This museum is a close collaboration between Lee Ufan and the architect Tadao Ando. When the idea was first suggested, however, by Soichiro Fukutake, the billionaire who has funded and masterminded Naoshima’s transformation into a sort of modern art lover’s shangri-la, Lee was not enthusiastic. ‘Frankly speaking, at the beginning I was not at all interested in creating a museum of my work. When Mr Fukutake contacted me, I just replied “Let me see.”’ It was Tadao Ando who talked him into it, arguing that it would be an ideal way to realise various projects. ‘What I really wanted to make was a space like a cave. Something that would be like entering and leaving a tomb, or a human body. The final result is not a space conceived by an architect, with the artwork installed in it afterwards. Not at all. Ando couldn’t have done it on his own, nor could I. Our two sets of ideas were juxtaposed to create what you see. Fortunately, Ando is an old friend of mine, so there were no quarrels or disagreements. Our discussions went mysteriously smoothly.’

On the day I visited Naoshima, I had just been to Kyoto, where I had seen the ‘dry’ gardens of the Zen monasteries. The most celebrated of these, the Ryōan-ji, consists of 15 natural stones in a field of immaculately raked white gravel. Was there a connection – I couldn’t help asking – between this and his own work? Again, he rejected the association, just as he had with Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman’s abstraction. ‘No connection at all. Although you know I was born in Asia so even if I say “No, not at all in a direct way”, maybe the atmosphere or the zeitgeist impregnated this feeling for stones into me. But as far as my work is concerned, it’s totally distinct. It is the result of my questioning how artists should express themselves in a contemporary world – nothing to do with Zen gardens.’

In an idiosyncratic way Lee Ufan is a truly global figure. Is there anywhere, I ask, among the various places where he has lived and worked, that he feels more at home? ‘At the very beginning I had difficulty because I didn’t speak certain languages or felt isolated, but now I don’t distinguish between good places and bad. Everywhere is similar – and anyway, I love to be alone.

First published in Apollo – read the article here.

The Next Chapter

I wanted to make a book,’ Ed Ruscha told me last summer, when reminiscing about his early years. ‘At that point I could have gone down several avenues, but the book was the final end result.’ Entitled Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations (1963), it turned out to be not only one of Ruscha’s most important works, but one that has had – for a self-published volume with no text, in an edition of 500, initially rejected by the Library of Congress for its ‘unorthodox form and supposed lack of information’ – a surprisingly large cultural impact.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Co-Director of Exhibitions and Programmes at the Serpentine Gallery and an advocate of artists’ books, takes up the story. When he visited architects Venturi, Scott Brown in Philadelphia, he asked them about their own book, Learning from Las Vegas (1972, revised 1977), an appreciation of the billboards, glitz and neon of the Las Vegas Strip that was itself a crucial text in the development of Post-Modernism. Obrist had long been fascinated by this book. ‘It was an unusual thing for an architect to do in the ’70s, learning from vernacular architecture in this way, producing this manifesto and using images in it so creatively. So I asked them what the trigger was. They said it was absolutely Ed Ruscha. They’d even visited Ruscha in his studio with their architecture class. So here we have Ruscha inspiring a whole field of architecture and graphic design through his books.’ In a couple of steps, a quirky project by a young West Coast artist developed into a wider shift in taste.

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Artist in View: Frank Auerbach

An exhibition of Frank Auerbach’s 1950s paintings of London building sites opens at the Courtauld Gallery this month. Martin Gayford visits the artist in his north London studio to talk about his long engagement with paint. Portraits by David Dawson.

Frank Auerbach definitely does not believe, as Walter Pater famously did, that all art aspires to the condition of music. ‘I very definitely take issue with that.’ We are talking in his studio, a brick-built workshop hidden in an alley in Camden Town, north London, where he has been working unremittingly, day after day, year after year, since 1954: one of the great marathon efforts of art history (Figs 1 and 5). ‘Visual art’, Auerbach insists as soon as I bring up the subject of Pater and music, ‘is made with resistant matter and comes up against awkward rebarbative obstacles. Art aspires towards the condition of something altogether more material than music. It has grit in it.’

Of few pictures is that more true than those Auerbach himself painted half a century and more ago of post-war London. These works – which are gathered together for the first time this month in an exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, London – are images of excavation and reconstruction, scaffolding, drilling equipment and piles of earth. Their titles refer to familiar places: the Shell Building (Fig. 3), the Empire Cinema (Fig. 4). But what they show is flux, half-way between ruin and resurrection. They seem to be painted, if not with grit, then with thick, glutinous London clay and heavy riverside shale. These are paintings that don’t seem to be so much of the city as to contain its physical substance. A photograph from 1964 of Auerbach in his studio (Fig. 2) shows him spattered in paint as a construction worker might be in cement, handsome and powerfully built, his head resting on his arm in the pose of a thoughtful athlete by Michelangelo.

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Beyond the Surface

Although they appear as abstract celebrations of colour, the paintings of British artist Howard Hodgkin have stories to tell – but don’t expect any easy explanations. On the eve of his exhibition at Modern Art Oxford, the artist is on fine form

‘When I had a big show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York years ago,’ Sir Howard Hodgkin reminisces, sitting in his big light-filled studio in Bloomsbury, ‘I tried to talk to the people who came to it as much as I could. One was a wonderful black lady who said, “Did you do these all paintings by yourself?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “My daughter thinks you must have had a lotta help.” I took that as a great compliment.’

Whatever she meant by that unexpected remark, it can’t have been that Hodgkin’s pictures look like hard work. This summer he has another exhibition, ‘Howard Hodgkin: Time and Place’, at Modern Art Oxford (23 June–5 September). The works on show, all from the past decade, will have an even less laborious appearance than the ones on show in New York in 1995. Though often his pictures take years to produce, these recent paintings look as though they were executed in a few fluent and rapid sweeps of the brush. It is true that those marks are all made by his own hand, not because he has an objection to studio assistance in principle, as he explains, but for more unfathomable reasons. ‘I’m not a great believer in autograph marks, but I’m stuck with them. It doesn’t work when I get people to do it for me. Years ago I asked somebody just to cover a surface with blobs for me. I had to wash them all off again. Something was just not quite right about them.’

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