Jannis Kounellis, though Greek, was at one time, like Mario Merz, an exponent of Italy’s Arte Povera (poor art). This late-sixties movement used humble materials and found objects – in a similar way to the Catalan artists of the Dau al Set (seven-sided die) movement, Joan Brossa and Antoni Tàpies – to create an art of protest that attacked the conservative establishment.
So Kounellis’s materials were often raw and basic – iron, sacking, wool and cotton – and this impetus led to increasing experimentation with bizarre materials such as fire or soot, to the point where in 1969, in a much-criticised show, he tethered twelve live horses in Rome’s Galleria L’Attico. The aim – through the juxtaposition of these archetypically traditional and rustic (not to mention live) elements in a pristine, cosmopolitan gallery space – was to make a statement on the fragmentation of modern life.
This work, Balança romana (Roman Scales), is another of the pieces in the 1992 permanent exhibition “Urban Configurations”. As Lothar Baumgarten intended with Compass Rose and Rebecca Horn with The Wounded Star, Kounellis is paying homage to Barceloneta’s trading history. The work consists of a vertical conveyor, or weighing scales, containing sacks of coffee beans, rising to the height of the seven-storey building against which the piece is installed. By using coffee beans – an everyday staple of early twentieth-century Barcelona life, one that would have been unloaded at the port and yet which hails from exotic, often colonised locations such as South America – Kounellis is pointing to issues like trade, exploitation and colonialism. Kounellis characteristically sites his sculptures in the historic, often industrial, locations which they reference, as in this case: Barceloneta was formerly a neighbourhood of dock workers and fishermen.
Apart from sculpture, Kounellis’s work spans painting and performance. In one oil work (Untitled, 1971), in which he employed the Cubist device of painting musical notes on a flat canvas – in this case Bach’s oratorio, the St John Passion – he also allowed for a cellist to play alongside the work, thereby ‘activating’ the piece.
Originally installed on the corner of Barceloneta’s Baluard and Almirall Cervera streets, this sculpture now lives outside the Civic Centre where carrer Miquel Boera meets Andrea Dòria.
Unfortunately, deterioration of the organic materials exposed to the weather means that in recent years the sacking has rotted and coffee beans have begun to rain down on people below, so the installation has been wrapped up until it can be fully restored
Balança romana / Roman Scales, Jannis Kounellis, 1993. Corner of carrers Miquel Boera and Andrea Dòria, Barceloneta. Coordinates: 41.380328, 2.192197