Borromini-Kounellis: De la luminosa opacidad de los signos [Borromini – Kounellis: On the Luminous Opacity of Signs]

First published in Spanish in Revista de Arte Figura, no.6 (Fall 1985), Sevilla, pp. 94-95
Also published in English as Borromini-Kounellis: On the Luminous Opacity of Signs in Juan Muñoz, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. in association with The Art Institute of Chicago [cat.exh], 2001, pp. 60-61


The valiant poet Valente left a treatise, written in unintelligible characters, on the mathematics of colour. Its title was “On the Obstinate Possibility of Light”.

March 1663
It is Sunday in the church of Saint Agnese in the Piazza Navona. Immense in their intensity, the footfalls of an Italian peasant entering on a sunny morning. It is possible to imagine him crossing the portico, passing through the nave, under the barrel vaults, making his way to the altar. There, facing him: magnificence. Volutes, decoration everywhere. All ornamentation because that is what Baroque theatricality demands.

Nevertheless, something in this river of effects contradicts its original reason for being. Attention is not led toward spiritual absorption, veneration, or the sacred. Instead, it seems the spectacle was a metaphor for itself. Every vault and promontory is its own architectonic contradiction. The bronze, stucco, and glass follow one another like parts that do not manage to make a whole. The left rises over the upper section and before it reaches bottom, the right collides with the corner. Everything seems in perpetual motion.

Borromini’s church owes its being in the world to existing in the very space its theatricality invents. In truth, the columns here neither hold anything in place nor support anything. In its highest reaches, it resolves itself in decoration, and in that way it recreates itself.

The gaze that passes from effect to effect without continuity finds no place to catch its breath. Borromini’s church, like Schwitter’ Merzbau, demonstrates that it could have continued to grow. Immobile in a constantly fluctuating world, the Baroque building is, for the eye, a place (like the earth itself, the only reason for being for the never-represented God) in perpetuum mobile.

A modern simile, if there were one, could well be like walking hurriedly along an airport conveyor belt.

In Baroque scenography, in order for the epiphany to appear illuminated, the spectator must be in darkness. This is why Borromini locates the church’s focal point in the skylight. And, let us add: What sort of circle would a compass in motion trace? Would it not be a spiral staircase, tilted walls, concave forms, convex cornices, elevated elements? The flow of light falls on the overhangs, then transforms into a mask, doubly luminous in the recesses. Which leads us to assert that the epiphany, the concept represented here, is light itself.

Borromini must have known that there was no face beneath the mask. Baroque stagecraft, promoted by the Council of Trent, fascinating machinery that dazzled the faithful, was conceived by its creator in the image and likeness of mystery. Period.

The centre of any Borromini church, the lantern, is always elliptical. It has two centres. The beam of light that descends from it resembles a slow, helicoidal, ascending movement. And vice versa. Two in one. The spiral staircase seems to rise at the same time it drops and twists its geometric zero.
There is no indoctrination in Borromini, no Holy Church. For which reason, beyond the luminous effect, there is not even a God. Everything is epiphany, representation of the whole by means of the whole itself, by means of the mystery of light in space, by means of the mystery of light, of space.
All those volutes, those broken lines, those columns that barely support anything, awaiting the clarity that comes from the cupola, recall the poem by the great José Lezama Lima: “like clouds galloping, but later the lightning bolt of grace does its work.” What lightning bolt is that which, emanating from the ellipse, works on form and makes it plausible? Perhaps it is the same one that transforms the concave into the accomplice of the convex, that makes shadow coincide with volume.

We feel something similar standing before one of Jannis Kounellis’s objects.

Let us just say it once and for all: the lucid Greek’s sculpture, beyond its apparent epiphany of mystery, is in itself strangeness.

If the truly surprising (the operative grace) is being and, therefore, being-in-space, let us add that the place transforms into the child and the enclave of the incomprehensible.

In the work of both creators, the emphasis is on making it possible for something to take place, and that something is the act that engenders light.

In 1971, Jannis Kounellis builds a truly complex image. The image of something that is moved toward without being arrived at. Sculpture or metaphor for a landscape of tributary streams without a river into which to empty, it is composed of several butane tanks with their rubber hoses and their blowtorch nozzles from which pour flames. The locus, the room, has been occupied by light. The light moves toward an escape point, but where is it? Exactly like the cornices in Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, the lines take a direction, but which? Space has curled up on itself. Here there is no centre, but nevertheless the drawing on the floor seems to correspond to another order. It is possible to guess that Kounellis, just as obsessively as Borromini, has chosen the geometric form of the ellipse. Two centres and none. Our attention moves from one to the other. The eye moves, but it is now de-centred.

Both residents of Rome, bearing the tools of their trade, stand before space, conscious of not being able to transgress it and, at the same time, astonished. Furthermore, they are amazed by the qualities Martin Heidegger has glossed. Because “before it, there is no reference point, and after it there is no signal to guide us to something else.” It makes sense to continue Heidegger’s comparison in order to explain that both the twist in Borromini and the deepening of the myth in Kounellis take place in spaces “Where a god is going to appear or from which the gods have just fled or where the manifestation of the divine takes too long in coming.” But what might those “tools of the trade! be with which these two work and manage to invest space with otherness? For the Italian architect, the building is a piece of stage machinery he uses to achieve the global effect of chiaroscuro that again and again indicates the strangeness of illuminated space. Should we not add to this capricious discourse on uncertain relationships, how symmetrical it is that Kounellis emphasizes the conflict in the everyday use of an object between the light it emits and the shadow that allows it to exist?

That bluish butane light, in no way alien to chiaroscuro: Does it not place the spectator in the shadow? A subtle paradox perpetrated by the cunning Greek, who seeks that which belongs only to the spectator’s gaze upon the object itself. The immobile presented to the eye as something centrifugal. There are arguments that would justify the genealogical proximity with more authority. Arguments that are certainly more shallow, like the recurrent theatricality both employ, but instead suggest, properly, that language is capricious, than nothing or almost nothing can elude the arrival of night except its clarity.

Epilogue
Let us publicly allow a certain distance with the opportune pictorial concern of the great Greek creator, at the same time that we recall the obsessive tilted wall of Borromini’s creation.