Memories are made of this

    Jannis Kounellis's humble materials trigger an intense emotional response in our writer, as his show opens at the cavernous Ambika P3

    Jannis Kounellis and I have a history, although the poor man will not know this, as I doubt he has heard of Terry Wogan. But it was Wogan who brought us together. A couple of decades ago, when I was a fledgling art critic on another newspaper, I received a call from the BBC. They were hoping to start a new chat show with Wogan and wanted to know if I would appear in the pilot. My task was to talk about Kounellis, whose new show was opening at the Whitechapel art gallery. Of course, I said, keen to spread the modern art message on primetime TV. Gullible fool that I was.

    Kounellis’s exhibition, like all his shows, was a dark and mysterious installation, dominated in this case by a set of hissing gas jets that filled the gallery with harsh industrial smells and acrid moods. It was as if the brutality of a steelworks had been crated up and transferred to the Whitechapel. Crikey, I thought, this is going to take some mediating.

    Why does Wogan want to talk to me about this? Before the interview began, the great man buttered me up splendidly by telling me he wanted me to talk exactly as I would to one of my readers. I should not worry about going over anyone’s head, because he, Wogan, had studied art back in Dublin, and the new show was trying to introduce some intelligent chat onto the BBC. Fair enough, I gulped. Sounds good. So it was all smiles and oiling. Until the camera began rolling. Whereupon Wogan cut immediately to the chase. How much does all this cost? I have no idea, I spluttered back, tongue-tied but truthful. What about that heap of rubbish, what does that represent? Behind me, two gallery workers were sweeping the floor in preparation for the private view. Er, nothing, I replied. They’re just two blokes cleaning the floor. It’s nothing to do with the show.

    The pilot was broadcast a few weeks later, and I popped up near the end. The two blokes sweeping the floor were deceitfully presented as part of Kounellis’s installation, and my mumbled attempts to explain the meaning of the elusive gas jets were accompanied by wave after wave of canned laughter. Nice chap, Terry Wogan. Shame he’s left the hit breakfast show.

    All this came flooding back to me as I wandered among the huge and puzzling elements of the new Kounellis installation at Ambika P3. It’s his first solo showing in a public space in London since the Kounellis-Wogan summit of 1982. Once again, this ageing master of arte povera is seeking to fashion some fragile poetry out of the meetings of inglorious factory substances. Once again, I suppose, there will be those who find his pretensions laughable. Once again, I am not one of them.

    If you have never been to Ambika P3, you should know that it is one of the largest gallery spaces in Europe. Converted from the former concrete-testing facility of the University of Westminster, this gigantic three-storey chasm offers 14,000 sq ft of exhibition room, most of which is subterranean, which is why you see nothing of it from Madame Tussauds, across the road. It’s a sort of miniature Tate Modern, buried underground, cavernous and postindustrial, decorated with the atmospheric remnants of its former days: cranes, pipes, girders, junction boxes and air-con units.

    Kounellis, who is notoriously fussy about where he shows, must have licked his lips furiously when he first came here and sensed the possibilities. As a Greek living in Italy, he would have been more aware than most of the mythological implications of this atmospheric descent into lower London. Was he consciously thinking of mazes and minotaurs when he came down here? Probably not. Was he noting them unconsciously? Oh yes.

    In fact, the maze only makes sense from above. On the gallery floor, where you wander between looming black containers twice your height, seemingly filled with coal and hung on the outside with neat rows of empty wine bottles, you discern no overall shape to the metal canyons. Only when you look down on the structure from one of the aerial walkways do you see that it forms an extralarge letter K. For Kounellis, I presume. So we can probably suspect some autobiographical undertow to this bleak reimagining of the minotaur’s maze.

    Those readers who remember the age of steam should know that these looming, coal-filled containers are roughly the size engine tenders used to be, and bring with them much of that huffing, puffing sense of inefficient industrial effort. Readers too young to remember the age of steam should look up the photographs of O Winston Link, which convey it all. Heavy with bleak postindustrial nostalgia, fiercely ungreen in tenor, these choky, smoky boiler moods carry a whiff of mystery with them too. I am much younger than Kounellis (b 1936), but even I can remember the forlorn chugging of the steam train at night, whistling its melancholy siren call.

    Kounellis’s fellow Greek-turned-Italian, the great surrealist Giorgio de Chirico, made a career out of painting the steam train’s sense of mystery. Kounellis, who can be understood as a kind of 3D de Chirico, is also a doomy surrealist. Underlying both their aesthetics is a taste for the elusive poetry created when objects and substances with an emotional pull are transplanted into alien situations. Put a neat row of green bottles in a neat bottle factory and they will appear entirely normal. Strap them to the side of a brutal engine tender, as Kounellis has done here, and you are tethering a butterfly to a rhinoceros: the breakable to the immovable.

    Kounellis’s art works with such hints and whispers. Indeed, the entire arte povera movement, which emerged in the 1960s, and in which he was a leading light, depends for its impact on the surges of emotion you feel when your memories of humble materials are triggered and toyed with: the woollen blanket you slept under at school; the metal box dad kept in his garage; the woodpile at the bottom of the garden; the first touch of a girlfriend’s skin. Those are textural memories from my past. You will have different ones. The point is, certain stuffs trigger certain emotions. That’s what Kounellis plays with.

    The huge container installation is joined here by an almost empty room in which suggestive bits of clothing have been attached to the gallery’s columns. A coat and bowler hat. A black jacket of the kind government clerks used to wear. And the one that got me: a flesh-coloured nightie hanging limply from a metal hook. My old mum, bless her soul, used to wear one of those.