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History’s forgotten dreams and nightmares: Jeff Koons at Versailles

Laurie Rojas

Platypus Review 9 | December 2008

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Let’s begin with Peter Schjeldahl in the June issue of the New Yorker: “There is something nightmarish about Jeff Koons.”

In a recent exhibition at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (MCA), Jeff Koons received a well-attended mid-career survey of his work. Surrounded by two-story high white walls, the twenty-eight years of Koons’s art surveyed in the exhibit didn’t present anything to disturb our peaceful slumber. Even the rather lurid 1991 photograph of Ilona’s asshole, does not give us much pause.

Across the Atlantic, however, Koons’s work has caused a national controversy in France. Seventeen of his sculptures are currently installed at the Château de Versailles, the residence and political headquarters of the absolutist French monarchy for over a century. The playful juxtapositions of unquestionably post-modern works of art with King Louis XVI’s rococo style rooms demand a historical consideration of — and controversy over — socio-political and artistic developments between the time of Louis XVI’s reign at Versailles and that of Koons’s work.

Some responses to the exhibition have met its seeming provocation with stiff opposition. Although the opulence of Koons’s sculptures makes them seem well-suited for display in Versailles rooms, the exhibition outraged nationalist and conservative groups. After unsuccessful efforts to cancel the exhibition, over two-dozen members of the “National Union of Writers of France” showed up and protested at Versailles on opening day. The chairman of the group publicly declared the exhibition to be “truly sullying of the most sacred aspects of our heritage and identity,” and “an outrage to Marie Antoinette.” This kind of historical nostalgia — or better, amnesia — is representative of the Right’s desire to entirely forget and deny the social transformations that proceeded from the French Revolution. For the Right, the ghost of the Revolution appears again, after so many attempts at an exorcism, with Koons leading the séance.

In Jeff Koons at Versailles, the sculptures are conspicuously selected for display in Les appartements du Roi (King’s apartments) and Les appartements de la Reine (Queen’s apartments). As the sepulcher of the French monarchy’s works of art, Versailles, with its 2000 acres, is one of the worlds most visited historic monuments (nearly 5 million visitors a year). With an emphasis on the history of the French Revolution, visitors are reminded by Versailles tour guides of what Versailles once was: the headquarters of a now outdated form of political life that dominated Europe for over five centuries. In Chicago, MCA visitors were more inclined to consider Koons’s work for their contemporary relevance and vitality, as already well-established within the canon of art. The exhibition at Versailles, however, is an invitation to contemplate correspondences between the history —of art and society— represented by the odd coupling of Versailles rooms and Koons sculptures.

A series of tongue-in-cheek gestures abound throughout the installations: a marble self-portrait bust of Koons stands in the same room that houses baroque and rococo style statues, respectively, of Louis XIV and Louis XVI; a plexiglass encased display of vacuum cleaners accompanies the portraits of the royal women, and stands in front of a Marie Antoinette painting in the queens antechamber. Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988), a decorative rococolike sculpture with shades of white and gold, in the middle of the Venus Salon, accompanies dark marble walls and columns of the 1660s, busts of Roman Emperors, and a seven-foot tall painting of the Sun King.

When contemplating Balloon Dog (1999-2000), one can imagine it being modeled after a “Toys R Us” inflatable collectible enlarged to the size of a classical equestrian sculpture. This purple “Trojan horse,” as Koons himself nicknamed it, provocatively sits in the Hercules Drawing Room, the same room that was used for receptions of the representatives of the Estates-General in 1789. Of course, the convening of the Estates-General in 1789 paved the way to the revolt of the Third Estate, and the revolutionary actions that put an end to the French Monarchy. What conclusions do visitors make when they see Koons’s chromium stainless steel Balloon Dog in the Salon d’Hercules as their tour guide relays that fateful moment? Those representatives of the third Estate — can we imagine how they would have reacted?

In the Queen’s apartment, next to the bed last occupied by Marie Antoinette, and where the would-be inheritors of the throne were born, stands Koons’s Large Vase of Flowers (1991), a polychrome wood spring bouquet. The garish middle-class aesthetics of the flowers clashes with the flower-covered decor of the rooms. The oversized flowers, however, allow you to study the peculiarities of the sculpture’s forms. When seen from up-close the flowers have grotesque details, genitals with STD-like lumps and ass-hole like shapes. An awkward, hyper-sentimental gesture for the queen who spent seven years without being able to consummate her marriage to Louis XVI.

In the same tradition of Duchamp and Warhol, Jeff Koons excels in being both an iconographic and an iconoclastic artist. Like Duchamp, Koons manages to remove —and transform— the function of ordinary objects. Like Warhol, he succeeds in producing objects-de-art out of the immense reservoir of cultural images. Duchamp, it has been said, wanted “to put art back in the service of the mind” in response to the predominance of “retinal” art of the turn of the 20th century. The work of Jeff Koons can be considered a synthesis of these two artistic tendencies, unraveling the relationship that “retinal” art —which seeks to cause visual pleasure— might have to art that seeks to nourish the brain.

Rabbit (1986), a stainless steel, all reflecting bunny, standing on a marble pedestal, located at Le Salon de l’Abondance for curiosities and rarities, becomes a different sculpture than when sitting within the white walls of the MCA. In an empty gallery space all that Rabbit reflects is the subject watching it. In the white-walled gallery, Koons’s use of mundane, banal, or immediately recognizable —kitschy— cultural imagery is an “easy” mechanism used to reel in the viewing subject.

When Rabbit reflects a room in Versailles, contemplating it becomes more complex. For it forcefully introduces a third element, the historical. This kind of aesthetic experience triggers both a kind of personal and sociopolitical recognition. As Schiller argued in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, art ought to contain a physical quality that can directly relate to “our sensual condition,” our reason, and our will. Only an aesthetic experience, argues Schiller, is able to cultivate the totality of our sensuous and intellectual abilities.

Unlike Duchamp’s or Warhol’s work, Koons’s work can be admired for its technical precision, and labor-intensive industrial characteristics; some of Koons’s sculptures can take up to a decade to complete, which is comparable to the craftsmanship necessary to complete many of the permanent works in Versailles. As visitors exit the Queen’s apartments, they encounter a 3,500 pound stainless steel magenta/gold Hanging Heart sold for a record-setting $23.6 million in 2007. The high chromium stainless steel surface of the 9-foot tall Hanging Heart is coated in more than ten layers of paint, and took over 6,000 man hours to make. This mammoth heart-shaped pendant is the most ambivalent of all Koons’s gestures. Is the heart in memory of Marie Antoinette? Or was it taken triumphantly from her breast? Are we to mourn her death, or are we to rejoice in it?

All these juxtapositions seem to lead us back to one question: what is the significance of the French Revolution today? How do we understand Versailles, the Rights of Man, the elimination of the French Monarchy, the beheading of the King and Queen?

The Koons exhibit illustrates that our present is still haunted by the still-present spectre of the French Revolution in our lives. The ideals of the Enlightenment, now 200- 300 years old, which so profoundly influenced the American and French Revolutions, are undoubtedly expressed in the work of Jacques Louis David, for example. In the same manner, Koons’s work also represents a particular point of view regarding the historical trajectory of humanity.

What is so nightmarish, then, about Koons’s work (along with postmodern thought more generally), what comes into relief in the palace, is its ambivalence toward modern society — seeking to neither criticize it nor celebrate it, merely using it as content.

But at the same time the Versailles exhibit exemplifies how we cannot deny the modern subject’s judgment.

As self-conscious “moderns”, we must proceed to make a judgment, not only about Marie Antoinette’s fate and the French Revolution, but also about our present. Considering the economic conditions, the social transformations, and the technological advances that have made such an exhibition possible, what judgment do we make about the progression — or regression — of the project set in motion by the French Revolution?

What can the Versailles installations of Jeff Koons’s work illuminate about Modern Art’s historical development, about the history between Jacques Louis David and Koons, and thus the modern history of humanity? Thinking through these questions is central to understanding the extent to which we face today, in art and society, continuity with or change from the political ideals that brought about the emergence of the modern.

Koons’s work, when comfortably sitting in the Versailles rooms, eclipses everything in between now and then; it eclipses the French Revolution, it eclipses Delacroix, Manet, Picasso, Pollock and Rothko, either by clumsily ignoring it, or by consciously denying the rise and development of Modernism. What is so nightmarish, perhaps, is that if his work really does treat the enlightenment project as irrelevant, its purported ambivalence is, in a way, no different than the right-wing French nationalists protest of his work outside of Versailles.

In the last paragraph of Hal Foster’s introduction to The Anti-Aesthetic he characterizes our historical moment as one that treats the project of modernity, along with the “adventures of the aesthetic,” and the “critique of the world as it is,” as an outdated utopian dream: “we have to consider that this aesthetic space too has eclipsed — or rather, that its criticality is largely illusory (and so instrumental).” Instead, “in the face of a culture of reaction on all sides, a practice of resistance is needed.” But, this not need be the case. For thinking about Koons’s work reminds us that that would mean relinquishing history from the hands of humanity.

The alternative would be to agree with Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People’s Republic of China, who in the 1950s visited France and was asked about the impact of the French Revolution, and said, “it’s too early to tell." |P

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