Jeff Koon’s new sculpture, Bouquet of Tulips, which commemorates the victims of terror attacks in France in 2015 and 2016, has just opened in Paris. As is the case with most of his work, the piece has prompted considerable critical suspicion, largely about the purity of his intentions. Offered as a gift by the artist in 2016 (albeit only the concept, the actual realisation of the piece was largely funded by American and French donors), the project has been dogged by controversy: ‘online petitions condemning what they describe as a tasteless product placement; newspaper op-eds questioning the artist’s ulterior motives; tense negotiations over the sculpture’s eventual location’(Harding).
Accused of being a purveyor of heartless kitsch (by Robert Hughes among others), Koons has always resisted his work being categorised as ironical, insisting ‘his art is about liberation and acceptance and embracing the mainstream’ (Jones); and given his sincerity is so often in doubt, it is little wonder that suspicions about his take on a commemorative piece would be especially acute. Studiedly not described as a memorial, but rather ‘a message of hope,’ the framing or classification of the piece has been condemned as ‘a hopelessly mixed message’ (Sutton). However, this fudging was clearly necessary in order to broaden the tonal possibilities of the work, and signal a move away from the strictures of a solely sombre or reverent stance. Koons himself is clear, stating at the inauguration ceremony that it ‘was created as a symbol of remembrance, optimism and healing.’ The sculpture does allude to a sense of loss – rather than a dozen tulips, there are only eleven – but this feels like a rather token gesture, peripheral to its central impulse towards optimism and vitality. And it is this impulse that we should judge it upon. Koons describes the flowers as representing ‘the vitality of the human spirit’ (Gaschka), and while it is a cliched phrase, almost emptied of meaning through overuse, it still registers a resilience worthy of celebration.
So, how does Koons celebrate this resilience? The only way he knows how: using a democratic medium (the inflatable flowers) at a scale which positions the viewer in a child-like relation to the object, all through a hyper-sexualised filter (the shape of the flowers can be seen as anus-like). Both the mass-produced object and the sexualised filter are culturally problematic – we are not accustomed to either being celebrated in an unequivocal way. And the fusion of the two makes us even more squeamish, given that the erotic is supposed to be sequestered. But for Koons, that delight is central to his artistic vision: both are genuinely beautiful (in one interview he says “If I think of the word beauty, I think of a vagina…I think of the vaginal – personally. That’s what comes to mind for me, or Praxiteles’ sculpture, the ass … ” (Jones). In its polymorphous perversity it is a vision that is fundamentally child-like: the soft seeming tulips, which prompt the desire to bite or squeeze them, are anus, breast, marshmallow, toy, all at once. It is easy to disparage Koon’s desire to return us to childhood, but a child engrossed in an object is magical, and so too is the absence of shame or guilt in a child’s sexuality. Like the vitality of the human spirit, these may be clichés but they are still true. The bouquet of flowers itself is also a cliché, an absurdly literal gift: the hyperreal hand holding them, Koons’s own. ‘This is my hand giving you these flowers’ is its simple, almost gauche message. It is hard for us to accept his gift on these terms, so accustomed are we to irony, or the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, but I think we should try.
Gaschka, Catherine and Oleg Cetinic, ‘Jeff Koons’ ‘Bouquet of Tulips’ honours victims of Paris terror attacks’, The Guardian, 4 Oct 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/oct/04/jeff-koons-bouquet-of-tulips-honours-victims-of-paris-terror-attacks,
Harding, Michael-Oliver, ‘Is Bouquet of Tulips the year’s most controversial artwork?’ BBC news website, 7 Oct 2019, http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20191004-is-bouquet-of-tulips-the-years-most-controversial-artwork
Jones, Jonathan, ‘Jeff Koons: Not Just the King of Kitsch’, The Guardian, 30 June 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/jun/30/jeff-koons-exhibition-serpentine?INTCMP=SRCH
Sutton, Benjamin, ‘Paris Deserves Better than Jeff Koons’, Hyperallergic, 29 Jan 2018,https://hyperallergic.com/423885/jeff-koons-paris-rebuttal/
© Emma Sullivan 2019.