• Switzerland's news in English
 
King of kitsch Jeff Koons brings 'empty' art to Basel
Photo: Meritxell Mir

King of kitsch Jeff Koons brings 'empty' art to Basel

Published: 15 May 2012 15:39 GMT+02:00

Dubbed the ‘king of kitsch,’ Jeff Koons is perhaps the world’s most famous living artist – or to quote the Fondation Beyeler in Basel that has dedicated its summer exhibition to his work, “one of the most influential artists of all time.”

Alive with playful sexual imagery and the clash between “high” and “low” art, the show offers a chance to explore the back catalogue of an American sculptor who has courted controversy throughout his career, writes Meritxell Mir.

When you look at a vacuum cleaner, you probably see a functional device that helps you keep your floors clean. Unless you are Jeff Koons. Then you see a seductive bisexual appliance that could inspire the most lustful of fantasies.

Sexuality has been present in the oeuvre of the American artist since the start of his career more than 30 years ago, and is clearly in evidence at Fondation Beyeler’s exhibition that runs until September 2nd.

Like British artist and friend Damien Hirst, Koons embraces the role of the celebrity artist. His goal is to popularize art by making it accessible to all – despite the fact his works sell for several million dollars apiece.

The exhibition is divided chronologically into three series that represent crucial steps in the development of an artist who has caused a furore around the world.

In The New (1980-1987), Koons focused on unused Hoover vacuum cleaners, which are presented as precious objects of desire, lit from below in Plexiglas vitrines. Inspired by the readymades of Marcel Duchamp, this strange decontextualiztion lets the viewer in on Koons’ perception of the devices as “breathing machines” with “biological shapes.” The phallic handle, the holes and pipes, their sucking power – you’ll never see a vacuum cleaner in quite the same way again.

Photo: Meritxell Mir

Setting the tone for the rest of his career, the Pennsylvania-born artist’s conceptual approach in The New relies on his audience’s reading of the work to bring it to life.

“Those objects are empty, they are just transponders,” Koons said during the presentation of the exhibition. “I put a lot of thought into them, and I think they do their job very well, but there is no art in them, the art is in the viewer.”

Koons uses the factory-fresh gleam of these androgynous devices to hint at ideas of purity, integrity, and eternity – three recurring themes in his work. They are displayed to never be used, playing on notions of mortality.

The series also includes a large-format lithograph entitled New! New Too! (1983) inspired by an advertising poster for an alcoholic drink. Koons’ fascination with the manipulative potential of images and his aspiration to make artworks accessible to everyone were already present in these early stages of his career.

“One of the greatest qualities of Koons’ art is that he overcomes the division between high and low art, bringing together popular objects and artistic invention,” explained Sam Keller, co-curator of the exhibition and director of the Fondation Beyeler.

The blurring of kitsch and sophisticated art took on a new dimension in his series Banality (1982-1992) – the work that propelled him to the heights of international celebrity (a status he appears to revel in). Employing traditional artisan techniques and materials such as fine porcelain that carry aristocratic associations, these oversized pastiches of tacky ornaments associated with the culturally unsophisticated were Koons’ way of questioning the role of art in contemporary society. Pop art was back with some nineties flavour.

Koons based this group of works on concepts of innocence and guilt, making frequent references to Christian iconography, but with a twist – with Koons, there’s always a twist. The legendary porcelain and gold life-size sculpture of Michael Jackson and his chimpanzee Bubbles is described by Koons as a “contemporary Pietà.” It has achieved iconic status since its creation in 1988 and was sold for $5.1 million (4.76 million francs) in 2001.

Photo: Jeff Koons

Other pieces like the delicate Naked (1988) address the problem of guilt and exoneration. In this porcelain sculpture, a prepubescent Adam and Eve stand nude, examining a bouquet of flowers. It is not clear whether the girl is looking at the flower’s phallic pistil or at the boy’s still undeveloped genitals, leaving the viewer to decide whether the work is a statement about purity, sexuality or both.

Photo: Meritxell Mir

In Pink Panther (1988), Koons focuses on the theme of “masturbation as a metaphor for cultural guilt and shame.” He attempts to liberate viewers from such feelings by challenging them to stand up for their suppressed aesthetic preferences in front of an erotically charged sculpture of a woman and a (cartoon) animal.

Photo: Meritxell Mir

Banality was trying to embrace the everyday, to direct itself to the concept of guilt and shame that we have about ourselves, as human beings,” Koons said. “[These pieces] want to communicate to the viewer to overcome that, to have acceptance of themselves and their environment.”

Koons’ many fans will miss at the Beyeler his series ‘Made in Heaven,’ which he worked on during his marriage to Italian porn actress and politician Ilona Staller, better known as Cicciolina. These highly pornographic life-size sculptures and photos in which the artist himself is depicted are some of his most controversial pieces, although he maintains they are his most important body of work for their sincerity and radicalism. None of them are present at the art institution in Basel.

For those less familiar with Koons’ work, entering the final room of the exhibition will confirm his unlimited capacity to surprise his audience. The series Celebration, still a work in progress, is an ambitious project consisting mainly of monumental sculptures crafted in chromium stainless steel.

The history of this series is closely tied to his personal life, especially the birth of his son Ludwig in 1992 and his divorce from Staller, who took their son to Italy despite Koons winning legal custody. The artist uses birthday and holiday motifs – Valentine hearts, flowers, Easter eggs – to celebrate childhood, transforming his artistic practice into a token of a father’s love for his son.

The most famous of these is Balloon Dog (Red) (1995-2004). Almost four metres high and weighing several tons, Koons nonetheless manages to make the sculpture appear almost weightless.

“The first thing that it wants to do is affirming the viewer and the importance of its existence,” Koons explained. As he has said before: all that matters in life and art is “human interaction.”

Balloon Dog’s highly polished stainless steel surface reflects its surroundings, once again challenging viewers to interact with the work as they confront their own reflection – a trick also used in Tulips (1995-1998), which plays with sexual imagery through forms that are both feminine and masculine.

Photo: Meritxell Mir

Koons holds the record as the highest-paid living artist. Yet he claims that money and fame don’t spur him to create.

“The emotional charges, the chemical releases... that’s what it’s all about,” he said at the Beyeler. And, if you accept the invitation to let his works play off your own perceptions, this exhibition is never short of such thrills. You will laugh or you will get the creeps, but it won’t leave you cold.

Meritxell Mir (news@thelocal.ch)

Today's headlines
SBB moots free coffee for off-peak train users
The SBB is responding to complaints that trains are overcrowded. Photo: ZO/AvU

SBB moots free coffee for off-peak train users

Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) is considering options to ease train congestion next year, including incentives - such as free coffee - to travel outside rush hours. READ  

Ex-banker admits lying over French tax fraud
Pierre Condamin-Gerbier. Photo: AFP

Ex-banker admits lying over French tax fraud

A man who acknowledged lying when he served as a key witness in a major French tax fraud investigation was sentenced to a two-year suspended prison term in the Swiss canton of Ticino on Friday. READ  

Swiss spills beans about guarding the pope
Photo: David Geisser

Swiss spills beans about guarding the pope

Although better known today for their colourful uniforms than their centuries-old reputation as fearless warriors, the Swiss Guards remain a powerful symbol of the Vatican. The Local speaks to David Geisser, one of the latest recruits, about a career protecting popes.
 READ  

Massive write-downs soak Axpo in red ink
Photo: Axpo

Massive write-downs soak Axpo in red ink

Swiss utility company Axpo said on Friday that eroding wholesale prices for electricity have forced it to write down 1.5 billion francs on the value of its power plants and energy supply contracts. READ  

Banks vow negative rates won't be passed on
Photo: Yoshiko Kusano/Photopress

Banks vow negative rates won't be passed on

Major banks in Switzerland say they have no intention of charging small savers negative interest rates in the wake of the Swiss National Bank’s decision this week to charge such rates to financial institutions. READ  

Suspected stabber Nabilla freed from prison
Photo: AFP

Suspected stabber Nabilla freed from prison

Swiss model and French reality TV star Nabilla Benattia left a women’s prison in Versailles, France on Thursday on conditional release while facing charges of attempted murder after stabbing her boyfriend. READ  

Swiss school grad 'hero' among café siege victims
Photo: César Ritz Colleges/Facebook

Swiss school grad 'hero' among café siege victims

César Ritz Colleges, a Swiss hotel management school group, issued a tribute on its Facebook page to a former graduate who died while trying to end this week’s café hostage-taking incident in Sydney, Australia that left three people dead and five people injured. READ  

Forecast cuts 2015 Swiss economic growth
What, me worry? Swiss economy seen as continuing to defy trend in eurozone. Photo: Credit Suisse

Forecast cuts 2015 Swiss economic growth

The Swiss federal government's experts' group says Switzerland's economic prospects remain favourable in a "risky environment" although it cut its growth forecast for 2015. READ  

French businessman plans takeover of Orange

French businessman plans takeover of Orange

Apax Funds has announced it is selling Orange Switzerland, the country’s third largest mobile operator, to NJJ Capital, a holding company owned by French businessman Xavier Niel for 2.8 billion francs. READ  

Switzerland cracks top ten list for business
Zurich, Switzerland's biggest centre for business. Photo: Switzerland Tourism

Switzerland cracks top ten list for business

Switzerland ranks among the top ten best countries in the world to do business, according to Forbes magazine’s list for 2014. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Features
The Local's top ten snow sport alternatives to skiing in Switzerland
International
Swiss chocolate café at centre of hostage-taking drama Down Under
National
Why has The Local got a new logo?
Features
Exploring the 'most beautiful village' in French-speaking Switzerland
Business & Money
Italian thieves steal 260 tons of Swiss Lindt & Sprüngli chocolate
National
World's longest train tunnel — under the Swiss Alps — set to open in 2016
National
Switzerland's Christmas market season gets into full swing
National
Porn film on video screen spices up fare at Swiss McDonald's restaurant
National
Masturbation scene in Swiss TV ad for Media Markt draws complaints
National
Cantonal lawmakers end 'happy hours' tippling in Vaud pubs and bars
Politics
Former concert pianist Sommaruga elected as next Swiss president
Culture
Jailed German art forger's paintings go on sale at Bern gallery
Business & Money
Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad's family listed as Switzerland's richest
Features
Long-time expats face dilemma: to be or not to be a Swiss citizen
National
Switzerland's voters massively reject strict immigration limits
Business & Money
Pieces of Napoleon's auctioned hair to be put in Geneva luxury watches
National
Activists petition federal government for ban on eating cats and dogs
National
Swiss meat firm faces scandal over alleged false labelling of products
Sport
Federer victory gives Switzerland its first Davis Cup tennis title
Business & Money
Italy's PM upset over Swiss mogul's acquittal in asbestos deaths
Business & Money
University of Zurich study finds 'banker's oath' could spur honesty
National
Swiss National Bank chief calls proposal to boost gold reserves 'fatal'
National
Mudslides kill four people in Ticino and neighbouring Italy
Culture
British X Factor star seeks internet support for Swiss Eurovision place
National
Court overturns ban by backing right for schoolgirl to wear scarf
National
Swiss ranking for English skills worsens among non-Anglo countries
Culture
Swiss model and French TV star Nabilla held for 'attempted murder'
Travel
Switzerland's Zermatt voted best ski resort in the Alps by skiers
Sport
VIDEO: FC Zurich claims crime after 'vicious' tackle hospitalizes player
Tech
Federal government announces new '.swiss' internet domain name
National
Zany emergency: Basel firefighters rescue ass stuck in manhole
Business & Money
American jury clears former UBS top executive of tax fraud
International
Switzerland ranks second to Norway in global 'prosperity' index
National
Financial regulator bans former Coop Bank CEO for three years
International
Switzerland slips in World Economic Forum's gender equality rankings
National
Job candidates unhappy with hiring process in Switzerland
National
Glacier 3000 opens new foot bridge spanning two mountains in Vaud
National
Swiss seek special Unesco heritage listing for yodelling and watchmaking
International
Switzerland regarded as best place in world for expats: global survey
National
Red faces at Migros over Hitler and Mussolini coffee cream pots
National
Quarter of workers in Switzerland 'stressed out': new survey
Travel
Lonely Planet ranks Zermatt among top places to visit in 2015
Features
Eritrean asylum seekers find refuge in Swiss monastery town
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se

2,031
jobs available
The Local Spain is hiring!
The Local is seeking a new editor for our site in Spain to join our growing team of internationally-minded, driven, ambitious and clued-up journalists.
Details and how to apply