In this retrospective exhibition of American artist Jeff Koons, the Pompidou Centre has provided viewers with an illuminating chronology on the evolution of one of contemporary art’s most controversial figures. Koons is best known for his reproductions of ordinary shopping-mall items – like blow-up dolls and balloon animals – into metallic and glossy stainless steel objects. His work has fiercely divided many in the art world who argue that Koons offers a wonderfully ironic comment on the normative aesthetic value of art, while others condemn the pieces as kitschy self-merchandising for the Koons brand.
The Pompidou Centre’s exhibition was well curated and gave clear continuities in the evolution of Koons’ work. Jeff Koons explored his early “found objects” pieces (such as blow-up dolls or vacuum cleaners) with some rare pieces on display, before moving onto his more recent Antiquities series where Koons has exploited the classical aesthetics of Greek-style statues and poses them with garish blue metallic balls.
However, one of the great pleasures of the exhibition was one perhaps derived more from the camera phone than from the artwork itself. In a series of slick sheeny sheets of metal that had an alluring plastic glow and were hung on one of the walls, viewers were invited to see themselves in the “mirror” cut outs. When this critic attended, there was a long line of viewers who each congregated around in groups to take photos of themselves adorning the central focus of Koons’ metallic sheet. This type of interactivity can often be reductive but in this instance worked wonders given that the exhibition was similarly preoccupied with the material and cultural tendencies of today’s age.
More specifically, Koons’ collection of “found” vacuum cleaners – most of which dated from the 1970s – was a stimulating feature and one appropriately prioritised in the exhibition. As the surrealist advertising iconography of Koons wrapped the white walls of the exhibition space, viewers were encouraged to migrate their focus to the central glass towers that housed this dated domestic equipment. The comment made by the vacuums seemed to be on not only the aesthetic and technological changes of household goods and the stylistic shifts from decade to decade, but the preservation around dated technologies and appliances. The aforementioned vacuum cleaners gleaned with a lustrous newness like the metallic animals Koons has laboured over more recently.
While many gawked at the Antiquity section of the exhibition since it showed Koons more recent projects – which briefly involved Lady Gaga for her much derided 2013 record Artpop – it was the early works that by far strengthened the exhibition’s emphasis on the politics of Koons’ work in our increasingly disposable and material-laden age. The blow-up toys – grinning stupidly at viewers as they shuffled by – underscored the ephemerality that adorns most of our conspicuous spending and indeed our pleasure culture. Koons has exploited the concept of balloons for a great deal of his oeuvre, demonstrating how the transiency of not only the balloon as object but also the emotion derived from a balloon’s pleasure, can subvert the camp or kitsch quality of them.
Jeff Koons, until 27 April 2015, Pompidou Centre, Paris, France.
1. Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog, courtesy of the Pompidou Centre.