Jeff Koons Versailles

The Palace of Versailles, Versailles Parterre of l’Orangerie and the Grand Apartments of the Kings and Queens
10 September – 14 December 2008

One might be inclined to suspect that the vociferous critics of this project—including an obscure organisation calling itself The Society of French Authors and several patriotic columnists—were on Jeff Koons’s payroll. They created the element of ‘outrage’ essential to complete the sense of Koons’s work: outrage against taste, against the integrity of French culture, even against the proud heritage of Marie Antoinette! Allegations of corruption also surrounded the exhibition, since the director of Versailles’ public projects is a close associate of Koons’s chief collector who owns many of the works exhibited here, most notably the rarely seen huge floral outdoor sculpture Split Rocker (2000). Yet despite the media circus, there is nothing very controversial about this exhibition. Curiously, most of the works—no new pieces, rather a selection from the 1980s on—look decidedly at home in this Baroque palace rather than creating any sense of décalage (radical disjuncture) as proposed by French critic Jean Clair.

The consonance is at both the formal and thematic registers: overblown and over decorated, representing wealth, privilege, power, not to mention hedonism, banality and frivolity, all accompanied by an emphatic sense of being out of touch with the everyday realties of its audience. This is not to damn the exhibition: in fact, Koons’s work has rarely exuded more meaning than here. It is doubling rather than countering the Rococo effect—by placing Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988) in the Salon de Venus or Balloon Dog (Magenta) (1994-2000) in the Salon d’Hercule, for example—that packs the punch. For one, the exhibition engenders a sense of devil-may-care fun and silliness totally in keeping with the spirit of the last courts of the French monarchy before the bloody end. But it also foregrounds in an almost visceral manner many pertinent questions: parallels between contemporary consumerism and the aristocracy’s fatally prodigal ethos; the illusory comfort of glamour, glitz and celebrity; the power stakes inherent in taste-making, given the leaders of fashion back then commissioned a décor in decidedly bad taste (at least to a modernist eye!).

In another vein, the show is a powerful reminder of the processes behind museum display and the construction of the tourist experience. In this instance, the museum’s attempt to reinvigorate the public’s viewing of a historical collection by inviting a contemporary artist’s response has worked exceptionally well, adding meaning both to the artist’s work and to the permanent display: ultimately the strength of the exhibition is in contextualizing Koons’s work rather than in the pieces themselves. For some visitors, the contemporary works were clearly an unwelcome distraction from the ‘purity’ of picture-postcard Versailles—itself a reaction that prompts some self-reflection—but for others the ‘distraction’ created additional interest, heightening the act of looking. Moreover, the perfect, gleaming surfaces of Koons’s cast metal tumescent balloons and rabbits, of his technicoloured ceramics and fluoro-lit vitrines, suffuse everything in a hyperreal light, lifting the tenor of certain rooms which on close inspection reveal the tattiness of age. Koons suggests that the aesthetic perfection of his works serves to give the viewer ‘a sense of economic security’. Ironically, then (as befitting Koons’s signature register), at one level the tacky and banal provided a touch of class.

Given the key role of context, the rooms chosen for individual works have great bearing. Many sculptures, such as the marble bust Self-Portrait (1991) in the Salon d’Apollon or the polychrome wood Large Vase of Flowers (1991) in the Queen’s bedroom, almost disappear into the existing décor, reaffirming the rooms’ original semiotics of self-aggrandizement and ‘beauty’. Others, while still looking at home, evoke more complex narratives, such as the sexually hapless Pink Panther (1988) clutching a topless porn queen in the Salon de la Paix, or New Hoover Convertibles (1981-1987) in the Antichambre du Grand Couvert, part of the Queen’s Grand Apartment where the royal family dined in public and which is hung with portraits of Marie Antoinette and her children. This conflation of domestic labour and femininity—even one defined by its complete ignorance of domestic drudgery—begs interesting questions about the representation of women in art (if not about the artist’s gender politics!).

While I have never been a fan of Koons’s work—I find banality and exploitation difficult to recuperate—the interplay between this quintessentially late capitalist artist and the remnants of aristocratic excess was thoroughly enjoyable, sparking a variety of stimulating discourses and creating a rich (in the artery-clogging sense) visual feast.