Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Wrong art, wrong location, say critics.
At first, it might have sounded too good to be true. In November 2016, American artist Jeff Koons offered the city of Paris a huge new piece of public art that would cost the city nothing.
Koons’s 40-foot high Bouquet of Tulips would sit outside two of the city’s most important art spaces, the Museum of Modern Art and the Palais de Tokyo, and function as a defiantly colorful monument to the 130 victims of the November 2015 attacks. Its construction would be funded by private donors.
A work from one of America’s best known living artists, it would, according to Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, “bear witness to the irrevocable attachment between our capital and the United States.” Even if the sculpture’s portrayal of a vast fist grasping a bunch of flowers was not to everyone’s taste (what is?), this all sounded promising. More than two years down the line, there’s nonetheless a major problem with Koons’s gift. Not many people really seem to want it. In fact, some hate it.
Just how much it is loathed was made clear by an open letter Monday to newspaper Libération, signed by 25 major French cultural figures, including filmmaker Oliver Assayas, former Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterand, and artist Christian Boltanski. The letter didn’t mince words. Koons, it says, is “an emblem of industrial art,” his studio and the art-dealers who sell his work “multinationals of hyper-luxury,” his proposed gift “opportunistic, even cynical.” So what exactly is the objection?
The idea of an artwork officially touted as celebrating mutual love between Paris and America is a tough sell now while the United States’s international reputation is at its lowest point in generations. Sharpening this disaffection is the choice to locate the work of an American artist whose detractors damn him as a corporate creator outside the Palais de Tokyo, an institution intended to promote emerging artists and French art.
There may nonetheless be some cultural conservatism in the backlash. It specifically protests the effect on the sculpture’s proposed site near the Seine embankment and suggests some views of the Eiffel Tower would be obstructed by the towering work. A broad, stone-built Parisian avenue isn’t the most obvious location for a shiny sculpture that looks like a handful of elephantine marshmallow sticks. But if Paris can’t stand such an insertion in front of a museum dedicated to the contemporary frontier of art, where can it?
It’s managed such striking juxtapositions before—albeit not without controversy—with projects such as I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid, and the suggestively shaped temporary “Christmas tree” artist Paul McCarthy designed for Place Vendôme. As for obstructing views of the Eiffel Tower, the avenue side of the two museums where the artwork would be placed has never been the best spot in the area to enjoy them.
The location itself smacks less of commemoration than of product placement. It might be advantageous for Koons to have a major work of public art installed outside two of Paris’s most respected art institutions, but the twin museums have no obvious connection with the November 2015 attacks, which took place some distance away on central Paris’s eastern edge. Tying the gift to such a prominent art world location, the Libération letter implies, reflects an artist attaching an act of self-promotion to a tragic event.
The very nature of Koons’s work makes mounting a defense against the implied charge somewhat harder. Koons’s reputation remains as the master of high-gloss, fine art kitsch, equally famous for a balloon dog recreated in dazzling stainless steel and a statuette of Michael Jackson and his favorite chimp rendered in gilded porcelain. This is art that reflects back the viewer’s own figure as if in a funhouse mirror. It’s art that takes ephemeral, mass-produced objects and recreates in them with costly materials on a grand scale, with vast price tags to match.
You could make a pretty sound argument defending the seriousness and profundity of this approach. You could argue that the chosen work’s bright, cheerful colors and playful appearance could obliquely evoke the urban pleasures the November 2015 victims were engaged in before the attack as they drank in cafés, ate in restaurants, or enjoyed a rock show. Still, someone who is widely seen as a master of ironic surface gloss—and wider perceptions matter when it comes to memorials—might not be a first choice to commemorate a tragic event that is still recent and deeply felt. Not everyone in Paris necessarily feels as passionately as the Libération letter’s signatories, but it looks increasingly likely that the project will end up being put on hold.