The traditionalists are fuming, but "Jeff Koons Versailles" – which sees Koons's works being exhibited in the château's salons – has proved a huge success. We love it.
Despite the controversy, "Jeff Koons Versailles" shows that, far from being a vestige of the past, Versailles is a lively place connected to the 21st century. Koons's exhibition adds a contemporary spirit, without minimizing the château's splendor.
Jeff Koons has been nicknamed the King of Kitsch; the Château de Versailles is the most prestigious palace in France. In a daring and controversial move, for the next three months, Koons's spectacular sculptures are being showcased in the baroque and rococo salons.
The exhibition has ruffled traditionalists' feathers but delighted many visitors. A little-known group called the National Union of Writers of France wrote a letter of opposition to French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, arguing that contemporary art had no place in a "perfectly balanced" building like the Château de Versailles and protested outside the château on the inaugural day. But according to Jean-Jacques Aillagon, president of Versailles and former culture minister, some 10,000 people visited the château last weekend, double the average number, leading him to call the show "an immense success." As he says, "I state with pleasure that if, before the beginning of the exhibition, certain resistance had been expressed, it has been smoothed out and given way to the pleasure of seeing this exhibition."
Another polemical point is that six of the artworks belong to François Pinault, the Pinault-Printemps-La Redoute magnate and owner of Palazzo Grassi in Venice and Christie's auction house, prompting some critics to speculate that the prestigious exhibition will further boost the value of his pieces.
However, Koons, a former Wall Street trader, is already one of the most expensive artists working today. His red stainless steel "Hanging Heart" sold at Sotheby's last year for $23.6 million, setting a world record for a living artist.
The exhibition is estimated to have cost €1.9 million and has been curated by Laurent Lebon from the Centre Pompidou. "You can easily imagine La Cicciolina [Koons's ex-wife, a former porn star turned politician] in Louis XIV's bed," quips Lebon, who refutes any suggestion of Koons's work looking disruptive. "I think Koons will appear as ultra-classical, notably due to his obsessive relationship to symmetry. It's Versailles that will look like a folly."
Seeing Koons's shiny works in the context of Versailles – where one work is being presented in each room of the salons – certainly lends a new reading. His blue "Hanging Heart," from the same edition as his red heart, towers over a staircase. His midnight blue "Moon" reflects the visitors at the far end of the Hall of Mirrors, where the Treaty of Versailles to end World War I was signed. His red aluminum "Lobster" is suspended in the salon of Mars; his "Self-Portrait" is postured on a high plinth in the salon of Apollo and former King's chamber; a bouquet of flowers is in the Queen's bedchamber; and his glossy, silvery "Louis XIV" statue sits beneath a portrait of Marie-Antoinette. Koons's best-known work, "Rabbit," is also included, as is his gold-and-white statue "Michael Jackson and Bubbles." In the gardens of the Orangerie is "Split Rocker," a majestic 12-meter-high, site-specific installation. Costing €80,000 to install, it is composed of fresh flowers like geraniums and pansies and is so-named because one half of the sculptural face resembles a lamb and the other half resembles a monkey.
"Jeff Koons Versailles" offers a unique experience to view Koons's works in the magnificence of Versailles, creating a temporary conversation between contemporary art and the château's décor. We salute Aillagon for making the brave decision to put on the show. Go to Versailles and discover it for yourself.
Luxuryculture.com spoke to Jeff Koons, 53, about the exhibition.
How do you feel about exhibiting your work at Versailles?
It is really such an honor to have my work in the salons and the gardens at Versailles. I really have to pinch myself. I've been involved in wonderful exhibitions and I've seen my work in different contexts. But this is very special because it feels so profound and it feels so right. What's interesting about art and its value is how it connects us to human history, and this is the value of art that I share with my family. I sit here as an American and have this opportunity to show in Versailles. I think this speaks clearly about the openness and engagement that France has with international culture. When I started to realize what the potential of art there could be, it came through French culture, through looking at Manet and starting to learn how artworks can have different layers of meaning.
How did you approach the exhibition?
When I first came to Versailles, I experienced the galleries and thought about what would be appropriate in different rooms. For a number of my works, I thought, "This might be what Louis XIV would have liked to see when he was getting up in the morning." I started spending time here, and at one point I was here for three weeks. During that time I really learnt about the generosity, aesthetics and the aspect of giving up control, and just how profound Versailles is, and the community around it. When I first visited I thought it was an isolated palace but it's a very vibrant city.
How do you hope visitors will experience the exhibition?
I hope that the viewer can understand the dialogue about how art can empower and how there is a sense of acceptance. This type of dialogue about empowerment, what more appropriate place could you find than these salons?
Some people have been protesting against your exhibition, saying that it's a scandal to be having it in the Château de Versailles. How would you reply to them?
Whenever I make anything as an artist, I'm always thinking about the viewer and of the possibilities of showing respect to the viewer. I always try to be generous and honest. So it would never be my intention to be involved in a dialogue that would be disrespectful, even if it's to one person. The work is involved in potential. I have complete respect for Versailles and for each individual coming to Versailles. And I hope that the dialogue that happens to be an interaction with the artwork is something that occurs inside the viewer. If there's any art to be found in my work, it's in its ability to direct its attention to the viewer that it's about them and about their potential. And I know that Versailles already has that.
What are your primary concerns when you're making a work of art?
It starts with the acceptance of the self and then there's a transcendance to the acceptance of others. It's about becoming connected with art and reaching an understanding about what the power of art could be. I always wanted to participate. And that's really what I learned in a way the power of art is: it's to be involved in a dialogue that leads you to acceptance of the world around you. I always find that everything is a metaphor for that; working with ready-made objects is really just a metaphor for the acceptance of other people.
Your 'Self-Portrait' in the salons of Apollo is on a plinth conceived in the same style as other sculptures in the salons and interacts with the portraits of Louis XIV and Louis XV. Was your idea to play with the notion of ancestry?
I put it on a replica of a plinth in another of the salons so that in a contemporary time it would have the same type of monumental quality. It didn't have to do with my own ego but with playfulness and monumentality.
You have two 'Balloon' pieces in the show: 'Balloon Dog' and 'Balloon Flower'. What do balloons symbolize for you?
Balloons are really a metaphor for us; we take a breath and we inhale and it's really a metaphor for life, but then when we exhale and we kind of have our last breath and leave. A deflated balloon is a symbol of death. So to have a balloon inflated and kept there in a permanent position is a symbol for optimism and for the continuality of life.
What is your relationship to the aesthetics of the decorative arts at Versailles?
My father was a decorator as I grew up I learned about aesthetics through my father, and through textures and colours. I'm very pleased to say that in my home I have a Fragonard that comes from Louis XV. He had 15 different Fragonards that were all rendered with animals, and I have one with a woman and two puppies in her arms. But I've always loved the sensuality, the embrace, that the artists Boucher and Fragonard represent.
What do you think of the baroque and the rococo?
I've always loved the baroque and the rococo because those types of art seem to balance different polarities. There's an acceptance of the symmetrical with the asymmetrical and there's a dialogue, a belief in the continuation of life through nature, through the biological. But then there's also this very ephemeral and very spiritual aspect of time, of the continuation of life.
How do you respond to people who call your work kitsch?
I always mention that it's a misunderstanding that my work is involved with kitsch. I've been involved with images that I think reflect sometimes personal and sometimes communal cultural histories. But the work is about acceptance and about not making that judgement. And actually, people who use the word kitsch, I think it shows more of their side of discriminating against things. That's the type of viewer I'm looking for to hopefully help this discourse of acceptance.
Some critics have written about how an aspect of your work is about glorifying everyday objects. Do you agree with this?
I've never really been involved in glorifying objects; I've been involved with human desire. And a sense of having one's needs met always changes. It goes from one time in history making your own kiln and an agrarian culture of having your own food in a certain way. It has more to do with desire and about a sense of the internal and external.
Would you consider having an auction of your work, like Damien Hirst is doing at Sotheby's?
I make so few works that it's not a situation for myself. I think if I had more works it would be more suited to myself. I think it's great what Damien's doing. But it's not something for me. But the realm of art is very complex. Galleries are very involved in dealing with the whole community and letting them know what works are available. But I think it's very exciting and tremendous exposure.
The art market has grown so much and has become so large, and there are so many people involved with art and who like to partake in art. Times have changed a bit but there's also a sense of provenance and how things are distributed. You can't control that and it's linked to economic powers. It's interesting to see how the economics are changing.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a few possibilities with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for a public sculpture that I've been working on for several years and it may be exhibited there. It'll be a work that I think will be quite sensational, profound and engaging. The piece is called 'Train' and it consists of a 160-feet-tall train and hanging from it is a 1943 steam engine that starts up and performs. It starts off chung, chung, chung, and goes full speed and it has an orgasmic woo-woo-woo-woo and then it goes back down the slope. I think it connects people with their own mortality. It's something that I've very much enjoyed working on.
Definition of luxury:
Something which gives a greater interest in life and that facilitates personal expansion or interest in life. Luxury is something that you hold dear; it's not necessarily based around the economic value of an object. Something that you hold dear is a luxury.
'Jeff Koons Versailles' is at the Château de Versailles from September 10 until December 14, 2008. For more information: www.jeffkoonsversailles.com