Public Art

Too Little in Koons Tulips

The American artist Jeff Koons has offered a monumental sculpture to the city of Paris in honor of the victims of the 2015 terror attack at the Bataclan concert hall.  This made the news not because of his largesse, but because a number of artists and other cultural observers have made it known that they believe the sculpture should not be installed, that a more appropriate process of memorialization should be followed.  It’s easy to attack Koons for being too commercialized, both re: the imagery of his art and his capitalist capitalization on the gallery system, but I want to talk about a different question—is Bouquet of Tulips a good memorial?

Jeff Koons. Monumental sculpture offered by donation to the City of Paris in memory of the attacks of 2015 - 2016.   Paris, Place de Tokyo - installation in 2018.  Image via  Noirmontartproduction .

Jeff Koons. Monumental sculpture offered by donation to the City of Paris in memory of the attacks of 2015 - 2016.   Paris, Place de Tokyo - installation in 2018.  Image via Noirmontartproduction.

Early critics pointed out that the proposed location is near some of Paris’s busy modern art sites, but that it isn’t near the Bataclan.  I noticed immediately that Bouquet of Tulips would be near the Flame of Liberty, a similarly figurative, industrial public art object. Though originally installed in 1989 as a pendant to the State of Liberty’s flame and the spirit of global friendship, in 1997, it became a memorial to Princess Diana after her sudden death when her car crashed in a nearby tunnel.  There is a visual similarity to the two works, but the Flame of Liberty indicates how location (and, perhaps, a dose of candle-based imagery from an Elton John song) can often be the most important factor in sanctifying a memorial.

Flame of Liberty  - my photo, 2011.

Flame of Liberty - my photo, 2011.

The larger consideration in evaluating a proposal for a memorial is whether or not that sculpture, or other installation, can evoke the emotional impact of the tragedy it represents.  Can that memorial call its viewers immediately to understand that the event in question is significant and substantive in the popular memory of the nation?  Do the people who most need the memorial—those impacted whether directly or indirectly—see their feelings and experiences reflected in the imagery and message that the memorial presents?  As Kirk Savage notes in his book about the installation of memorials after the Civil War, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (1997), the relationship between an audience and a memorial is not a one-way street. Though viewers, and mourners, project their experiences on to the memorial, the physical presence of the sculpture serves powerfully to shape both the rituals involved in memorializing the tragedy in question but also to establish how the tragedy is remembered in the future.  If Parisians see Bouquet of Tulips as a superficial gesture from an outsider, it cannot serve its purpose because it fails to provide the oneness and catharsis they need.

A number of articles that I read did fixate on this idea of Koons being an outsider, an American—the artists, politicians, and other cultural figures who signed an open letter denouncing Bouquet of Tulips suggested that a competition be put in place for a memorial so that French artists may also suggest ways of remembering their countrymen. Yet competitions may equally exclude the views of “the people,” and debates have circulated for many, many years about whether or not art can display the inherent traits of the nation that produces it.  (See: art historian Michael Fried’s discussion of “Frenchness” in Manet, or the entire history of American art history.)  It's not only the artist's American-ness that poses a problem.  Koons and his representatives responded by pointing to the visual similarities between Lady Liberty’s torch and the flop of tulips and also twinning the intention of Bouquet of Tulips with the Statue of Liberty’s representation of the so-called spirit of friendship between France and the United States.  The canned nature of that rationale, proposing friendship as a balm, strikes me as both too obvious and too indicative of exactly how right the letter’s signatories are.

Of course, all through the nineteenth century, as France cycled through bloody war after bloody rebellion, the government and other organizing bodies solved the problem of allowing people to feel represented in their memorials and monuments by selling subscriptions.  By this I mean that, if I were a well-enough-to-do French person of that era, I might be able to buy a share in a monument project so that my very dollars assisted in its completion and publicly displayed my allegiance to the message.  Kirk Savage notes: “What gave monuments their peculiar appeal in an era of rising nationalism was their claim to speak for ‘the people.’” Though the “era of rising nationalism” is a concept of the long nineteenth century, we live in an era of confusing national allegiances and an era where people must remain attentive to the attempts of certain groups of people to speak for others.  The Bouquet of Tulips, even if Koons is sincere in his admiration of Paris and its people, is the vision of one man, and the suspicion that Bouquet of Tulips would be reproduced for gallery displays and sold causes a distillation of respect for his intent.  The open letter calls this “product placement” that would diminish the prominence of modern and contemporary French artists celebrated in the nearby museums.  They are right, but that may still not be the greatest sin of this project.

So... is Bouquet of Tulips a good memorial?  The answer is no.  It could be an excellent sculpture, one that seems lovelier than many works by Koons, but its factory-produced exterior feels hard and cold in even the mock-ups.  Arguments against its construction and installation could begin and end there without ever bringing in the practical questions about public financing or the danger of placing a 35-ton sculpture over exhibit galleries, two points that the open letter does raise.  Without a substantial emotional connection to the place where the Bataclan attack occurred or the people who were most deeply affected by it, a statue is simply a statue.  It may be appropriate for a modern art museum to have a statue by an artist like Jeff Koons in front of it, but that sculpture cannot be a proper memorial in a city that needs more than “optimism, rebirth, and the vitality of nature” to process the effects of a tragic event.