One day, probably in 1994, I called up Jeff and we went to see ‘Forrest Gump’ together on the upper East side. I had already seen it but wanted to see it again with him. Repetition is underrated. The film flattens American history and politics into a series of images, creates intersections with the protagonist and provides us with key micro-moments towards a revised understanding of chronology. The structure of the film is actually dependent upon the idea that the personal history of Forrest intersects the recent political and spiritual history of America. Forrest is in Vietnam, Forrest plays ping-pong in China, Forrest becomes an entrepreneur, Forrest meets the President, Forrest becomes the voice of protest, Forrest is anti-segregationist, Forrest gets married, Forrest becomes a single parent, Forrest gets on the cover of Time magazine, Forrest becomes an unwitting self-help guru. He is and becomes history without intention. Of course, this realisation is predicated upon the audience’s knowledge of a timeline which has already happened. A Hollywood confection collapsing all political moments into the personal and unintentional, but nevertheless read by Americans as self-determined and therefore decisive acts. This contradiction in the film is the core of its humour. The meaning is up to us. It always is and that’s the point. We laughed, felt American, and went for cocktails at some Midtown Hotel.
There are a number of connections at play here; notions of persona and intention become twisted into a timeline of another sort. We are all protagonists, hopefully, to different degrees. But what has always struck me about Jeff and why I called him up that night is that Jeff is stylistically self-conscious of his own role in his narrative as it is unfolding. Most people believe in choice. Jeff believes in control to such an amazing degree that it even affects his own story making. So Jeff like Forrest is a protagonist in a timeline, but the difference is that he understands his role and the role of the audience. In short he is not an idiot savant. He’s way too clever for that but he does have a quirky knack for encountering personal and legal woes. Jeff as a child salesman, Jeff moving to New York to see Patti Smith in concert, Jeff as Eighties commodity broker, Jeff and Neo-Geo, Jeff does Banality, Jeff fights copyright legalities, Jeff gets married, Jeff gets divorced and so on. Obviously there’s a lot more between the lines than the simplistic narrative of a Vanity Fair “comeback”. Although for those in the know he never went away, he just wasn’t showing new work. Even so, it could be argued that “Made In Heaven” has had a lasting effect in the Nineties in terms of aesthetics, narrative, and strategies of communication, among the diverse group of artists who followed on from Jeff.
The visual density of his latest show is awesome. Spectacular and overloaded. A rhetorical gesture that is pure objectivism. Time and space are flattened in the moment of looking. Koons use the classic technique of montage to conjure up childhood images of pancakes, syrup, donuts, bologna sandwiches, pastries, ice-cream, peppermint patties, cheerios, corn, and who knows what other unidentifiable food products. Foods that are liquid or in the process of liquification. In the fact that the viewer is the cut out here so we are part of the montage too. It’s obvious in our relation to these things – processed foods in surreal landscapes.Space is revealed as pop-psychological game, but the invitation to interpret is nixed. Two dimensional. Image is a mentalscape. Literally not real. These are after-images of a journey of some kind too. Not to the politics of America post-Vietnam as in “Forrest Gump” or some type of Rosenquist cold war desire machines. Not to the supermarket, but a special effects show that is about vision, thought and ultimately how things don’t have to be of a logical order, but simply about potential. In other words, this is not about simple representation of things but about a high speed vision of packaging.
Packaging the audience, cradling the notion of spectacle and our desire for that fix. Packaging afterall is a narrative too. Cultural and personal. Even if the narrative in question lasts only nano seconds it permeates our existence by the nature of its thingness. Toothpaste, for instance, is not only supremely democratic in its objectness it also has given rise to countless fantasies and the telegenics of the political machine. Clean teeth are truth. We all know that. Koons understands not only the nature of packaging but how these things have an underlying ethical and political dimension. For me this is why Naomi Klein fails to measure up. In her book No Logo she analyses the role and history of recent marketing strategies in relation to youth and lifestyle. What she fails to realise is that these socio-political structures have already created self-conscious economies of their own, inspite of the fact that they have also made brands successful in the process. What I find most interesting, politically, is the appropriation of brands to new ends. Of course, you can always point to those responsible for the brands recognising these acts but they will never truly catch up because they fail to miss a central point, which is that the economy of signs is not a binaristic one – either simply about use value or on the contrary about an image of a life style. Change always has space, method and an agent, and this is something that is not really theorised in Klein’s book.
So when I see all those cereal boxes at Jeff’s house, laid out for the “breakfast of champions” or at his studio for archival inspiration, what is going in here is actually that this packaging adds up to some notions about the future. You can’t begin to even think about the future and its potential without being political. These childhood foods are physically about potential [e.g. Recommended Daily Nutrition] and aesthetically and stylistically about your future potential [e.g. what the fuck are you going to do today?] There’s no way around it Jeff is using the imagery of potential to create reflections of the viewer, as well as his own self. Literallness and trying to represent being between states is the crux.
In “Mountains” a York peppermint patty and friends[ pastry, chocolate and caramelised apple in tow] hover over an idealic beach. Female hair blows in the wind. This is not a peopled landscape. We are both the subject and object here. Notice the lack of faces. In fact it is a picture about a way of seeing things. It implies a certain distance of the viewer or artist, and the desire for its imminent collapse. What I think is interesting here is the refusal to make sense, and the wish to collapse time and space. Time – with childhood tricks,memories and cinematic effects. Space – with the depiction of aeronautic hovering , for instance with the roller coaster in “Bluepoles”; with the vortex in “Grotto”; with women’s feet and ankles in “Niagra”, hanging above a huge scoop of ice-cream, trays of donuts, and a landscape that looks abstract and crystallised, and most of all with the rendering of liquid food, milk and water particularly. I think this work has nothing to do with super-realism. It is not a simple portrayal of the hyperreal. These are after-images of bounty and about techniques of communication. Although there is a certain crossover of effects with advertising – the use of the surreal, the use of nostalgia, the fragmented image and so on, there is a big difference between art being about the subject of advertising and art being about communication. Selling, believe it or not is just the base level. It’s just a starting point.
If space at this point in late post-industrial Capitalism is information, it is completely abstract and yet commodified. It is no longer simply physical in the traditional sense. We are not taking about making the viewer physically interact with the art work in order to create meaning. Ironically, this would be so old fashioned. Instead, Jeff in playing with the generics of imagery is saying that meaning is still up to us, but it is mental. “The work gives them a sense that they really feel they are packaged, like this cherry.” Koons is not simply proposing some land of misplaced food logos and vacation package holidays. This is not the land of Naomi Klein. Here there is an agent, there is a protagonist and there is point of view not shared by multi-national corporations. Even if this point of view is a moment of celebratory loss and the collapse of distance, it is not about brands, except for the Koons brand itself.
“Embrace your past” is clearly personal, political and all about the future. Jeff’s desire to embrace the past through food is at once provincial in an particularly American, and therefore, global way. “Embrace your past “ could be “we are what eat”, “we are what we watch”. But although the details are wonderful and provoke sheer amazement, communication is through the details, not about them. The communication of abstraction. What is great about this series of paintings , “Easyfun – Ethereal”, is that they are ultimately not personal – and anyone who would try to use psychiatry to describe these images, which happen to be paintings, would become Oprah Winfrey at the Guggenheim. “When art gets over the psychological”, it was once uttered to me by a well known writer, “we will have won”. I agree. These paintings are Meta. Beyond specific meaning and psychology, they are archetypes of communication, abstracted and projected back, always using the viewer in the process. Jeff seems to have found his vehicle. Multiplied of course, for maximum effect.
1. Jeff Koons “Easyfun – Ethereal”, Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, October 27, 2000- January 14, 2001
2. The Jeff Koons Handbook, Anthony D’Offay Gallery, 1992
Morris, Sarah. “Like This Cherry.” Texte Zur Kunst 42 (2001): 135-39. Print.