Art

The Hollow Symbolism of Jeff Koons’s Blow-Up Ballerina

The artist’s 45-foot-tall inflatable sculpture at Rockefeller Center aggrandizes an outmoded model of femininity.

Jeff Koons, "Seated Ballerina" (2017) (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)
Jeff Koons, “Seated Ballerina” (2017) (all paintings by the author for Hyperallergic)

I went to Rockefeller Center on an unexpectedly blustery spring weekend morning to see Jeff Koons’s “Seated Ballerina,” a 45-foot-tall inflated ballerina, secured by ropes to a pedestal, her left arm swaying ever so slightly in the wind. The piece is a public art project co-presented by the Art Production Fund and skincare product store Kiehl’s Since 1851, in partnership with developer Tishman Speyer, and is Koons’s third installation for Rockefeller Center (following “Puppy” in 2000, and “Split-Rocker” in 2014). On the morning I visited, the weather forecast did not deter the tourists, who swarmed around the railings on the east side of the square, where you have a frontal view of the ballerina, her placid expression oblivious to the social media bonanza around her.

Jeff Koons, "Seated Ballerina" (2017)
Jeff Koons, “Seated Ballerina” (2017)
Jeff Koons, "Seated Ballerina" (2017)
Jeff Koons, “Seated Ballerina” (2017)

The “Seated Ballerina” is a motif Koons has explored before as part of his Antiquity series. He has created two versions of the piece: one in hand-painted wood as an edition of 50, and another seven-feet-tall and made from mirror-polished stainless steel. A hand-painted wood ballerina went on auction at Phillips New York, just five days after the inflated ballerina was installed, and sold for $81,250, slightly above the estimate price.

Koons based his ballerina on a real porcelain ballerina figurine created by Soviet artist Oksana Zhnikrup. “‘Seated Ballerina’ is like a Venus. You could be looking at a Venus of Willendorf or some of the oldest Venuses,” he said in a statement. “It is really about beauty and even a sense of contemplation, a sense of ease.” Conflating the image of a prepubescent girl with Venus, the Roman goddess of desire, sex, and fertility, does not bring me a sense of ease. Nevertheless, if you like the ballerina but find the prices of the Koons versions over-inflated, you can find versions of the original figurine on eBay for just $99.

Jeff Koons merhandise
Jeff Koons merchandise

On my way to Rockefeller Center, I passed the Louis Vuitton vitrines on Fifth Avenue, where handbags designed in partnership with Koons are prominently displayed, bearing prints of paintings by great masters (including Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and van Gogh’s “Wheat Field with Cypresses”) with the artists’ names emblazoned in gold or silver lettering (prices range up to $4,000). If you consider that each of the original paintings is valued at millions of dollars, the purse version is a steal, but then why not just order a hand-painted replica from a Chinese artist for a few hundred dollars? In the superficial worlds of fashion and art, perceived value is often determined by the name — LV and JK, for instance — rather than the piece itself. Another Koons handbag features Fragonard’s provocative 1770 painting “Girl with a Dog,” which shows a partly nude young woman playing with a fluffy dog in bed — an apt choice for Koons as it touches on themes of innocence and sensuality that are prevalent in his work. Continuing my walk down Fifth Avenue, I passed Trump Tower, unmistakable with its golden entrance and mass of tourists vying to take their picture in front of the President’s name, also emblazoned in gold letters.

"Seated Ballerina" merchandise at Kiehl's
“Seated Ballerina” merchandise at Kiehl’s

At Saks Fifth Avenue, just across from Rockefeller Center, you can go to Kiehl’s and get yourself a Koons limited edition collectible “Seated Ballerina” tin, free with any purchase from the Kiehl’s Midnight Recovery Collection (prices range from $32 to $122), with 100% of the profits going to the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (ICMEC). The “Seated Ballerina” installation is meant to raise awareness for National Missing Children’s Month, and to draw attention to ICMEC, a global nonprofit organization that includes Koons as a member of its board of directors. He became involved in ICMEC after his ex-wife, Ilona Staller, absconded to Italy with their son Ludwig following their divorce. (Staller appears in Koons’s most notorious series, Made in Heaven, which depicts himself and Staller, a porn star turned Italian parliamentarian better known as La Cicciolina, enjoying explicit erotic pleasure among flowers and butterflies.) Koons’s explicit Made in Heaven series stands in stark contrast to the wholesome inflatable at Rockefeller Center. However, the ballerina depicted on the Kiehl’s metal tin appears sexier and sassier than the modest and contemplative 45-foot version across the way.

Jeff Koons, "Seated Ballerina" (2017)
Jeff Koons, “Seated Ballerina” (2017)

But I wonder, what does the image of this Russian ballerina say to young girls? And what social or cultural relevance does it have? “I hope the installation of ‘Seated Ballerina’ at Rockefeller Center offers a sense of affirmation and excitement to the viewer to reach their potential,” Koons said in a statement. “The aspect of reflectivity emulates life’s energy; it’s about contemplation and what it means to be a human being. It’s a very hopeful piece.” This explanation leaves me even more uncertain than before. If shiny surfaces really were conducive to contemplation, then Midtown Manhattan, with its concentration of glass skyscrapers, would be a meditation mecca.

During my visit to Rockefeller Center, I saw a woman tell her baby girl as they posed for a picture, “Act like a ballerina, sweetie.” The ballerina Koons depicts has rosy cheeks, pink lips, and long blond hair in a high pony tail; she wears a blue tutu to match the color of her eyes. In 2017, to present a ballerina — no less a blond blue-eyed version of one — as the ultimate standard of beauty or even a ‘hopeful’ image for young children to aspire to, is disappointingly outmoded. I don’t have anything against ballerinas — on the contrary, I regularly frequent the ballet, and in contemporary ballets the dancers rarely wear fluffy tutus (this past season, at the New York City Ballet, they wore jeans and sneakers). Koons’s ballerina promotes a kind of stereotypical model of femininity that we should be moving past.

On my subway ride home, I noticed a little girl of color carrying two dolls, almost matching her in height, but with blond hair, princess dresses, and glinting blue eyes. We should strive for a world where young girls and boys can grow up aspiring to be whatever they choose, regardless of what the images around us might project — because really, they’re just full of hot air.

Jeff Koons: Seated Ballerina is on view at Rockefeller Center (Fifth Avenue at 50th Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through June 2.

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