PARIS — This week, as the global art world descends upon Paris for FIAC, dinner table tongues are wagging over the declaration that Jeff Koons’s monumental sculpture “Bouquet of Tulips” (2016) will find its home in the gardens between the Petit Palais and the Place de la Concorde.
The announcement, made last Friday by Christophe Girard, deputy mayor of Paris in charge of culture, has reopened old wounds procured in the Parisian culture war. The already fabricated sculpture is a “gift to Paris” (Koons donated the sculpture’s concept, but wealthy market supports are paying for its fabrication and transport) at the request of Jane Hartley, the US ambassador at the time (2016), representing a bouquet of tulips held high in tribute to the victims of the 2015 and 2016 Paris terror attacks. “Bouquet of Tulips” has been sitting in Germany, where it was made and produced by Noirmontartproductions, the art fabrication house founded by Jérôme and Emmanuelle de Noirmont. After the long wait, it will now be placed (read: plopped down) in the gardens near the Champs-Élysée.
Koons has approved this site after initially rejecting the Parc de la Villette, on the grounds that he wanted it to be in the center of Paris, near to where the 2015 terrorist attacks occurred (though its new destination is not). In this case, the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, where the attacks began, would have been a very suitable location, despite my own aesthetic hesitations about “Bouquet of Tulips.” But do others approve?
I asked Fred Dewilde, a survivor of the terror attacks and creator of La morsure, his reflections on coping with the ISIL attack in Nice; and Mon Bataclan: Vivre encore (My Bataclan: Living Again), an intensely-drawn booklet on his experience at the 2015 Bataclan attack. He explained to me his opposition to the Koons project (in French, which I translated here):
Without even mentioning the physical and mental injuries that should be obvious to anyone, being a victim of a terrorist attack is not an easy thing mentally and socially. There are many difficulties in regaining a sense of normality after experiencing such an incredible horror. It is an additional emotional burden to have to juggle what images other project onto you.
In the case of Jeff Koons, if one likes or not the aesthetics of “Bouquet of Tulips,” that is not the question for me. The question is: why make a monument for the victims of terrorism without asking those that were victimized what they think? In the Koons case, no parents of the dead victims, nor direct living victims, were consulted.
So I believe that we all must fight against the presumed good intentions of Koons and his supporters as the happy sculpture appropriates our recovery and re-victimizes us.
Whether one is for or against the now scheduled placement of “Bouquet of Tulips” in the garden of the Petit Palais, again, for me is not the question. The question is: Has anyone consulted us victims on it? Has anyone asked us how we see things? No! Nobody has asked the victims or their families about “Bouquet of Tulips” or any of this! And I must say that to enter into this cultural fight, after all we have gone through, is particularly painful. It makes us feel like pleasant puppets who “represent” the pain of France, when we are actually individuals in actual pain.
To that, I now must add my own semiotic and aesthetic objections.
Koons previously prided himself in his work’s polite innocence: its omission of significant content. In that respect, “Bouquet of Tulips” is very different, as it symbolizes a communicative intent (a political message) that can boil down to this: There are 11 slightly wilting tulips (that can be easily seen, in Koons’s case, as a symbol of the tulip mania financial bubble crash) in a bouquet, which usually contains 12. The missing flower symbolizes the killed people in the attacks (as in “missing man formation” military displays.)
To me, that means that the 11 wilting, fragile, visible tulips stand in for the survivors (who actually need to be strong on their own), and all living Parisians. Worse, they are being gripped by a powerful white hand, which represents the bequeathing United States. Thus, it is fair to say that “Bouquet of Tulips” symbolizes American White power, by depicting the holding hand (of The United States) as uniformly white, which of course, the USA is not.
Koons is a remote neo-conceptual colleague of mine from the same downtown Manhattan era. After his 2008 solo exhibition at the Château de Versailles, where he was described as sullying sacred aspects of French heritage and identity, looms large as a major symptom of the hype, hubris, and money that have swamped the global art scene. Like “Large Vase of Flowers” (1991), “Bouquet of Tulips” (2016) is just a straining example of his signature brain-dead brand aesthetic of vacuous, hyper-commodified financial empowerment. It assumes the mainstream fundamental dynamic of public culture: the battle for your eyeballs in naked commercial terms. This is what makes his art the most recognizable and expensive in the world — work that, to me, is also the symbol of the flaccid degeneration of art made for the art market.
Moreover, Koons’s “Bouquet of Tulips” reinforces the view that America is rich and dumb and fun and happy and innocent, like Disneyland, without any camp ironic perspective. It also proves illusionary the Baudrillardian ideal of subversive conformity popular in the 1980s. With “Bouquet of Tulips,” there is nothing indicative of social relationships outside of passive pop consumption. It is just another example of accustomed American idiocy where unimpassioned, immediate platitudes of the corporate logo stand in for art.
There is nothing intricate or subtle to engage with here. As a consequence, it is not a sculpture that needs to be interacted with imaginatively. Based on the renderings, “Bouquet of Tulips” is never more effective than discursive; never more enigmatic than dogmatic. It is like the man himself, with his apparent and insistent smiling cheeriness, which recalls to me the Scientologized Howdy Doody who stood apart and watched when I threw a wild party in the late 1970s.
“Bouquet of Tulips” is an example of dreadful anti-elite elitism. It is maudlin, sentimental, gaudy, aggressively anti-intellectual, and shuns aesthetic complexity. Consequently, it is fodder for all that thwarts, represses, starves, withers, deadens, limits, and narrows the complex souls of Parisians.
In the discourse around (and by) Koons, a heroic fight against art-as-elite-class snobbery is often heard. After examining the rendering of “Bouquet of Tulips,” it is apparent to me that this is a shiny red herring used to justify the dumbing-down of art, bending art toward the low hanging fruit of reductive simplification. “Bouquet of Tulips” is not as “optimistic” as advertised; it offers no sense of moreness, nor eloquence, mystery, poetry, or delicacy. It only inscribes American elite power-wealth as innocent (which it is not). What is at stake with the American capitalist propaganda of Koons’s “Bouquet of Tulips” is the recognition of art as a means of seeing through Orwellian falseness, through the clichéd, through the indifferent, through the tendentiousness of Trumped-up, hyped-up, falsified life and death.
It limits and demeans us Parisians by pandering to us as passive recipients. Its 34-foot-high scale, designed to dominate, guarantees that. In fact, it is the enormous scale that represents best what is wrong with “Bouquet of Tulips” — that is hubris. With a more intimate, human-scaled sculpture, as with the wonderful Louise Bourgeois’s “The Welcoming Hands” (1996) (hand sculptures in the Jardin des Tuileries), I would have fewer objections.
Though the cost (around $4.3 million) is being paid for by rich private Koons supporters from America and France, this ugly whopper is destined to be designated as a Parisian historical monument. Thus, its protection and maintenance for perpetuity are assumed by the City of Paris and the French State. Conservation of public historical monuments is something these administrations have recently been failing to do, particularly in the cemetery Montparnasse with the great Constantin Brâncuși’s masterful sculpture “Le Baiser (The Kiss)” (1909) — an already classified national monument that has of late been boxed-up in a permeant-looking wooden enclosure, removing it from public view where it has topped the tomb of Tatiana Rachewskaïa since 1910.
So, just as we saw with Judge Brett Kavanaugh, American White power does what it always does. It powers through diverse and outspoken opposition to domination. But I wonder how these fake flowers will grow on Parisians after the truck and crane arrive to drop “Bouquet of Tulips” off. Apparently, we are expected to wilt under it. But will we?