PARIS — It was a gray and damp Friday afternoon last week in the city of lights, and a cold wind lashed at visitors of the Champs-Élysées and the palatial avenues around. But the punishing weather did not deter Parisians and tourists from flocking to the gardens of the Petit Palais to behold Jeff Koons’s disputed gift to the city, the gargantuan “Bouquet of Tulips” (2016-2019).
Koons’s towering sculpture was unveiled last month after years of delay, a change of location, and widespread criticism. Koons first announced the gift in 2016 as a tribute to French citizens following the 2015 terror attacks in Paris that killed 130 people. It was presented as a symbol for Franco-American solidarity, much in the spirit of France’s historic gift to the United States, the Statue of Liberty. But instead of a torch, a giant hand reaching out from the ground clutches a bundle of 11 colorful, balloon-like tulips.
In 2018, a group of leading French cultural figures published a searing open letter against the initiative in the daily newspaper Libération, calling it “opportunistic” and “cynical.” The group criticized the sculpture’s enormous size (80,000 pounds heavy and 41 feet tall); its high cost (over $4 million); its location (the initial plan was to place it between the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris and the Palais de Tokyo); and its tenuous connection to the terrorist attacks that are claimed to have inspired it. Later in 2018, the city of Paris announced relocating the sculpture to Petit Palais in an attempt to mitigate the outcry.
Undefeatable, Koons braved the insults and finally realized his plan to install the monument at the heart of Paris. The inflatable flowers, he explained at the inauguration ceremony on October 4, represent “loss, rebirth, and the vitality of the human spirit,” and perform as “a symbol that life moves forward.”
Loved or loathed, Koons’s massive sculpture — fabricated with polychromed bronze, stainless steel, and aluminum — has quickly fulfilled its predictable destiny as a tourist attraction and an Instagram trap. Speaking with Hyperallergic, the Parisians willing to brave the weather mostly displayed a positive, or at least tolerant, opinion about the sculpture, although many mentioned a difficult-to-ignore likeness between the Koonsian tulips and a certain orifice of the human body. (Hadley Suter, a writer and lecturer of French at Barnard College, assisted in translating the interviews for this article.)
“I’m happy that we can still have polemics about art installations, it’s been a long time since we’ve had a debate over a work in Paris,” said Batiste, an art student from Paris. “I don’t see the link between the statue and the attacks, but why not take it?” he continued. “I think in a few years we’ll feel a bit more grateful and happy to have it.”
Véronique from Annecy in southeastern France took a break from snapping pictures of her children in front of the sculpture to speak with Hyperallergic. “It doesn’t look like tulips, that’s for sure, but who cares?” she said. “My kids think it looks like marshmallows.” Her son Mattias agreed: “Doesn’t look like tulips at all!” His younger sister, who was too shy to disclose her name, gave a more tepid response. When asked to assess the work, she muttered a languid “Meh.”
“I like the colors,” Véronique continued, perhaps trying to balance her children’s unforgiving criticism. “A lot of people called them ‘anuses on stems’ but I think it’s a beautiful gift.”
Véronique was referring to the words of French philosopher Yves Michaud who described the work as “Eleven colored anuses mounted on stems” in an opinion piece in the French daily magazine L’Obs. Koons’s gift, the philosopher added, is “in fact, a pornographic sculpture.”
In his article, Michaud coined the term “culipes” to describe the sculpture, a portmanteau of the French word “cul” (buttocks) and “tulipe” for tulips. The French social media instantly embraced the neologism, with one Twitter user describing the flowers as “hemorrhoidal.”
Philippe from Bretagne in the northwest of France was inspecting the sculpture with a friend when he was approached by Hyperallergic. “We knew it had just been unveiled so we came to see it since it’s pretty controversial,” he said. “I like it, but I’m not crazy about it.” When asked if agrees with Michaud’s unsavory comments, he laughed and said, “Yes! In fact, that’s what I was just saying to my friend but he’s not convinced.”
His friend, Sergio from Milan, responded, “Maybe the colors could be brighter. What matters is that it’s a nice gesture.”
“I think it’s pretty impressive,” said Nicolas, a Parisian who works in publishing. “I didn’t expect it to be so big and imposing. I think the texture is super well-realized, but I’m worried about how it will age because it’s so linked to the events of 2015.”
Jean-Pierre, another Parisian who walked through the gardens with a friend, said, “We know Koons and his work, so for us, it doesn’t make us think about anything but a Koons work of art.”
Eric, a French diplomat living in Paris, said he came to see the sculpture with many reservations but found himself being “pleasantly surprised.”
“It’s not cool maybe to say it but I think it’s a really beautiful gift to the French people,” the diplomat said. “I find it very beautiful as an object in and of itself; you really want to touch it, you want to know what it’s made of, it makes you curious in all sorts of ways.” He continued: “I also think the spot is very well chosen as Parisians never ever come to the base of the Champs Elysées or the Petit Palais, so it makes you rediscover a part of the city. And I think it goes really nicely in the middle of this ‘bouquet’ of trees, as their leaves change colors with the seasons.”
Pascal from Orléans was more impassioned in his support of the monument. “I like it enormously in fact,” he said. “I think it’s a beautiful idea, a beautiful homage, and yes we know about the condemnations, but we can’t forget about our children [the victims in the attacks], and that’s the main thing.” His wife agreed: “In five years no one will be talking about the condemnations. The French are like that.”
Garrett Epp, a professor of literature from Canada who’s currently teaching at the University of Lille north of Paris, was just out of the Paris Photo exhibition at the adjacent Grand Palais before coming to observe the bouquet. “I find it somewhat hilarious,” he said. “I’m not a big fan of Jeff Koons’s work overall, but this is amusing enough that I kind of like it.”
“Yes, it’s hideous, but I like that it gives that kind of reaction,” Epp explained. “It’s as if somebody crawled out from underneath the Petit Palais and is giving flowers to the city, or melted marshmallows or whatever.” However, the professor said he enjoyed the drama around it. “I like that it does offend people to some extent. What’s the point of something really big and cute? This is sufficiently funny that I don’t mind it at all.”
Just when it felt that all the reactions were affirmative and polite, a Parisian named Phillipe looked at the tulips and said, “Yeah, they do look like buttholes! It’s not crazy to think that.”
Update 11/12/19 2:18pm: On Thursday, November 7, the Paris police reported a graffiti tag sprayed in red on the sculpture’s bronze plaque. The graffiti read, “11 Trous du c …,” which can translate to “11 Holes of the butt …”
The city of Paris, which owns the sculpture, has sent a special cleaning crew to quickly remove the tag, according to Le Parisien. A police investigation is ongoing. The vandal has not yet been identified.