Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism. Become a member today »

Jeff Koons’s “Bouquet of Tulips” (2019) at the Petit Palais in Paris (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

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.

“I don’t see the link between the statue and the attacks,” said Batiste, a Parisian art student.

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.”

The inflatable flowers represent “loss, rebirth, and the vitality of the human spirit,” according to Koons.

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.”

French philosopher Yves Michaud described the sculpture as “Eleven colored anuses mounted on stems.”

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.”

“It doesn’t look like tulips, that’s for sure, but who cares?” said Véronique, who visited the statue with her children and hails from southeastern France.

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.”

“I’m worried about how it will age because it’s so linked to the events of 2015,” said Nicolas, a Parisian who works in publishing.

“It’s not cool maybe to say it but I think it’s a really beautiful gift to the French people,” said Eric, a French diplomat.

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.

Support Hyperallergic

As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever. 

Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.

Become a Member

Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...

19 replies on ““Anuses on Stems”? Parisians React to Jeff Koons’s Gift to the City”

  1. Anuses on sticks pretty much describes them. Koons is just an opportunist arsehole, so it fits.
    As a parisian myself, I find them cheap, tawdry and cynical, especially in view of the USA’s attitude towards all things french when George Dumbo Bush was busy waging war on the world. I hope it gets graffitied/smashed up soon. UGLY UGLY UGLY.

  2. Looks like freedom to me! The opposite of terrorist ideology. It’s sincere but also playful. Sure it’s kind of absurd—but isn’t the freedom to be absurd true freedom?

  3. Thank you for the photos that show the sculpture in context with the park. I know everyone thinks Koon is an asshole, but I can’t help admire his choice of materials and I wonder how future generations will appraise work like this once all of our opinions have died with us?

    1. As the tulips depicted in Bouque of Tulips are plastic balloon tulips & not flowers; this symbol of American support to the French is one of faux support: a classic Koons cynical (or brain dead) gesture. I doubt that history will look favorably on such political symbolism. I warned them: https://tinyurl.com/yye7mvyp

    2. As the tulips depicted in Bouque of Tulips are plastic balloon tulips & not flowers; this symbol of American support to the French is one of faux support: a classic Koons cynical (or brain dead) gesture. I doubt that history will look favorably on such political symbolism. I warned them: https://tinyurl.com/yye7mvyp

  4. With the title of your article, you hardly allow the reader to have any unbiased opinion. The writer seems to have more of a pygophilia fetish than any concern for the serious memorial at hand. I suppose we need to laugh, rather than face the truths of life and death.

  5. Looks like freedom to me! The opposite of terrorist ideology. It’s sincere but also playful. Sure it’s kind of absurd—but isn’t the freedom to be absurd true freedom?

  6. Now we have to put up with the egomania of artists. Damien Hirst Antony Gormley Tracy Emma, to name but a few. Big is not necessarily mean beautiful. Who paid 4 million for this artwork. Either way it’s not Jeff Koons solidarity with the French people. He’s either been paid this amount all is doing it for his own self-promotion.

    It is a gross hegemony for a Franco American friendship group two imposes on the people of France. That’s why it has been put out of the way, like an unwanted gift from the in-laws, only to be put on display when they visit.

    Quite apart from that, it’s not even a clever piece of art. The ex-bond salesman creator has based his success on being ‘ironic’. Art requires more than that. “Fun, playful, kind-a cute” is not art criticism; you can also overhear such banalities said in our national museums. Anti-terrorism and freedom need art that carries more clout

    Objectively, other pop artists could do a better hand, and the only clue that it is clasping tulips is that it is written on the title plaque.

    Anuses? A hilariously apt comment – but it’s really not tulips, anuses, or tampons. It’s just shallow and barely competent.

    1. The beauty of this sculpture is that it is so antithetical to “good” taste, Parisian architecture, and “serious” memorial art. Thats why it’s a testament to freedom and the perfect response to terrorist ideology which is oriented towards cultural and social homogeny. This piece stands alone, and isn’t that the point? Individual freedom of expression is the foundation on which Western Civilization is built.

      1. Or, you could say that terrorism is ‘freedom of expression’, as well as a good example of bad taste and the absurd. Western civilization, like many other civilizations, was historically built on slavery and genocide, if we’re talking about such as the Roman Empire or the United States.

        1. Anarcissie, that is a totally erroneous comparison. Freedom of Expression rights in no way protect your right to terrorize, kill, or in any way cause harm to other parties. Find me a legal system that would protect killing based on “free expression.” I also wouldn’t say terrorism is in bad taste because its in no taste at all–killing and murder are not something to be aesthetically evaluated.

          I agree that slavery and genocide are very much a part of the history of western societies, and unfortunately a part of the history of the world. I bring up Freedom of Expression in the context of the Paris attacks and what they represent–terrorists attacking a free society that they believe shouldn’t exist. In the view of IS terrorists there is no freedom of expression because it is incompatible with an Islamic Theocracy. I argue that Koons’ sculpture is a good response to this attack on free expression because it doesn’t fit into any traditional categories of good, memorial sculpture. It stands out as a free, individual act and broadens the idea of what a sculpture can be.

  7. I guess my main question to the readership is—so what if it looks like anuses or tampons? Doesn’t putting that imagery into the public sphere In itself speak to freedom? The freedom to provoke, to make in bad taste, to celebrate the absurd?

Comments are closed.