Of Gods and Men: Jeff Koons and Antinous at the Ashmolean

Jeff Koons’ Balloon Venus seems at once dominant and diminutive in the space it occupies within the Ashmolean Museum.

This is a large, attention-seeking bulbous structure, fashioned from polished magenta-coloured stainless steel. It stands 2.5 metres tall. It weighs nearly 1.5 tons. It possesses all of the awesomeness of the, admittedly much smaller, age-old fertility statues that Koons claims as its inspiration. And yet, as soon as you see it, the ancient goddess vanishes. She is replaced – literally covered over – by distorted puce-coloured reflections of you. The goddess offers up her shiny skin for her supposed devotee to worship themselves. As the subject becomes object, you are amused, intrigued and, perhaps inevitably – or at least as I did – you succumb to temptation and take a single snap of multiple selfies, later to upload on Instagram. As if to complete some irrefutable process, the new subject thereby transforms itself into an object to be adored.

Balloon Venus is not the first Koons’ sculpture visitors encounter on entering Jeff Koons at the Ashmolean, but it is emblematic of much of the work on display: objects that are simultaneously grand and quotidian, assertive and accommodating, shaped by history and spurning of it. More fundamentally, Venus, and virtually all of the other sculptures that surround it in the three-room space, are objects that pose a question about the role, and importance, of the viewer and the viewed in art. 

As I meandered around Koons’ shiny statues, and saw more distorted reflections of myself, I began to doubt this criticality was intentional. 

In a conventional exhibition scenario, wall-mounted labels situate the object by describing its provenance. Here, the labels were opened ended, sometimes to point of opacity. The label for ‘Ushering in Banality’, a pastel-hued sculpture from 1988 that depicts three cherubic-like children walking alongside a pig, begins as follows: 

I wanted to make works that just embraced everyone’s own cultural history and made everybody feel that their history was perfect just the way it was.

Another label, for ‘Antiquity 2 (dots)’, a painting made between 2009 and 2012, opens thus: 

At some point I realised that this monkey was really Eros and that [actress] Gretchen Mol was Aphrodite or Galatea. I actually found images of Aphrodite positioned on top of a dolphin with her son Eros, and I realised that this was the exact image that I had created.

Neither statement reassured me that Koons knew what he was seeking to create and convey: to distil ‘everyone’s own cultural history’ into one object, and to assert parallels with Greek mythology when they had been wholly absent during the conception and creation of a piece of work, seems at once arrogant and naïve. 

Or am I – was I– being too critical –– Was my problem less to do with Koons’ work and more to do with my expectations as a viewer?

In an interview with Ashmolean Director Xa Sturgis that is printed at the start of the exhibition’s appropriately shiny catalogue, Koons relates how art commentary and criticism erects barriers around objects for demanding an expertise and connoisseurship that a majority of people very understandably lack. Fretting about this … snobbery… which he repudiated during his education and early career, Koons asserts that he wants his work to be accessible for all.[i]The mirrored Venus should consequently be seen as an artwork that incorporates and welcomes her viewer; the open-ended wall labels should be regarded as prompts that ask people to develop, and to trust, their own interpretations. 

The problem that remains in my mind is that Koons’ pieces seem initially too brash, too redolent of their creator’s ego, to be wholly responsive to the viewer’s point of view. The result, for me, is a curious – and presently unresolvable – tension between the democratic and demagogic. As Emma Park muses in her review of the exhibition for Apollo magazine, the rifts in Koons’ seventeen shiny structures aptly reflect the insecurities of our present, where a desire to belong is challenged by the drive to stand apart.[ii]

Of course, wonderment with the self and self-presentation are not unique characteristics of the twenty-first century. Jerry Brotton has recently suggested that sixteenth-century Tudor miniatures were meticulous antecedents of the selfie.[iii] Three floors below Koons’ Venus in the Ashmolean, and poetically serving as foundation, Antinous: Boy Made God, demonstrates how individuals – or one in particular; the supposed teenage love of Emperor Hadrian – were lauded in antiquity. Many of the surviving impressions of ‘boy-favourite’ or ‘fuck boi’ – depending on how salacious you like your historical writing – are much smaller than Koons’ statues, chiefly because all that survives is a bust or a broken-nosed face.[iv] Nevertheless, there is a gravitas and strength, a power, that these casts and carved marbles possess that Koons’ work does not. One of the more striking depictions of the teenager, which frames him with a draped cloak and fruit-filled garland, is the bust of the Braschi Antinous, dating from c.AD 130-138.[v] Here, as in other representations of the pubescent deity, the object to be viewed is confidently defined. To recall (appropriately) Professor Perlman’s monologue in Call Me By Your Name, the Antinoi “dare you to desire them”). Quite unlike the situation three floors above, the role of subject and object, viewer and viewed is not equivocal. 

Obviously, it would be trite to tease out too many parallels between the Ashmolean’s current exhibitions and the artwork therein, but viewing both in succession – first, Koons, then Antinous – it was nonetheless interesting to reflect that in making gods of ourselves, it has become difficult to identify what we truly value and regard as important. At a minimum, notions of self and an appreciation of self-presentation have become moribund.

[i] Jeff Koons At The Ashmolean(Ashmolean Museum: Oxford, 2019), 9-22.

[ii] Emma Park, ‘In his shiny surfaces, Jeff Koons reflects the vanity of our age’, Apollo(12 February, 2019). https://www.apollo-magazine.com/jeff-koons-ashmolean/.

[iii] Jerry Brotton, ‘Small Wonders’, FT Weekend Magazine(23/24 February 2019), 22-27.

[iv] The ‘fuck boi’ label comes from Lucy and Sebastian Hendra’s Historical Homos(2018).

[v] R.R.R. Smith, Antinous: boy made god(Ashmolean Museum: Oxford, 2019), 82-83.

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