"...these tanks are beautiful things... They have the quality of a perfectly realized theory, one demonstrated even as it's articulated, like the philosopher C. S. Pierce's claim that the end purpose of the universe is to grow something that knows it." - James Lewis
Raised above the ground on a frame of black steel, Jeff Koons' Two Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J Silver Series) executed in 1985, comprises twin orange basketballs miraculously suspended within a clear water-filled atrium. Metaphysically conceived and scientifically engineered, this work is part of an important early series created under the heading Equilibrium for Koons' first solo gallery exhibition in 1985, examples of which now reside in the Tate Modern, London, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Astrup Fearnley Collection, Oslo and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. These pristine tanks, featuring varying combinations of one, two and three basketballs in different-sized containers, were developed in consultation with the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman, who guided Koons in his attempt to achieve perfect equilibrium. After months of experimentation, the artist finally arrived at a precisely-balanced solution of distilled water and sodium chloride reagent that allowed the water-filled basketballs to occupy the very center of the Total Equilibrium Tanks, elegantly poised as if frozen in mid-air. In their pursuit of technical perfection and interrogation of physical possibility, the Total Equilibrium Tanks foreshadow the later feats of engineering exemplified in some of Koons' most iconic works, including the notable Celebration series. For all their scientific innovation, for Koons these are works that speak directly to the basic primacy of existence. "The basketball hovering in the tank...is like a foetus in the womb, it's an ultimate state of being," (J. Koons, quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2002, p. 340).
Situated at the dawn of his rise to international fame, Koons' first gallery show Equilibrium was held at the East Village gallery International With Monument in 1985. Alongside the Equilibrium Tanks, the works displayed included a series of framed Nike sportswear advertisements featuring NBA players, as well as a number of bronze sculptures cast from sports equipment and water-related apparatus. Drawing together themes of object-materiality and commodity fetishism, the exhibition had its lineage in the series of encased vacuum cleaners that Koons had displayed in the window of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York five years earlier, under the title The New. Like the vacuum cleaners, selected largely for their brand names, the Equilibrium Tanks are each subtitled according to the particular makes of basketball they house-Wilson Supershot, Wilson Aggressor, Spalding Dr. J 241 Series and, in the case of the present work, Spalding Dr. J Silver Series. Unlike Duchamp's legendary "readymades," which commandeer objects of deliberately banal function, these works harness branded objects designed for the commercial marketplace. Here, as in so many of Koons' works, the basketballs are enshrined as covetable objects of desire through their immaculate presentation; with their gravitational buoyancy frozen, the sheer perfection of their ergonomic design is foregrounded. Suspended in water and surrounded by glass and steel, the basketballs are divorced from their associations of backyards and school sports halls. Like the posters of superstar NBA athletes and the startling bronze sculptures that joined the Equilibrium Tanks at International With Monument, they appear as almost otherworldly icons, glorified and unattainable.
Observing the present work, as Jim Lewis has argued, a new kind of sensory equilibrium comes into play, between the unreachable basketballs and our own desire to grab hold of them in order to ascertain their reality. "The basketballs in the Equilibrium Tanks...seem to be eyeballing us, laconically gazing out from their bath of aqueous humor, with a poise so exact that they look like marvels," he writes, "... Desire there is perfectly tensed, neither satiable nor easily ignored: few things in the world are quite as satisfying to hold as a basketball, but these balls are behind glass; they won't sink to the bottom, and they won't float to the top; they can be bought, but they can't be used, and few things are as useless as a toy that can't be played with. What is at equilibrium, then, is our wish for the basketballs and our wish to be watched by them; they are flirting with us, and one can't help but suspect that the artist's primary purpose is simply to prove that we can be flirted with," (J. Lewis, "A Modest Proposal," in Jeff Koons, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1992, p. 15).
Suspending the basketballs at a point equidistant from the four walls of the tank presented Koons with a challenge unlike any other. Koons also created 50/50 Tanks, the counterpart to the Total Equilibrium Tanks, in which the balls, partially filled with a solution of distilled water and sodium chloride, are half submerged in tanks that are half filled with distilled water. Koons recalls how he first came to approach Feynman, the internationally-renowned physicist who died just three years after Equilibrium. "I saw a Time magazine that was reviewing his book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman . It spoke about how he enjoyed artists, working with artists, and how he enjoyed painting. So I called him up...he was very supportive. I would call him a couple of times each week. For the Equilibrium series...he kept pushing me, telling me that I could solve the problem...it was really about pushing--going into libraries and trying to collect as much information as possible. I talked to a lot of different people. But that experience was amazing," (J. Koons, quoted in interview with R. Koolhaas and H-U. Obrist, in Jeff Koons: Retrospective, exh. cat., Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo, 2004, pp. 82-83). However, Koons' biggest dilemma was how to create the effect of suspension without compromising the purity of the water. In his quest to keep the tanks "truthful," Koons rejected the use of immiscible liquids, aware that they would contaminate the clarity of the solution. Instead, the artist filled the lower portion of the container with a solution of sodium chloride reagent grade and distilled water and the upper portion with distilled water, the separation between the two liquids is imperceptible. The basketballs, themselves filled with water, are supported by the sodium chloride solution, thus allowing them to float in the center of the tank.
An intriguing by-product of this set-up is that the basketballs are to gradual movement, often influenced by external conditions. "To me they start to become like the beginning of artificial intelligence, because of the movement that occurs due to vibration and even the sun," Koons has remarked. "Just the sunlight in a Total Equilibrium Tank can generate enough heat in the molecules that it will move the balls from one side of the tank to the other, as the sun crosses the sky. I always think of it as thought patterns, the way the balls will configure themselves - information is carried back and forth differently through them," (J. Koons, quoted in H. Werner Holzwarth (ed.), Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2009, p. 146). The basketballs thus exist in an alternative realm, in which they are no longer defined by the rapid up-and-down motion of bouncing, but rather by alien incremental positional shifts. With all human input removed, they are placed entirely at the mercy of chemical and physical laws, processes which we may observe through the safety of the transparent glass. There is an undeniable resonance here with the formaldehyde-preserved animal carcasses of Damien Hirst, initiated several years later, in which natural processes of decay are enacted in slow motion within museum-like glass vitrines. Like Hirst, Koons is both artist and scientist, conceiving his objects as specimens - as experiments - that raise fundamental questions about the nature of existence.
There has been much speculation surrounding the significance of the basketball in Koons' work. Indeed, between 1983 and 1993 the artist produced a further series of five basketball-related works entitled Encased, in which rows of basketballs were stacked with their original cardboard packaging in glass display cases. John Caldwell relates the basketball to Koons' perennial theme of childhood, identifying its presence in the tank as an ethereal nostalgic relic of those youthful backyard games (J. Caldwell, "Jeff Koons: The Way We Live Now," in Jeff Koons, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1992, p. 9). Various other commentators have drawn attention to the socio-economic dimension of the basketball as a symbol of social mobility for young under-privileged athletes, thus conceiving the tanks as visions of hope, promise and achievement. Yet Koons himself eulogizes the basketball as a more fundamental signifier for elemental life. "You know, the reason that I used a basketball over another object is really probably for the purity of it, that it's an inflatable, it relates to our human experience of to be alive we have to breathe. If the ball would be deflated, it would be a symbol of death, but inflated, it's a symbol of life."