A seminal sculpture from Jeff Koons' pivotal Equilibrium series, Aqualung is an intricate bronze cast of a scuba device. Created using various molds to ensure perfect execution, the work is a tantalizingly detailed simulacrum in which every crevice, crease and curve proclaims Koons' trademark pursuit of technical precision. Executed in 1985, the work was exhibited at the artist's landmark solo gallery debut during the same year, alongside its Equilibrium counterparts. Transcending his earlier practice through an increased focus on immaculate artistic engineering, Koons' Equilibrium series has come to be recognized as a critical turning point in his stellar career. In its dramatic visualization of the thin divide between floating and drowning, soaring and plummeting, swimming and sinking, it constitutes one of the artist's most powerful conceptual projects. Aqualung occupies a central position within this groundbreaking series, and has been widely exhibited in important retrospectives, notably at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples and Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt. Exquisitely hyperreal yet disarmingly alien, it is a compelling symbol of life, discovery and exploration.
For Koons, the form of the aqualung conjures poignant childhood memories of freedom and leisure. "When I was younger, I bonded, I think, with my father swimming in the ocean," he has explained. "If I look at old vacation films of us, I see that my dad was always with me out in the water. What gave me a sense of confidence, eventually, was a float that I would wear on my back, it was like an air canister. It gave me such a sense of independence that I think that is why I made Aqualung," (J. Koons, quoted in conversation with R. Lopez, Chicago, June 2008, http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/June-2008/Conversation-Jeff- Koons [accessed April 3 2014]). Indeed, Koons reveals a kind of metaphysical poeticism in the idea of the aqualung. Despite its functional appearance and utilitarian structure, it is ultimately a gateway to an underwater world, allowing us to breath and keeping us afloat as we discover the ocean for the first time. It signifies survival and death-defiance, triumph over nature and voyage into the unknown. Poised on the brink of Koons' international rise to fame, and paving the way for some of his most exciting artistic innovations, Aqualung is metaphorically tinged with the same associations of newfound independence and freedom that, according to Koons, had inspired its original creation.
The Equilibrium series, including Aqualung, was showcased in Koons' first solo gallery exhibition in 1985. Displayed at Meyer Vaisman's East Village gallery International With Monument, the series comprised three distinct strands. Aqualung takes its place within the first of these: a set of nine bronze sculptures, each meticulously cast from objects relating to breathing and inflation. Comprising three snorkels, a snorkel vest, a lifeboat, a basketball and two soccer balls, as well as the aqualung itself, the bronzes explore the theme of equilibrium in relation to the life-giving element of air. These sculptures were joined by the renowned Equilibrium Tanks, clear glass vitrines filled with a water-based solution in which Koons had suspended varying combinations of basketballs. Drawing on extensive scientific research, the tanks constitute remarkable feats of balance and buoyancy, mirroring the technical virtuosity of the bronzes through their precisely-engineered interiors. Completing the exhibition was a series of Nike sportswear advertisements featuring well-known NBA players. Like the bronzes and the tanks, these glossy posters emanate formal perfection, both in their own appearance and in the glorified athletes they depict. Koons' conceptual framework of life-support and artificial states of survival was thus projected through three channels: through the sports players elevated to meteoric heights of fame; the floating basketballs that appeared to defy the laws of physics; and, finally, the bronze incarcerations of equipment that, like the aqualung, might just prevent you from drowning.
In this sense, Aqualung was not only conceived as a representation of equilibrium, but also an integral part of a threefold conceptual project in which the seemingly disparate elements-bronzes, tanks and posters-existed in complementary relation to one another. Yet despite the uplifting themes of survival and achievement that run throughout the series, Koons ultimately reminds us that these states of being cannot exist without their darker counterparts: demise, degradation and, finally, death. The basketballs are entombed in water filled tanks; the sportswear adverts are rife with false messages; and the aqualung, the lifeboat and the snorkel vest masquerade as life-saving devices, yet are cast in a medium so heavy as to render them deadly. "Aqualung is a tool for equilibrium; if someone had enough courage and really wanted to go for it, they would put the Aqualung on their back and it would take them under," claims Koons (J. Koons, quoted in S. Coles and R. Violette (eds.), The Jeff Koons Handbook, London 1992, p. 58). Yet would they ever surface again? As the artist writes elsewhere, "the Nike posters were the Sirens-the great deceivers, saying Go for it! I have achieved it. You can achieve it too! And the bronzes were the tools for Equilibrium that would kill you if you used them. So the underlying theme, really, was that death is the ultimate state of being," (J. Koons, quoted in A. Muthesius, Jeff Koons, Cologne, 1992, p. 19).
This dual aspect of Aqualung recasts it in a startling new light. Whilst its elegant burnished exterior appears to glorify its functional form, preserving it in the timeless medium of bronze, the work may be equally understood as a symbol of inevitable decline. "Survival itself, let alone upward mobility, is overtly questioned in the bronze sculptures," Daniela Salvioni had declared. "...The contradiction between the purpose of the original objects-to keep one afloat and thus preserve life--and the massive tonnage of the actual sculptures transforms the objects into a devastating metaphor of impossibility and unsustainability," (D. Salvioni, "Jeff Koons's Poetics of Class," in Jeff Koons, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, p. 20). Katy Siegel, on the other hand, reads the sculptures as commentary on the illusions and false promises latent in contemporary American society. "...the bronzes are tools with which one might hope to achieve equilibrium-to balance, to float. But they too are false, and in the end grant not a perfect life but only death. The danger lies in the idea that these things - the lifeboat, the game, success-could save your life. While Koons was not interested in conventional artistic forms of social critique, he shared with his peers a skeptical attitude to contemporary American society, and Equilibrium operates as a warning of sorts," (K. Siegel, "Equilibrium 1983-1993", in H. W. Holzwarth (ed.), Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2009, p. 150).
The Equilibrium works followed Koons' earlier series of the late 1970s and 1980s, Pre-New and The New, both of which employed domestic objects-teapots, telephones, Hoovers-to create gleaming sculptural edifices. Merging the Duchampian aesthetic of the readymade with Pop Art's commentary on consumer culture, these early series transformed everyday banal appliances into enshrined objects of desire. In The New, Koons' branded vacuum cleaners become fetishized icons of commercial consumption, encased in spotless acrylic containers and illuminated like museum exhibits. Equilibrium, with its advanced technical and conceptual ambition, has been seen to surpass the "found" objects that characterize Koons' earlier endeavors. Yet there is nonetheless a distinct lineage in terms of the very skepticism that Siegel identifies: a skepticism towards our dependency on inanimate objects, both in cultural and economic terms. Like the vacuum cleaners preserved in sealed display cases, and the basketballs suspended behind glass, Aqualung has been rendered non-functional, unusable and immobile. We could not rely upon it even if we wanted to. Frozen eternally in perfect bronzed stasis, the work becomes a kind of contemporary relic, a futuristic fossil of life on earth. It is at once familiar and foreign, materially present and yet ultimately lost forever. Indeed, it is this very dichotomy that lies at the heart of Equilibrium - the ineffable balance between existence and death, between reality and the unknown.
Aqualung's initial associations of freedom and exploration are thus borne out in a new manner. Through its alien incarceration, Aqualung may be said to acquire a new kind of liberty. By casting his object in a contradictory medium, Koons frees it from constricting narratives and one-dimensional interpretation. The idea of rendering functional objects strange through artistic intervention has a rich art-historical heritage. Indeed, as Salvioni acknowledges, "Koons' poetics of objects recalls Jasper Johns' cast-bronze beer cans, in which an ordinary object becomes endowed with a surplus of meaning, and the surrealist tactic of juxtaposing unexpected elements, as in Meret Oppenheim's fur-covered teacup," (D. Salvioni, "Jeff Koons's Poetics of Class," in Jeff Koons, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1992, pp. 20-21). For Koons, whose reverence for the artist Salvador Dalí was such that he went to visit him as a teenager, parallels with Surrealism are certainly relevant here, as are comparisons with Duchamp's Dadaist works. Yet Aqualung's otherworldly qualities reveal themselves to the viewer gradually, operating with stealth rather than shock. In this respect the work reveals its debt to the cool detachment of Pop Art, displaying the same ability to evoke grand existential narratives by confronting us with disarming reproductions of objects from the contemporary world.
In its technical rigor and powerful conceptual scope, Aqualung has been universally celebrated as one of Koons' most important early works. Part of a series that had a significant impact on his generation, in particular upon the young British artist Damien Hirst, the work anticipates many of Koons' later triumphs: the commemorative impulse of the Celebration series, the sculptural intricacies of the Banality series and even, to some extent, the highly-engineered stainless steel simulations of inflatable toys that characterize the later Popeye works. Indeed, the celebrated "balloon" sculptures of the 1990s and 2000s share something of the aesthetic explored in Aqualung: in both, objects that are originally given life through air are permanently grounded by Koons in solid sculptural media. Yet, in its contemplation of fundamental states of being, Aqualung remains one of Koons' most profound works. Daring to consider the darker strains of existence whilst simultaneously memorializing the aqualung as a trophy of human life, it is both enigmatic and seductive in its complexity.