Lifeboat is one of the key works from Koons' groundbreaking first solo show at the New York gallery, International with Monument, held in November 1985. Entitled Equilibrium, this now famous exhibition consisted of three separate but interacting bodies of work: a series of basketballs maintaining a fragile state of equilibrium in water, a series of advertising posters featuring well-known basketball stars, and a group of lifesaving devices whose function was reversed by their being cast in bronze. With each element corresponding with the other around the central theme of Equilibrium, the exhibition as a whole was a caustic parable on the current state of consumerist America and on notions of cultural aspiration and of social mobility between the classes.
Following on the heels of Koons' first series of works, The New, Koons' Equilibrium exhibition was the artist's first comprehensive artistic statement and his first body of work to introduce the pervasive theme of morality as a vital element of his art. A major critical success that effectively launched Koons' career, the Equilibrium show was also a major financial gamble on Koons' part. As Koons himself has recalled, the cost of the manufacture of the works was undertaken completely by himself with funds from the profits he had made as a Wall Street trader. "Meyer Vaisman offered me a show at International With Monument in the East Village," Koons remembered, "So I had my Equilibrium show there. I sold several pieces. I made a little money on the Tanks, but I sold most of the works at a loss. My Aqualung cost me $20,000 to make and I sold it for $4,000. My Lifeboat cost the same and I sold it for $8,000. The gallery got half of it so I walked away with a big loss...That was where my Wall Street money went. But that was OK. It was all about getting the work out there" (Koons quoted in Jeff Koons, Angelika Muthesius, Cologne 1992, p. 20).
The central theme of Equilibrium was, as Jean Christophe Amman has noted, the notion of entropy and of the cultural vacuum at the heart of modern consumerist culture. Amman wrote that Koons' "position as an artist was marked out" by the "two" main groups of work in Equilibrium. "On the one hand there were aquariums of various sizes, filled with water, with two or three basket balls floating in them - frozen in total equilibrium. We recall the horrifying astrophysical vision of a cooling universe that has ceased to expand. Entropy: that is Koons' visual world. On the other hand, there were bronze casts of a rubber dinghy, a diver's jacket with oxygen tank, and diving goggles with snorkel. They were objects designed to preserve life. But, like the balls, they had been preserved in an eternal state of still life, of nature morte (Since everything is dead, there is no need for implements that sustain life. Artificiality keeps itself alive.) The diving equipment cast in bronze was like a relic of life, like an implosion of energy and mass in upon themselves." (cited in Jeff Koons, Angelika Muthesius, Cologne 1992, p. 8).
Koons himself has maintained that he had "tried to create a kind of a trinity with the show." For him the water tanks were an "ultimate state of being - more biological than The New, which was alienated." The role of the Nike posters was that of "the Sirens - the great deceivers, saying Go for it! I have achieved it. You can achieve it too!" and the bronzes, he explained, "were the tools for Equilibrium that would kill you if you used them. So the underlying theme, really, was that death is the fundamental state of being." (quoted in Jeff Koons, Angelika Muthesius, Cologne, 1992, p. 20).
Certainly there is a striking visual relationship set up between the floating basketballs in their pristine empty surroundings and the posters of basketball stars all challenging the viewer to see the potential of their salvation through the basketball. In conjunction with these, the bronze sculptures act both tonally, physically and materially as counterweights to the bright aerated figures of the basketballs. As Koons has pointed out, the tonal balance of the show was also something which he paid close attention to. "The show was in browns and oranges because of the tragic, threatening side of consumerism, which is often seen as only fun and games and the color pink (Interview with Alan McCollum in Flash Art, December, 1986, January, 1987)
Koons declared once that if someone had enough courage they would put the Aqualung on their back and "go for it" and it would take them under. "If, for some reason they panicked" he continued, and "were able to get it off and resurface, then they would see the lifeboat waiting. But if they got in thinking that they had found their salvation they would only find that there is no salvation because the bronze life boat weighs over six hundred pounds and it's just going to take you right back down." (Jeff Koons cited in Jeff Koons, exh. cat. San Francisco MoMA, 1992, p. 51).
In this way Koons reveals how Equilibrium prompts the viewer to consider the morality surrounding the way in which they navigate the maze of life in a modern consumer society. The seduction of our desires is a common theme of Koons' art and, in the Equilibrium works, these desires are thrown into direct contrast through the form of the "trinity" of motifs. The posters appeal to a superficial desire for success, the basketballs introduce a more spiritual dimension and seem to promise a perfect state of being, while the bronze sculptures, by their very nature, seem to undermine the whole concept of Equilibrium as a practical possibility. At the same time, they are themselves very seductive objects whose solemn meaning and color is offset by their sensuous material reality and the highly seductive tactile properties of their bronze. Although they belie the function and purpose of what they are they materially assert the fundamental ever-present reality of gravity. In this and in conjunction within the Equilibrium series they attain a profound moral density. Literally "down-to-earth," Lifeboat is the ultimate example in this respect. Set down firmly and heavily on the floor, it is the moral counterweight to the heady illusion of the basketballs and the posters.
Jeff Koons, Aqualung from the Equilibrium series, 1985 Courtesy of the artist
Jeff Koons, Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, 1985 Courtesy of the artist
Jean Louis André Théodore Gericault, Raft of the Medusa, 1819 Collection of Louvre, Paris