Three Ball 50/50 Tank belongs to the celebrated Equilibrium series that Koons executed in 1985. Featuring basketballs floating at mid-point in aquarium-like glass tanks half-filled with water, the work melds a streamlined Minimalist vocabulary with readymade objects to make insightful pronouncements about late capitalistic, consumer-oriented society and its underlying race and class dysfunctions. Of this work Koons said, "My work is very involved with the tragedy of unachievable states of being, a floating state that cannot be sustained; the difficulty of maintaining one's psychic equilibrium (or balance) in a commodity oriented world."
Almost impossibly half-immersed as if through some obscure principle of physics, and sealed behind glass, the basketballs appear like preserved medical specimens in formaldehyde or like relics from another culture and time. The desire to understand the balls' abnormal stasis and their ultimate meaning is thwarted. (In reality, Koons worked with over fifty physicists to achieve this vision, filling the balls with a carefully mixed ratio of sodium chloride reagent in order to maintain their neutral buoyancy within the distilled water of the tanks.) Rendering the balls mysterious and unattainable, Koons strikes upon a near epiphany of consumerism. Conferring to these ordinary objects a false aura, he cleverly duplicates how desire is produced, propagated, but never sated in the packaged and media-hyped material world. Koons makes this explicit in the unaltered Nike advertisements that were included in his original installation of this series. In these posters, African--American basketball stars heroically constructed to the level contemporary deities, endorse athletic equipment and taunt the viewer into believing that he too could achieve similar glory. In a world of artificial and material values, Koons suggests that maintaining one's moral "equilibrium" becomes a perilous venture. As a reminder and exposition of this fact, the basketballs are almost contemporary vanitas objects.
On a grander note, Equilibrium broaches issues of social mobility and the limitations set the urban underclass, specifically poor African American males from the inner city. The posters make abundantly clear how basketball has evolved from a backyard recreation for Middle America into racially segregated, lucrative, professional sport. If sports are the archetypal path out of the ghetto where education is so poor, then basketball is its most glorious variant. It is the quintessential urban sport that requires little space and inexpensive equipment. Koons' basketballs are therefore limpid metaphors for the precarious upward social mobility available to the African--American underclass. The anxiety and uncertainty of this limited avenue for improvement is heightened by the delicate balance of the work: the balls are not fixed and are susceptible to a multitude of disturbances, they vacillate, and finally, it is a symbolically loaded question whether they are rising or falling.
Appearing simultaneously like womb-ensconced fetuses and like preserved specimens or relics in a jar, the basketballs fluctuate between metaphors of life and death, hope and despair. The bronze aqualung and cast life-boat that were also included in the original installation extrapolate on this theme, but cast a bleaker outcome: as tools of survival they mutate into vehicles of sure death. Ultimately Koons seems to suggest the "tragedy of unachievable states of being, a floating state that cannot be sustained" through the artificially suspended basketballs. They have an elegiac quality to them that seems to stall any prospect of individual spiritual victory or social economic equality in a material age.