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Seven years in the making, Balloon Monkey (Orange) marks a spectacular new chapter in Jeff Koons’s oeuvre. Looking at the miraculously smooth, highly polished surface of this monumental sculpture, one can appreciate how the artist has progressively attained ever-greater heights of perfection. Koons developed the idea for this sculpture over years of research, modeling, computer rendering, milling, polishing, lacquering and polishing again before the final form was realized. His perseverance has resulted in an incredibly seductive, monochrome finish that grants stainless steel and the humble balloon monkey an apotheosis. The sheer beauty of its materiality is designed to entice and captivate, while its form is endowed with the joyful associations of childhood, hope and innocence.
This is one of five unique Balloon Monkey sculptures made from precision -engineered, mirror-polished stainless steel finished with a translucent brightly colored coating of either blue, magenta, orange, red or yellow. The sculpture conveys the artist’s recurrent interest in air-filled forms, which stand as metaphors for the human condition. “I’ve always enjoyed objects that contain air because they are very anthropomorphic,” Koons has said. “Every time you take a breath, it’s like a symbol of life, and every time you exhale, it’s a symbol of death” (J. Koons, quoted in Jeff Koons Versailles, exh. cat. Paris, 2008).
Koons has worked with this idea of inflation and air since 1979 when he first developed his series Inflatables. Koons has revisited this theme in myriad ways, including The New series (first exhibited in 1980), which integrated references to Minimalism and Pop Art with their encased vacuum cleaners and fluorescent tube lighting; Equilibrium (1985), which includes flotation devices depicted in bronze and basketballs hovering in equilibrium; the Statuary series of stainless steel sculptures featuring his iconic Rabbit (1986), and the highly acclaimed Celebration works, which represent the milestones of a calendar year that he began in the early 1990s. It was in Celebration that the monumental twisted balloon sculptures made their first appearance with Balloon Dog. Koons has since evolved this series, making three new animals, namely Balloon Swan (2004-2011), Balloon Rabbit (2005-2010) and the present work, Balloon Monkey (2006-2013).
Because of its grand scale and simplified forms, it is easy to see Balloon Monkey (Orange) in almost architectural terms. The body is pyramidal, forming a strong base for the stacked spheres of head and neck, and the cantilevered tail. The subject has been reduced to its basic essence yet it remains easily identifiable as a monkey in repose, its jaunty tail hinting at the creature’s lively character. It is an abstraction that readily evokes Constantin Brancusi’s streamlined, polished forms or Picasso’s summarized animal sculptures made from repurposed household items. Koons’s subject has a slightly more complicated relationship with nature, however, for Balloon Monkey is in fact a flawless reproduction of an inanimate, real-world object. That object just happens to be an abstraction of an organic form. Koons’s sculpture is then a kind of complicated simulacrum–a copy of a copy, which for Koons also references Picabia’s Portrait of Cézanne in a publication, Cannibale, 1920 and a Chardin type of painting. It is an in-between ambiguous image that relates to both reality and illusion in a way that evokes the concern for the “signifier” and the “signified” frequently addressed in Pop Art. For all that, the detail of Koons’s reproduced balloon animal is miraculous. The creases between the links and on the nose/knot are amazingly authentic–one can almost hear the squeaks of rubber that would have occurred when the original model was made.
With his interest in subjects with vast cultural appeal, it is unsurprising that monkeys have been a recurring motif within Koons’s oeuvre. These include paintings and sculptures based on an inflatable pool toy in his series Popeye, Hulk Elvis and Easyfun Ethereal. He also created a photomontage of irresistibly cute human and chimpanzee babies for Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, a German newspaper supplement, in November 1992. However, his most well-known foray into anthropoid territory, until now, is his life-sized porcelain sculpture created in 1988, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, which depicts baby Bubbles cradled in the lap of his pop star owner, like a Christ child and Madonna. The work raised questions about the nature of identity in popular culture, the modernization of childhood and the debate about the value of so-called high and low art. Of all his monkey-themed works, Balloon Monkey (Orange) achieves the greatest tension between representation and abstraction. It embodies Koons’s aspiration to bring big meanings to simple, easily recognizable symbols and encompasses all of his enduring artistic concerns in its pared-back elegance.
Monkeys and apes are the closest living relatives to humankind, and as such they have come to serve a significant allegorical function in art and culture for many thousands of years. From the “three wise monkeys” who do not see, hear, nor speak evil to the lovesick brute that is King Kong–our hopes, fears and emotions have been projected onto these furry cousins in rich and varied ways the world over. Many of these mammalian ciphers provide historical allusions and parables that resonate meaningfully with Koons’s own artistic practice and with Balloon Monkey (Orange) itself. Koons is an astute art historian who frequently incorporates oblique references to past art into his work, and the import of the monkey was surely not lost on him in creating this sculpture.
For the Chinese, monkeys are most closely associated with the literary epic Journey to the West–a tale widely known as Monkey in English-speaking countries. This sprawling Odyssey-like narrative is based on the pilgrimage of the Tang dynasty monk Xuanzang who traveled to India to obtain the sacred Buddhist texts that would help further the spread of this teaching in China. In the embellished and fantastical re-telling of the journey, Xuanzang’s role is largely overshadowed by the adventures of his companion, a semi-divine monkey called Sun Wukong (a name meaning Monkey Awakened to Emptiness). Sun Wukong is thought to be inspired by the Hindu monkey deity Hanuman and his various trials and tribulations are intended to reflect the quest for spiritual enlightenment that is the ultimate goal of human existence. It is the most popular work of fiction in China’s history and has been depicted and retold in countless ways, including in the cult classic Japanese television drama Monkey and the enormously successful stage production Monkey: Journey to the West that was created by the Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng along with British musician Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett. What makes Sun Wukong’s story so endearing is that despite his bumbling, obnoxious ways and personal shortcomings, he is confident of his abilities and eventually triumphs. In this way, the monkey is a symbol of both humanity’s foibles and our ultimate potential.
Our received wisdom tells us that polished metals represent wealth and spiritual enlightenment and Koons knowingly uses stainless steel as a tool of democratization for those values. An almost missionary zeal compels him and he often calls upon religious rhetoric to sanctify his aims. He has compared his work’s unashamed opulence to lavishly decorated church interiors that communicate to the public that they are in the presence of the divine. The gleaming luster of Balloon Monkey (Orange) is similarly designed to inspire its viewers and it has an immaculacy that verges on the spiritual. The sculpture’s gloriously warm hue may belong to the secular domain of art history, being originally inspired by Warhol’s revered Orange Marilyn of 1964, but it is also an important symbolic color to faiths across the world. Orange (or more precisely saffron) is the most sacred color in Hinduism and Buddhism, while in Confucianism, the religion and philosophy of ancient China, the color orange signified transformation. It is also a color typically associated with the sun and fire–surely the two most prototypical elements of worship.
The viewer’s reflection, and that of the world around them, forms a fundamental part of the work. We are at once attracted to the lustrous object, yet forced at the same time to look upon, and hopefully within, ourselves through the images cast back from the surface. As Koons has summarized it: “I am trying to capture the individual’s desire in the object, and to fix his or her aspirations in the surface, in a condition of immortality” (J. Koons, quoted in S. Coles & R. Violette (ed.), The Jeff Koons Handbook, London, 1992, p. 34). This visual dialogue between the viewer and the sculpture is a manifestation of Koons’s belief that ultimately, art is personal iconography. “It is the tool that helps you connect and communicate–but it’s about going deeper through trust in the self, into a range of archetypal images, images that are deep and important within everybody” (J. Koons, quoted in Jeff Koons: Celebration, exh.cat., Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin 2008, p. 86).
The erotic is never far beneath the surface in Koons’s art and Balloon Monkey (Orange) continues this concept in a insinuatory fashion. Its smooth surface is highly sensual, while its bulging form evokes comparison with the human body–not least in the animal’s tail, which undeniably resembles a phallic tumescence. Here, the monkey represents a positive agent of temptation. Its innocent, convivial form invites us to experience pleasure without guilt, to embrace our sensuality. It accommodates our desires and offers security and reassurance through its bright and playful imagery. “One of the things that I’m most proud of is making work that lets viewers not feel intimidated by art, but feel that they can emotionally participate in it through their senses and their intellect and be fully engaged. And feel that they can get a foothold in it, to push themselves off of, and lift themselves up on,” says Koons (J. Koons, quoted in I. Sischy, “Jeff Koons is Back!,” Vanity Fair, July 2014, p. 115).
In the Western art tradition, the monkey was eventually rehabilitated from its debased position via the humorous marginal designs known as drôleries that frequently appear in Gothic illuminated manuscripts. During the Renaissance, the monkey-as-motif continued to progress from the sin-encumbered emblem of evil to positive comic rebel tasked with ridiculing the powers that be. They were typically shown in situations of conspicuous restraint such as in Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Two Monkeys (1562, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany) or in a state of abandon like Albrecht Dürer’s Monkeys Dancing drawing (1523, Kunstmuseum Basel). In both cases the animals mirrored the social changes unfolding in European society and the move towards a more humanist worldview.
Monkeys depicted performing everyday activities became an entrenched tradition. The vogue for singeries, as they were known, had a well-known sub-category—that of the monkey role-playing as artist. They appear again and again in the work of Teniers, Ferdinand van Kessel, Antoine Watteau, Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps and Jean-Siméon Chardin, portrayed painting or occasionally sculpting, as a means of satirizing artists as imitators of nature, or “art as the ape of nature.” These images affectionately mock the habits and pretensions of artists and collectors alike and if the joke was not already clear enough, the prints after Chardin’s compositions included a verse by the poet Charles-Etiénne Pesselier explaining that the painter is a mere mimic—or monkey—if he models his work on that of other artists rather than nature. In more recent history, this theme was taken up once more by the great Dada master Francis Picabia who tacked a stuffed monkey to a board and called it Nature Morte: Portrait of Cézanne/Portrait of Renoir/Portrait of Rembrandt (1920, destroyed) in an absurdist challenge to the very nature of art and to the delineations that define the tradition of painting.
The image of the balloon monkey also recalls our own childhood—days before age, education and possibly a smattering of cynicism conditioned us. By encouraging us to revel in the splendor of Balloon Monkey (Orange), Koons is pushing us to abandon the sense of “taste” that we have so painstakingly acquired over the years. “I very strongly do not believe in the sophisticated or important and I never try to present myself as a sophisticated or important person,” Koons has declared. “I have no place for these things in my life. They segregate people” (J. Koons, quoted in A. Muthesius, Jeff Koons, Cologne, 1992, p. 24). To remove this segregation, Koons appeals to one of humanity’s great, uniting, lowest common denominators: we were all children and we can all reach back to the freedom, excitement and wonder that we experienced in our early years when we were unburdened by social constraints.
It is this same sense of fascination that Koons encourages with Balloon Monkey (Orange). While there may be layers of meaning, while there may be sexual dimensions and even a dialogue of the cycle of life, the physical presence of this sculpture pushes much of that aside and prompts a state of transcendence as we stand dwarfed before the massive perfected embodiment and reincarnation of the half-formed memories of our own youth. In a sense, with Balloon Monkey (Orange), Koons has created an idealized version of something that already exists buried in our minds and he uses monolithic scale to invoke these feelings for us once more: “Archetypes are really things that help everyone survive in the world. So they are bigger than everybody. That is the reason for their scale” (J. Koons, quoted in T. Nichols Goodeve, “Euphoric Enthusiasm: Jeff Koons’s Celebrations,” Parkett, no. 50/51, 1997, p. 90).