Banal Antiquity: Koons and Anachronism

Jeff Koons at the Ashmolean

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

February 7 – June 9, 2019

Team Anachronism recently took some time to gaze into Jeff Koons’ highly polished surfaces, oversized steel trinkets and eye-wateringly expensive blue balls. The show comprises seventeen artworks from one of the most notorious figures in the contemporary art-world, split up into three rooms – “Banality”, “Antiquity” and “Gazing Balls”. Across these sections is a fairly idiosyncratic selection from Koons’ back-catalogue. There is none of the controversy-courting “Made in Heaven” series,[1] though “Rabbit” (1986) is here, Koons’ first major foray into the steel balloon aesthetic for which he is best known. For viewers, looking at the brilliant reflection of a shiny bunny and seeing themselves, it’s hard to fight a sense that the only responses possible here are ennui, hermeneutic and historical.

Screenshot 2019-04-08 13.36.46
“Rabbit” stainless steel
41 x 19 x 12 inches 
104.1 x 48.3 x 30.5 cm
© Jeff Koons
1986

In 2019, the art world loves to hate Jeff Koons.[2] As the living embodiment of its bad conscience and the man who has most successfully exploited the irreconcilable logic of turning art into commodity, Koons is all the more irritating because he appears to sleep soundly at night undisturbed by the nightmarish contradictions of such an existence. His practice might be best described as Warhol on steroids, and the kind of critiques of Warhol are ramped up accordingly when directed at Koons. He is the investment banker turned artist who sells art to investment bankers and the rest of the one percent. He is the maverick who either exposes the worst contradictions of capitalism or just materializes them to make a quick buck. If we take the holy marketing doctrine that “sex sells”, what better realization of that reasoning than to make explicit and phenomenally unnecessary art featuring you and your pornstar wife? All surface, no depth – good clean post-modern fun. And yet, in a dawning age of new global fascism, Koons’ erotics of nihilism make him the artist of the age. It is this apposite distillation of culture (one kind of timeliness) together with an on-going interest in the materials and aesthetics of classical antiquity, that make Koons a particularly choice artist to think about under the rubric of anachronism.

Antiquity has become a core part of Koons’ practice: the works in the second room are mostly drawn from a series in 2008 called “Antiquity”. In addition we have the works in the third room, the “Gazing Balls” pieces. So Hal Foster is quite right in his observation that “classical statuary” is one of Koons’ three categories (the other two being “kitsch” and “porn”)[3]. Antiquity is primarily an aesthetic in Koons’ practice of radically transforming ancient form into modern medium (as in his “Balloon Venus (Magenta)” take on the Venus of Willendorf) or superimposing antiquity as collage (as in his Aphrodite riding a dolphin, in which a Bettie Page model is rendered as the goddess straddling a dolphin about to fellate a blow-up monkey).

Koons does, however, engage conceptually with antiquity too, particularly around the idea of representation and authenticity. In a recent interview, he comments on the transcendental in his practice: “If I’m working with a copy, I’m doing it as reference because what I’m really interested in is the Platonic idea of the piece”.[4] Koons deals with the concept of aesthetic originality through the extreme practice of reproduction. He is deeply invested in the copy: for example, the painting of an Old Master that appears identical but is not quite to scale or the ancient sculptural group that is reproduced from its Roman copy in place of the original. These are copies that revel in drawing attention to their iterability. Koons’ mimetic practice constitutes a transcendence of sorts, but that is a term so featherweight in its critical purchase that it sails out of the window. This practice is glib:  you can barely construe this as a response to the nexus of problems that have accumulated around mimesis in the history of philosophy in the last two thousand years. Walking out of the cave might make you very rich indeed.

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“Ballon Venus” mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating
102 x 48 x 50 inches
259.1 x 121.9 x 127 cm
© Jeff Koons
2008-2012

Antiquity is the loose thematic unity of the second room. It has several large canvasses displaying almost exact replicas of oil paintings on which Koons has enacted his collage of art history techniques. You are confronted immediately however with three enormous steel statues. Two are oversized replicas of ballet dancer figurines, the kind that might appear on a suburban mantelpiece. The third figure is Koon’s response to the Venus of Willendorf in “Balloon Venus (Magenta)” (2008-2012). The accompanying signage for “Rabbit” indicates what steel means as a medium for Koons, and why he might have chosen it to represent Venus: “The surface of my stainless steel pieces is pure sex and gives an object both a masculine and feminine side: the weight of the steel engages with the femininity of the reflective surface”. The totalitarian undertones of purity as the rubric for sex is evident in this zero-sum of erotic relations. “Balloon Venus (Magenta)” transforms the ancient stone fertility symbol from a handheld talismanic object of sexual meaning into a larger than life, multi-ton steel structure. Her highly polished reflective surfaces throw the viewer back on themselves a hundred times, perhaps so you might avoid thinking how neutered the goddess herself has become. Here is Venus translated for the twenty first century: she could have been a gloriously vital magenta sex symbol – but she’s cold to the touch.

Venus and satyr
“Antiquity 1” oil on canvas 108 x 84 inches/274.3 x 213.4 cm © Jeff Koons 2009-2012

In the same room as these sculptures are selected parts of the series called “Antiquity”. On some of these, Koons and his army of technicians have recreated almost stroke for stroke the oil paintings of a little known early twentieth century painter Louis Eilshemius, over which various images of Greek sculpture are placed. Other canvases have landscapes, as gaudy and generic as a screensaver, serving as the background to the same jumble of ancient images. On top of some of these are diagrammatized female genitalia, recalling Gustave Courbet’s frank and full-bushed “The Origin of the World” (1866). All these canvasses display a statue group in which a Venus is about to strike a groping satyr and raises her shoe in consternation.

Balloon Venus in front of painting from Antiquity series
Balloon Venus and Antiquity series on display at the Ashmolean. Photo C. Atack.

Koons scours his own back catalogue for inspiration for the collaging, providing a monkey and the dolphin for the final canvas. “Antiquity 2 (Dots)” shows the model Gretchen Mol, made up as the early twentieth century pin-up Bettie Page, astride the dolphin and about to seduce an inflatable monkey. In the corner of this canvas is the image of another satyr, ithyphallic and menacing behind the central three figures. Does this rockabilly Aphrodite disinter given logics of sex? Did it matter that Koons only found out after the making of this piece that the ancient myth included this scene or is the sum total of what’s on display here just a fluency with the visual idioms of mainstream porn, ancient and modern? Koons’ mixing of media and imagery is bold – the point could perhaps be construed as a parallel between sexual ethics, ancient and modern, and thus anachronistic. But in Koons’ world, sex, and antiquity for that matter, appear exclusively in the commodity state with no room for the messy realities of (desiring) the past, people, and things.

Screenshot 2019-04-08 13.42.08
Gazing Ball (Belvedere Torso) plaster and glass 
71 1/2 x 29 7/8 x 35 1/8 inches
181.6 x 75.9 x 89.2 cm
© Jeff Koons
2013

In the next room, “Gazing Balls” has replicas of iconic paintings and sculptures from the history of Western art to which Koons has added polished balls in electric steel. Any pun one could make about blue balls is anticipated by Koons – it is so knowing of the irony, it has already undercut itself a thousand times. The overall visual statement that Koons makes with the addition of these balls is so self-congratulatory that he has almost no need for a viewer to gaze into them. Once more the attention to detail in making replicas advertises technical mastery. The reproduction technique of the ancient sculptures is particularly disturbing. Koons gives us replicas of the plaster casts in all their un-patinated white purity – even if he was aware that the original sculptures were colorfully painted, it is not clear to me that this would trouble his vacuous fetish of the replica. The sheer laziness of this practice is breathtaking given the contemporary scholarly and public conversations around the politics of colour and race in the aesthetics of antiquity. In the virtuosic display of reproduction, Koons’ aesthetic calculus of purity implicates race as well as sex.

Among the replicas of Theodore Gericault’s “The Raft of Medusa” (1818-19) and an everyday American postbox, Koons makes his blue ball steel additions to the Belvedere torso and Praxiteles’ Silenus with Baby Dionysus. It could be anachronism in action: the familiarity of ancient artworks thrown into disarray by being re-positioned and re-situated. Or, the gazing balls could invite us to reconsider how our relationships with antiquity are mediated by subjective notions of value. Or they could require us to review the ideological frameworks of spectatorship of which we might be more of less aware. There’s nothing here though to prompt such critical thinking – this is art that armours itself against theory.

Koons would like us to walk away with the idea that history of art is radically democractic – open to all, no prior knowledge needed. And yet in the market place of value, the ideologically suspect parts give the game away. His uncritical porno-historiography allows us to understand that cultural value is not under examination here, however bold the juxtapositions of ancient and modern artworks seem to be. In an aesthetic worldview where sex is pure, and reflections provide insight only into yourself, history runs exclusively in one direction. Koons might appear to be the anachronic artist par excellence. Anachronism and Antiquity has sought to construe relationships between past and present in surprising and critically energizing ways. We have paid attention to works of art that create relationships across time that challenge expectation or arrest assumptions about the linear flow of time. In Koons’ sterile world the multi-temporal potential of art points only to history as glossy abyss. Here, only the logic of the commodity reproduction is untouchable.

  • Images sourced from jeffkoons.com, except for installation shot.

[1] http://www.jeffkoons.com/artwork/made-in-heaven

[2] https://www.dazeddigital.com/art-photography/article/43261/1/jeff-koons-ashmolean-review

[3] https://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n15/hal-foster/at-the-whitney

[4] https://032c.com/berlin-review-jeff-koons/

 

Performing ancient epic: Shikandi’s anachronistic revenge

Until the Lions

Roundhouse, London January 11-17

Akram Khan Company

screenshot 2019-01-17 11.58.46In my previous post, I considered how a recent performance of Memorial, Alice Oswald’s retelling of the Iliad, creatively negotiated dynamics of temporality and how it represented the suffering of those about whom the poem remains silent. This post takes a lateral step, considering these interleaving issues in light of a performance of Karthika Nair’s Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata (2015) a retelling of the ancient Indian epic. The poem is attributed to the sage Vyasa and tells the story of the world-shaking struggle between two branches of a single family. A narrative that dwells on and in violence, intimate and epic, the Mahabharata is thought to have such perlocutionary force that it is customarily kept out of Hindu households to ward off the possibility of inviting in such familial strife. Comparative study of the poetics of the Mahabharata (and the Ramayana) with Homeric epics is by no means a new scholarly activity. If one of the main advantages of reception studies is the ability to approach traditions critically, then comparison of the contemporary performance reception of these poetic traditions might be a way of circumventing the worst orientalist impulses that were historically part and parcel of the comparative method.

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Akram Khan has toured his soaring, visceral dance adaptation of Until the Lions around the world and brought it back to London for a limited run. Khan is one of the foremost choreographers and performers of his generation: he innovatively marries his early training in the classical north Indian Kathak tradition with the forms of contemporary choreography. His style is arresting and thrillingly kinetic. A raised stage intentionally recalled a cross-section of a felled tree with its concentric circles, across which Khan himself as Bheeshma, Ching-Yien Chien as Shikandi and Joy Alpuerto Ritter as Amba work out this slice of the Mahabharata in the frequently non-mimetic idiom of contemporary dance. Unlike Brink productions’ of Memorial in which singers and performing chorus of hundreds were physically separate, here the three dancers and the five musicians interacted, telling the story together, whorling around the tree-trunk stage or using the stage as an enormous percussive instrument in its own right.

screenshot 2019-01-17 12.32.05

 

A central observation for Nair and Oswald is that power operates at the core of ancient epic narrative. Moreover both writers share a concern with radically revising the structure of the epic poems in their creative responses. In this interview, Nair demurs from a direct comparison with Oswald, citing not only her lack of direct access to the Vedic Sanskrit (where Oswald could get inside the Homeric Greek) but also the difference in their creative methods. If Oswald seeks a kind of ‘poetic archaeology’, Nair insists that her retelling of the Mahabharata is a process of ‘refracting’ the ancient material. This difference of method emerges in the way that Oswald preserves the omniscience of the narrator, where Nair fractures the narrative into eighteen different voices. As Nair says in an interview with Tishani Doshi : “My real concerns when I began working on Until the Lions revolved around structure. I fretted about chronology. I was anxious about channelling the Mahabharata through eighteen sets of narrators without turning it into a kaleidoscope of voices.”

Khan deals with the anxiety about kaleidoscoping voice by choosing one narrative on which to focus: the story of Bheeshma and Amba. As Madhavi Menon reminds us (2018:117-9), this narrative tangles up desires multiple and celibate, temporalities elastic and ruptured. Bheeshma was a warrior who undertook a vow of celibacy (Bheeshma means ‘he of the terrible oath’) in return for which he was granted the boon of choosing the moment of his death. In the course of the war, he took Amba as a ‘spear won bride’ to give to a male relative, to use a euphemism straight out of the Homeric primer. On discovering that she was in love with someone else, Bheeshma attempted to release her back to her beloved but failed because Amba was now ‘soiled goods’ because of her contact with Bheeshma. Unwanted and unloved, Amba undertook severe penances and threatened to throw the whole cosmic order into disarray with her grief (not unlike the scale of Demeter’s grief for Persephone). Shiva therefore intervened and granted her the boon of killing Bheeshma in her next life. Amba became Shikandi, who though born a woman is eventually transformed Tiresias-like into a man on a mission to revenge himself on Bheeshma. They met on the battlefield where Bheeshma recognized his enemy as Amba/Shikandi – he laid down his weapons and allowed Shikandi to take vengeance, though invoking his boon, he delays the actual moment of his death till after the war.

screenshot 2019-01-17 12.36.52

This is how Nair imagines Shikandi’s mother (an unnamed woman in the original epic) dreaming of her child’s sex-change and unnaturally over-long desire to kill:

In these dreams, Shikhandi crushes
both breasts and unwraps sinewed legs,
casts shoulder and pelvis in male
mould then carves muscles till they shine—
bronzed, blood-soaked, a warrior’s shield.

Is that past or future? He slips
into Bheeshma’s sleep, a land he
has owned for thirty-six thousand
nights and days. Honour lies in wait,
a quivering, tongueless, wild beast.

For they who’ve never tasted love
cannot know hate, and Shikhandi
has hated longer and better
than most on earth. He borrows rage
from the sun, endurance from stars.

Nair’s methodological ‘fretting about chronology’ point us towards looking at how time is organized, particularly around the figure of Amba/Shikandi. In the passage cited above, we see that fretting has morphed into the existential terror of a mother struggling to understand her dream-child, a malevolent figure whose motivating rage extends beyond a single human life. No wonder she asks: ‘Is that past or future’? The figure of Shikandi is rage as embodied anachronism, unsettling the normative accounting of human life in time or in flesh. This puts me in mind of the conversation between Solon and Croesus (Hdt 1.29-33), an episode that we on the Anachronism and Antiquity project read as a crucible of anachronism. It is not at the end of a life that Shikandi and Bheeshma get their respective satisfactions. Rather happiness is forestalled, long after the allotted moments of their biological death, thus causing creating complexity for how we think humans experience time – memories are carried over into differently gendered bodies, hearts hum with ancient misery, arrows pierce a hero made invulnerable by his celibacy.

screenshot 2019-01-17 12.13.29

Watching this adaption of Until the Lions made specifically for the Roundhouse’s circular performance space, I was struck by how these conflicts in desire and temporality were distilled in the staging and the physical space of the performance. For the entire performance until Bheeshma’s death, a cast of a severed head is mounted on a pole as a memento mori governing the action, placed there by Shikandi at the start. At the moment of the climactic encounter between Bheeshma and Shikandi, the seemingly solid ground gives way. Amba has previously drawn attention to this deep crack in the earth in her desperate clawing at it, an attempt to hide her shame and rage under the ground perhaps. As Bheeshma realizes, Hector-like, that the gig is up and the scales have always been divinely tipped agains him, he turns and walks slowly to the mounted severed head. As he moves, the stages rises in uneven pieces, Shikandi standing triumphantly on the highest jagged outcrop. The lighting and smoke from below give the sense of Shikandi standing on top of a lavafield, or in the smouldering aftermath of an apocalyptic event. The normal sequence of time has been disrupted by Shikandi’s triumph, and so the orderly rings of the tree stage which fitted neatly together, have given way under the pressure of the cosmic proportions of one person’s despair and revenge.

 

References:

  • Nair, K. (2015) Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata (Harper Collins India)
  • Menon, M. (2018) Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India (Speaking Tiger Books)
  • Udumudi, S. (2017) Indian Studies After Indology: An Interview with Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee

Images from http://www.akramkhancompany.net/productions/until-the-lions/  and http://www.roundhouse.org.uk/whats-on/2019/until-the-lions/

 

 

 

“Memorial” and Anachronism

Brink Productions debuted Memorial at the Adelaide Festival for performances from 1-6 March 2018. The production came to the Barbican, London, 27-30 September 2018.

 

In 1940 Simone Weil declared that ‘The true hero, the true subject of the Iliad, is force’ (Weil, Besplaoff, McCarthy 2005), directing us to interpret the poem’s protagonist as mēnis (rage). The power of Weil’s reading is to strip away the focus on character and urge us to appreciate the poem’s structuring and destructive tendencies. Alice Oswald takes up the baton from Weil in Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad (2011), her poetic to the Iliad. Oswald turns away from the thundering and galloping and raging and squabbling of the main Greek and Trojan heroes. In an extraordinary formal experiment, Memorial asks with Simone Weil, “what would it look like to read the Iliad without Achilles?”

Oswald’s answer is altogether less austere and relentlessly form-focused than Weil’s. Memorial seeks to commemorate the nameless and the barely mentioned, the 215 fallen men that Homer skims by and whose sole claim to posthumous fame might lie at the business end of Diomedes’ spear, or an inglorious spew of brains on that windy Trojan plain through which Achilles stomps, or the barely logical narrative hook from which hangs an abundant Homeric simile. Oswald describes her processing of the Iliad as ‘an attempt to retrieve the poem’s enargeia, to take away its narrative, as you might rip the roof off a church in order to remember what you’re worshipping’ (Oswald, 2011, ix). She is also highly aware that junking most of the plot and the focus on the main heroes constitutes ‘a reckless dismissal of seven-eighths of the poem’ (Oswald, 2011, x). Oswald’s poetic sensibility is both tender and rock-and-roll, eyeing up eternity and the bright immediate now – in other words, anachronistic.

Oswald’s insistence on the humanity of each individual that she can recoup from the Homeric poem radically reshapes the kind of poem she offers as a response to the Iliad. It also reshapes the form of the Brink Productions recent performance of Memorial. Demurring from merely cataloguing the dead, in the manner that Homer gathers ships, or Hesiod women, Oswald toggles between creating biography and simile for each man and his death, a ‘bi-polar’ mode. Her invented biographical details are agonizingly specific: see for example, ‘Polydorus… who loved running/ now somebody has to tell his father/ That exhausted man leaning on the wall/ looking for his favourite son’ (Oswald, 2011, 64). And make no mistake, Oswald is an excellent reader of Homer – I snorted out loud at the epithet “neurotic” for Cassandra.

Particularity is precisely what is squeezed out of the Iliad for these men – there simply is no room for such mass of detail in a narrative in which the hot and heavy stirrings of the Hero (capital H)’s heart must be carefully tracked. Oswald’s procedure has a paradoxical effect – to individualize and restore humanity to hundreds of men, but in doing so, rendering the crowd of soldiers the protagonist of the poem. In this production, a non-professional group of volunteer men, women, and children form the chorus, drawn from local London community choirs and theatre groups. This chorus plays out the destruction of the city, the men who die, and even the Trojan plain itself – the play starts in darkness with a field of bodies peeling themselves up from the floor. Later, the chorus forms the din of battle (not unlike the stock footage of city streets that accompanies news reports on television, or murmurations of starlings, with clear internal logic and patterns that can only be appreciated by an onlooker). Homer’s similes do a lot of work to imagine worlds full of sympathetic and sensuous connections – it is quite another thing to see a river of bodies literalized as the Scamander, or a crowd of two hundred people gather round and form the walls of Troy.

Screenshot 2018-11-10 22.15.33

Oswald does not entirely eschew the Iliadic plot – there are obvious moments that re-create episodes such as Odysseus and Diomedes’ (textually and ethically dubious) night time raid on the camp of Rhesus in Iliad Book Ten. Not focusing on Achilles’ rage or the politicking of the Greek kings or the Trojan princes means that Oswald is able to lay bare their brutality, stripping back the presentation of Agamemnon to a commander who showed no mercy to a defenseless and naked young man who begged for his life.

This production chooses to linger on Hector’s death, as Memorial does, with significant change from the final books of the Iliad. Instead of the formality of ransoming of Hector’s body and the citywide mourning for the hero’s final journey home, the last we see of him in this production is (a character that we can assume is) Andromache, awkwardly dragging her husband’s much larger body off stage. It is a quietly powerful rebuttal to the endgame of Achilles’ rage, produced by the radical de-centering of character and plot.

 Helen Morse, grande dame of the Australian stage, performed the only speaking role, a modern rhapsode who was capable of communicating each soldier’s brief moment in the spotlight with gravitas and empathy. An older female Homeric narrator on stage, in the long tradition of contesting Homer’s gender (see Samuel Butler’s The Authoress of the Odyssey, 1897) as well as in the more recent controversy caused by Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey (2017), was a canny move in the context of Oswald’s investigation of the conceptual motor of the Iliad.

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Morse’s tremendous performance compelled Memorial on, keeping compassion fatigue at bay and interest high – she spoke continuously for nearly two hours, tracing lives that flashed for a moment, lamenting and making each grief anew. (Not rendering lament monotonous is a feat in itself – I remember feeling numb at Juliette Binoche’s relentless Antigone, performed at the same theatre a few years ago). It is astonishing to hear the powerful roll call of the dead, carefully named, each death mourned as an individual loss.

Oswald’s memorializing procedure is passionately humanizing – to that end, it feels as though it could be a memorial for all time, or for every moment that we need reminding that war is the worst manifestation of human power. The gloss of the eternal has the potential to reduce Oswald’s poem to a solemn exercise in commemoration. Brink Productions opted for two particularizing strategies that chip away at this sense of timelessness, to drag Memorial into historical and geographical specificity.

The first is Jocelyn Pook’s achingly beautiful score, using mainly two singers from Bulgaria and Macedonia, along with oboe, clarinets, brass and shawm, a medieval woodwind instrument. Director Chris Drummond at one point called this production of Memorial an “oratorio” – the evocative blend of word and song was distilled in the geographical and cultural specificity of using Balkan women’s lamenting voices.

If this production of Memorial pinned itself down in place to great effect, its temporal unpinning worked well too. About two thirds of the way through, soldiers dressed in World War One uniforms appear, dotted through the crowd, conspicuous in khaki among the chorus dressed in light, contemporary style, loose clothes. It was just a moment and more heavy-handed direction would have visually emphasized the connection between the mythological and historical wars. The point of not doing this, I take it, is not to bewail the pity of war in a facile way. Rather, Brink Productions’ handling of their commission to contribute to WWI commemorations layers over the universal significance of Memorial with the gentle insistence that that those who died in between 1914 and 1918 will fade from living memory too, their specific contours will blur, and they too will need commemorations that seek particularity. Faced with the anachronistic community of the war dead for just a moment, Brink Productions showed us a glimpse of the un/timeliness, as well as the deep compassion, that moves under memory.

 

References:

  • Butler, S. (1897) The Authoress of the Odyssey (London &c.)
  • Oswald, A., (2011) Memorial (London: Faber)
  • Weil, S.,  Bespaloff, S. (2005) [1945, 1947] War and the Iliad translated by Mary McCarthy (New York: New York Review of Books).
  • Wilson, E. R. (trans.) (2018) The Odyssey (New York: W.W. Norton)