American artist Jeff Koons is having another good year. A retrospective is underway at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and since the $58.4 million sale last November for Balloon Dog (orange), he currently holds the title for the most expensive living artist. He rather entertainingly divides opinion: A kitsch misogynistic fraud or a cultural pioneer of our time – take your pick. What is agreed, is that his life, outlook and achievements all make for a good story.
HERE, we very much appreciate his flair for the botanic. Flowers feature repeatedly in his work and most spectacularly in his towering flowering sculptures: Puppy and Split-Rocker. The first is displayed on the terrace of the Guggenheim Bilbao and forms part of their permanent collection, the latter has recently been relocated to the Rockerfeller centre in New York to coincide with the retrospective. Both have structural similarities, but their form, what they represent and can evoke are quite different – so says Koons. Yet in reference to them both he says:
“I love the dialogue with nature in creating a piece that needs so much control How many plants should be planted? How will these plants survive? while at the same time giving up the control. It’s in nature’s hands, even though you try to plan everything to make the plants survive. This sense of giving up control is very beautiful. The balance between control and giving up control reminds us of the polarity of existence.”
The answers to these functional questions are now known. Take Puppy for example: This 43-foot-tall living plant sculpture of a West Highland terrier has a hollow interior structure made of stainless steel. This is covered with earth, and metal mesh onto which the plants are attached – around 40,000 of them at any one time. The plants as a whole get changed twice a year: in spring a variety of plants are used that can withstand high-temperatures: impatiens, ageratums, begonias, petunias, tajetes, lobelias and carnations; and in autumn only those that can withstand low-temperatures are used, in this case pansies. Ivy is used for the dewlap. An internal irrigation system is built into the artwork with 114 points from which water and fertilisers flow. Irrigation takes place at 22.30pm every night. To maintain it during a planting season, a single gardener attends to it weekly; removing weeds, replacing stuttering plants and giving extra water if need be.
All very interesting, but none of it you would expect that different from many of the huge flower sculptures we see at festivals around the world. Except, that maybe, it’s a little more solid in its construction to withstand permanent public display. Yet while we know that planting different colours and species of plant onto a huge metal frame will always create a grand visual experience, there is still something about Koons’ work, a charismatic audacity, that seems to elevate it above the rest.
Puppy structure explained – in Spanish!
Split-Rocker – half pony, half dinosaur
Thanks to Aitziber Velasco, Department of Conservation, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao for species and maintenance information for Puppy.