BY Jan Verwoert in Reviews | 07 JUN 00
Featured in
Issue 53

Jeff Koons

BY Jan Verwoert in Reviews | 07 JUN 00

Contrary to what you might expect the play ‘Jeff Koons’ (1998) by Rainald Goetz is not, or at least not exactly about Jeff Koons. Basically it's a social portrait of the German ‘bohemia’, and at the centre of it the figure ‘Koons’ serves as an allegory for radical male artistic narcissism. So apart from one scene explicitly depicting what could actually be the opening of one of his shows in the early 90s, Koons remains a variable for ‘the artist’ (‘Koons’ in german sounds like ‘Kunst’ anyway).

Staging the play is a challenge in itself, since the text-book version consists solely of verses with no stage directions or any hints at who the actual speakers of the different voices could be. Director Stefan Bachmann’s production of the play’s première starts with a paunchy journalist named Wagner standing in front of the closed curtains. He claims he's on the guest list and demands entrance. The merciless doorman however, a disembodied deep voice coming from loudspeakers above, decides with divine authority that he doesn't like the guy’s face and will not allow him in. The artist (Oliver Mallison) and his girl (Nina Kunzendorf) appear dressed in silverish catsuits with plastic flowers over their crotches (Annabelle Witt designed the costumes after Koons’ sculptures). The doorman likes their look and lets them in. The curtains rise and reveal that (of course) what goes on inside wasn't really worth the hassle: Ageing men in cheap suits and Warhol-wigs sit in pairs at small tables, imitating a techno stomper in human beat box style: Omph Omph Omph Omph. Apparently everyone in the room is important but most of all very bored. The general stupor is only interrupted from time to time by sudden outbursts of high flying theoretical talk which subsides again to be replaced by generic club-speak: ‘Shall we go to the bar? No, let's roll another one first.’

While the artist engages in some hysteric socialising, the Warhols suddenly form a male choir and render a beautiful a capella version of Madonna's ‘frozen’: ‘You're so consumed with how much you get. You waste your time with hate and regret. You're frozen when you're heart's not open. Mhmhmhmhmhmh, if I could melt your heart.’ The lyrics never seemed more apt. The artist and his lover escape to another stage set on a higher level (stage design Barbara Ehnes) where they freeze into a Koons & Cicciolina ‘Made in Heaven’-pose. Verses are read out to describe how they now make love passionately: two narcissistic egos united in sexual euphoria and complete mutual understanding. They do it again and again until all is covered in bodily fluids. But bliss only lasts till next morning. The artist won't accept happyness and stumbles away from his lover in a flurry of cheap excuses.

As the stage revolves, one gets a short glimpse of a figure in a Pink Panther costume lying idly in the middle of a brightly lit empty white space, head resting on one arm’s elbow while slapping the tail on the floor with the other. A wonderful image of comic melancholia and also the last instant the production allows for a moment of beauty. From now on cynicism takes over and everything goes down the drain.

Scene after scene presents the manic depressive artist who rises to the heights of infantile exaltation just to fall back into the abyss of melodramatic self-regret. He is surrounded by critics and gallery people who flatter him with exuberant appraisal just to conceal their unspoken hatred. The art-world bigottery - the theatre-goer is already anticipating his suspicions to be proven right at this point - comes to its big finale at the gallery-opening. Everyone is wearing plush constumes built after Koon's kitsch sculptures: Mr. and Mrs. Bear in rustic attire, the big brown bear in a stripy shirt, the Pink Panther and 'Popples', a huge fluffy thing. 'Popples' holds a generic (i.e. extremely pompous and largely incoherent) opening speech - while all the other nice furry animals, in a typical Paul Mc Carthy twist, unpack their penises to urinate, masturbate or rape Mrs. Bear. The audience gets the message. It gets confirmed what it long suspected 'visual artists' to be: degenerate ego-maniacs not to be taken seriously.

An easy solution. It doesn't take much to understand that the art-world is rotten to the core, yet people feel pleased if they can share the dirty little secret. In the original text Goetz does not offer any easy solution. He may aim at the disenchantment of the artist's persona, still he never stops struggling for the rescue of certain moments in which things appear in a different light - if only for a moment.

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo, Norway. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his writings, is published by Sternberg Press.