Koons' Paris artwork runs into controversy

Jeff Koons.
Jeff Koons.

Artist Jeff Koons donated the concept of a flower sculpture to the city, but its installation and cost are causing a controversy

PARIS •It was announced in November last year with fanfare.

American artist Jeff Koons would donate a monumental sculpture, a hand holding a bouquet of balloon tulips, to the city of Paris to honour victims of the 2015 terrorist attacks there.

The brainchild of the United States Ambassador to France, it was a gift the city could hardly refuse.

Seven months later, the project is caught up in delays.

A private foundation has taken longer than it expected to raise the estimated €3.5 million (S$5.4 million) needed to make and install the work, which is more than 12m high.

Koons donated the concept, but is not paying for the construction cost. And though the plaza he selected to display Bouquet Of Tulips provides a view of the Eiffel Tower in the distance, the pavement is not strong enough to support the sculpture.

"It's a very difficult work to install. It's 30 tonnes and at the moment, we're facing a lot of technical problems," said Mr Jean de Loisy, president of the Palais de Tokyo, one of two contemporary art museums that share a building and the plaza where the sculpture is expected to be permanently placed in the city's 16th arrondissement.

He added that he appreciated the project and Koons' art, but is reluctant to alter underground exhibition rooms by installing pillars that would support the sculpture.

The gift was arranged between the then US Ambassador to France and Monaco, Ms Jane Hartley, and the mayor of Paris to honour French-American friendship and help boost tourism in a city that lives with the constant threat of terrorist attacks.

The announcement was rushed last November before Ms Hartley, an appointee of President Barack Obama, left Paris, but also before the permits had been worked out.

Some in French cultural circles contend that the sculpture was practically foisted on the city.

"They presented this bouquet as a symbolic present to Paris, but we realised it wasn't exactly a present since France had to pay to install it," said Ms Isabel Pasquier, an art critic at France Inter, one of the country's public radio stations.

"Whether you appreciate his art or not," she added, "Jeff Koons is a businessman and we quickly understood that he was offering Paris to himself as a present."

A kind of omerta has fallen over Paris about the project.

Few art critics or curators would speak openly about it even if, privately, they said they found the sculpture in poor taste.

They did not want to offend the former US ambassador, the city or Mr Francois Pinault, a collector of Koons' work and one of France's most powerful businessmen and a top arts patron.

The city proposed several other sites to Koons, but some had structural or aesthetic challenges.

He chose the one in front of the contemporary art museums for its symbolic value. The plaza is not restricted by historic preservation provisions.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Paris city administration said she expects the project to move forward, but would not rule out finding a new location if the current one proves too complex.

France's Culture Ministry is overseeing the logistical studies and permits, which have not been issued.

Some delays are expected because a new culture minister and team were put in place after President Emmanuel Macron was elected last month.

Fonds Pour Paris, or Funds For Paris, a foundation that seeks private money for public projects in the city, is overseeing the fundraising.

"We have the €3 million we need for installation," said Ms AnneCeline Delvert, its deputy director.

She added that the foundation is looking for a private enterprise to donate the €500,000 anticipated for construction services.

She hopes the sculpture, which is being made in Germany, can be installed this year or early next year.

Ms Hartley, now a private citizen, said she plans to donate personally and that she is also helping with fund-raising in New York.

She added that Koons had been talking up the project in New York, sharing images of Bouquet Of Tulips at a recent dinner party.

"He passed around his cellphone. He had the photo on his cellphone and people were so excited," she noted.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2017, with the headline 'Koons' bouquet for Paris is wilting'. Print Edition | Subscribe