Safety Curtain 2007/2008

Interview with Jeff Koons

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: As my first question I'd like to ask you is if you could tell me about the genesis of the stage curtain project in Vienna and how you chose the image for the context of the opera.

Jeff Koons: Well, the image that I used comes from a painting called "Geisha". I felt that it was an image that really had a very wide narrative. It was an image that didn't feel specific in any one narrative and would be open to many narratives, no matter what event was taking place in the opera house.

HUO: So the is that the viewer – thousands of people will sit in front of it throughout the year – the viewer can think of many different interpretations, readings and views.

JK: Yes, Hans, that's absolutely right. Anyone looking would never be bored. They would always be able to look, find something interesting, and make different associations to it. For instance, there are some monkeys in the design. You could look at them and think of an entertainer that has a monkey, like an organ grinder.

HUO: The painting is of a staggering complexity. I think this sort of complexity, its multi-layered aspect, allows different readings. Could you say something about this complexity? I think it is one of the things that make this painting so special.

JK: There are different elements in the painting. One element is a train, which is approaching and meeting a horse and buggy. You have one technology replacing another technology, so there's this sexual tension. There's sexual tension represented by Popeye and Olive Oyl. They are two American cartoon figures, Popeye being masculine and Olive Oyl being feminine. They are representing the sexual tension of this meeting, one technology replacing another one. It puts you in contact with a sense of your own mortality. There's also an image of a geisha, which comes from a Japanese woodblock print from the 1700's. This again is representing a sexualized kind of surface to the piece. Another element would be the Hulk, a comic book figure. What I liked about the Hulk is that he seems to represent both Eastern and Western culture. You can think of this as an action figure, a comic book figure, but at the same time you can look at it and see the connection to Eastern guardian gods. These protectors are also capable of extreme violence.

HUO: The audience in the opera might not be familiar with the whole series of work that this painting is part of. Could you tell us to what extent it is part of a bigger series of paintings?

JK: The main thing in creating a work is that you try to give something a sense of energy. Visually, I think this work has a powerful sense of energy. When you look at it you can feel it. It's part of a body of work called "Hulk Elvis". It's a body of work which tries to deal with the visceral. When you look at these images you can really feel a sense of power. It's a body of work which also tries to connect people by using art history and references to art history. It has a way of connecting people with humanity, with the depths of our own human history. It gives us a sense of our past, but also our future. Geisha is just one image from a series of paintings I've done. Usually, they're incorporating an aspect of the Hulk figure, representing a position like Andy Warhol's Elvis. That's why I called the series "Hulk Elvis". They represent some paintings using monkeys, which are related to the Monkey Train paintings. I think that's incorporated into "Geisha" very clearly. You have a monkey head and you also have the train and a horse buggy meeting. I think these works deal with mortality. There were other works in the series, which were based on landscape, which gives this body of work some feminine aspects.

HUO: Daniel Birnbaum once said in a text he wrote a couple of years ago, that he thinks the current moment is almost a moment of an orgy of appropriation. Since this notion was used so much in the eighties, how do you feel about the notion of appropriation in relation to the piece now?

JK: I saw Daniel at Frankfurt Airport. It was very nice to see him, but you know, I've never really felt part of appropriation. I've always felt that I'm from the tradition of the Readymade more than appropriation. The reason I make this distinction is that I think the Readymade is really about optimism and not about theft. Appropriation is based in this sense of something subversive taking place and taking something – taking control – whereas the Readymade philosophy is much more optimistic. It is about everything being accessible and there is no sense of ownership when it comes to human history. Art is really about dealing with metaphors and aesthetics. Everything is really about metaphors of acceptance and nothing ever is really about objects. It's always about people. I like being tied to an artistic history, which is about using art as a vehicle that helps people accept themselves and to accept others.

HUO: Very often elements of your paintings, like the Hulk, could pop up in a three-dimensional way, in a sculpture. I think it's very interesting to imagine the big curtain with the huge painting, which will be up for an entire year, suddenly popping up in the space in 3D. It's a question about the space between painting and sculpture, really.

JK: I think that art deals with internal and external life. It deals with the interface of the two, internal life and the way people deal with the external world. I think aspects of things being three-dimensional, having three-dimensional and two-dimensional things together almost maintains that kind of tension. The ongoing tension of deciphering the world and dealing with the differences of the internal and external . Sorry, I'm not ending that very well.

HUO: No, that's a great answer and it leads us to the question of architecture and space. Obviously the opera in Vienna is this spectacular space – it's also related to the extraordinary opera space in Budapest. The painting, blown up as this gigantic curtain, will have a very strong architectural presence in the space. How do you feel about the relationship between painting and architecture?

JK: I saw the image inside the architecture and I felt that it was very enhanced in the sense that it is a stage curtain. It became very enhanced, it was a platform that an activity was going to take place behind it at some point, and it would open up. It felt very much like this platform for an event. That seemed very enlightened. I wish I had the image in front of me right now, Hans, but it seemed that it was a very baroque interior, right?

HUO: Very baroque, yes.

JK: . with gold and a lot of the different swirls. The monochrome areas of the design of the curtain play off very well against them.

HUO: How do you feel about the of a work of art spreading from the studio out into the world and existing in a different format, travelling into a much larger format, being printed. In the sixties and seventies, Gilbert and George spoke of art for all. The that works of art can travel through all kinds of media in different ways to reach more people. Are you interested in the of art for all?

JK: I am interested because I believe in generosity. I believe that's what artists have to do, be as generous as possible. I think that the medium of distribution really doesn't come through whether it's a curtain in an opera house or whether you're printing something on towels or a magazine cover. I think it really comes through the But to have different media for the presentation of the I think is really important. In my ongoing work of making the sculptures for the "Hulk Elvis" series I'm working on a large public sculpture, even designing the exterior of Dakis Joannou's yacht. There's a large public sculpture for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) that I'm working on the structural engineering titled "Train".

HUO: The steam thing you mentioned before, the steam of the train.

JK: That's correct. It incorporates a crane, which comes from Germany, a Liebherr crane. Hanging from this readymade crane is a replica 1943 steam engine, a 2900 series, one of the largest steam engines ever made. It's hanging facing the ground, and the cowcatcher of the train is about 30 feet from the ground. This train will start up, perform, and the audience can walk directly underneath it, nothing encumbering, standing between them and the cowcatcher of the train facing them. It will start up, gain momentum and going full speed be very orgasmic – "whooo, whooo, whooo". Then it will decline its speed until it comes to a stop.

HUO: One very last question about Vienna. I mean, the curtain will be in Vienna and hundreds of thousands of people will see the painting throughout the year. What is your relationship to Vienna? Do you like Vienna? Have you had any special experiences with Vienna? Has Vienna played a role in your work? Just anything that comes to your mind about Vienna would be interesting.

JK: Well, I've always enjoyed the of a college town. I think of Vienna in that way. When I lived in Munich I would visit Vienna to see different art exhibitions. Two weeks ago I went to the Kunsthalle to see Dakis Joannou's exhibition "Dream and Trauma". I've given talks at the university so I've had a nice interaction with Vienna. I've always enjoyed the large historic museum with the old paintings; it's just an amazing collection.

HUO: Ok, well thank you so much. It's been another great interview.

(New York 07/18/2007)