The brilliant and laborious rendition of an ancient doll in typical Koons manner sold in June for a record online price
Long ago, somewhere on the Northern foothills of the Pyrenees, a paleolithic parent used a glassy-sharp flint knife to carve a small piece of ivory tusk the length of his hand into an exaggerated female figure, with huge, pendulous and hanging breasts and enormously bulging buttocks. Her body was entirely made of bulbous curves, and her smooth and zaftig bulk was beautifully sensual and curving. Her arms were thin suggestions, and her little hands rested upon her breasts. Under her sagging belly, her legs retreated as vanishing and footless pegs beneath the mass of her body. She was a mother who had borne many children. She would fit naturally and comfortably into a child’s grip, like a modern doll. She was the woman the child would become.
Twenty-five thousand years have passed since the doll was dropped beside a warming campfire in a cave, the refuge of a prehistoric family sheltering from the bitter Gravettian cold. Imagine her gently slipping from the hand of a little girl nodding off in the arms of her father and colored by the orange glow of the flames, falling to the ground, and then forgotten when the child awoke next morning. Imagine this little girl’s tears when she realized she had lost her doll later in the day when the cave was far behind the hunting and gathering family. Imagine scattered dirt and debris slowly filling the cave, gradually covering the firepit and the mannequin which rested beside it, preserving it and the charcoal embers in a bed of earth through the long years.
A century ago, a careless archaeologist swung a pickaxe through the insulating soil that had preserved this ancient figure for the ages and smashed her, earning the well-deserved curses of generations since. She was reconstructed with tremendous care and is kept as a treasure in the Musée de l'Homme, Paris. Because the doll was found in the Rideaux cave near Lespugue, France, she is now known as the Venus of Lespugue.£
Now, Jeff Koons has reimagined the swollen shapes of the ivory doll as an enormous clown’s balloon sculpture. His Balloon Venus Lespugue (Red) is delightfully strange, and the mother figure has become a projection from the ancient past into our time, like a glowing and ethereal special effect in a science fiction movie. She is full of contradictions. She is a soft balloon, but she is made from shining steel. She is the spirit of the most ancient of days, but she is present. She is the trivial product of children’s party entertainment, but she is the wonder and goddess of our time who connects us with atavistic joy to our prehistoric ancestors.
And although she is solid, massive and substantial, her steel form is light and transparent, because she is almost invisible behind her shining surface, which reflects our images back upon ourselves, like the ridiculous twisted and distorted likenesses we see in the mirrors of a carnival sideshow. Superficial but profound, Koons’ speculum shows us a colored and amusing vision of ourselves and our world. She is the hallucination and invention of the past. She is the swing and compass of the present. “I look at it and think of Brancusi,” says Koons.
This Venus is sensual. Koons loves saucy vulgarity. Of course, the bead of the balloon – the source of its inflation where the balloon-maker places his lips to blow life into the limp and phallic balloon – has become the goddess’ vulva, and the swelling of the balloon’s neck forms her mons veneris. Thus, this shining and uncouth earth-mother makes an intense erotic appeal, both hilarious and profoundly fundamental. From the earth we are born. We are the same people as our ancestors.
Koons has a reputation for insisting upon exquisite craftsmanship. His entire process is extraordinarily detailed and precise. To make his Venus, he began by working with a professional balloon bender to develop a method of twisting a long balloon into an inflatable version of the form and fullness of her figure. Finally satisfied that they had the pattern, they began the search for the one, the ideal, the perfected balloon goddess, and the twister made one hundred samples until Koons was satisfied. The one was imaged by computerized tomography (CT scanning) and Koons and his team of engineers went to work to understand and emulate the internal structures of the piece. Koons insisted that the twists of the sculpture were as convincing as the latex turns of a real balloon, that there were no visible welds to compromise the perfection of the surface, that the representation was perfectly realist.
After seven years of labor, of digital analysis, of skilled and immaculate casting, of detailed calculations, the ancient and modern goddess was ready to be introduced to the world. But our viral lockdowns have made travel and gallery visits almost impossible. Koons’ gallerist David Zwirner thought he had the solution, and mounted an internet showroom called “Basel Online: 15 Rooms,” for Art Basel’s digital art fair, showing a gorgeous animation of the Venus spinning in a baroque chamber, which was hypnotically reflected in the curved surfaces of the gif. In it the goddess turns like a pirouetting dancer, fascinating and lovely.
“I started working on Balloon Venus Lespugue in 2013, and Balloon Venus Lespugue (Red) had just been completed in 2020. The online studio presentation is the first time the work has ever been shown to the public. Through its reflection, the sculpture will always be changing and interacting with its environment, whether in an interior space or outdoors,” said Koons.
The bright red and preternatural light that glows from her mirrored surface effortlessly cut through the gloom of Covid-19, and in June Zwirner sold the sculpture for $8 million, a record for online sales at his gallery.
Presently this buyer is as anonymous as the little girl of long ago. Whoever you are, please share this treasure with us, for when Koons, who is surely the goat-footed balloon man of E. E. Cummings’ mud-luscious poem, whistles far and wee, we will come running from the marbles and piracies we play in our socially distanced offices and workplaces to adore this goddess, old and new.