Arts and Culture

Jeff Koons and the Year of the Dog

Lisa Guerrero Nakpil - The Philippine Star
Jeff Koons and the Year of the Dog
The Jeff Koons X Bernardaud Balloon Dog

MANILA, Philippines — For Jeff Koons, the Year of the Dog came early — or five years ago to be exact, when his “Balloon Dog (Orange)” sold for the extravagant amount of $58.4 million at Christies New York. The 10-foot-high stainless steel sculpture also cemented Koons’ reputation as the most expensive living artist in the world to be auctioned. It also made him the indisputable king of Pop Art.

Koons has been described as “the evil son of Andy Warhol.” Certainly, his shiny twisted balloons (painstakingly depicted down to the seams, nozzles and knots) are equally subversive and rightful descendants of Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans and silkscreened multiple portraits. Koons created five immense Balloon Dogs in different colors, all in the hands of various international billionaires, including Francois Pinault. (Pinault owns the magenta pooch. He’s the luxury goods mogul and also owner of Christies.) They formed part of his mythical “Celebration” series, portions of which were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art.

At about the time of the Christies sale, Koons also hit upon a marvelous idea: To partner with Bernardaud, the biggest and oldest porcelain company in Limoges, France to create these giant children-party favors in a more accessible size and medium.

Jeff Koons with architect Carlo Calma at Art Basel HK

It took Bernardaud, the same company that produces among others the superb Hermés line of porcelain, some five years to perfect the mirror-like glaze that makes the balloon menagerie so special. The finest porcelain is a white-clay amalgam of such minerals as quartz and feldspar, fired at extremely high temperatures to create their exquisite surface and durability. A special process had to be devised to recreate Koons’ meticulous specifications of high-shine.

Mirror-finishes are an essential aspect of Koons’ art, from the balloon animals to his recent “Gazing Ball” paintings that draw the viewer into Koons’ versions of various masterpieces, from Leonardo da Vinci to Manet, through the onlookers’ own reflections in blue spheres mounted on each painting.

As daunting as production has been, however, Bernardaud executives have said that their main problem with producing the Balloon Dog (Red) plates has been keeping up with the demand. As a result, they have produced a new line of stand-alone balloon animals in three shapes: The Rabbit (Red), The Monkey(Blue), and The Swan (Yellow.) These were based on the original steel sculptures introduced into the “Celebration” series in intervals from 2004 to 2011, reflecting the arduous process of creating a single Koons’ work.

Forty of these Koons X Bernardaud porcelain balloon creatures recently landed in Manila thanks to the high-end Italian furniture company Flexform working in partnership with Gallery Vask.

The mesmerizing animals were all snapped up by avid collectors in just four hours — making Manila officially the most voracious market in the region, according to the astonished Bernardaud officers, Thibault Pointe (head of Asia-Pacific) and colleague Alberto Grottin. Filipino buyers apparently briskly outpaced their counterparts in the rest of Southeast Asia. Quite a few of them turned out for the launch at Manila House but the party was merely by way of a formal announcement since all the inflatables had been spoken for even before the first glass of champagne had been poured.

Leading the pack was the appealing, big-eared “Rabbit” although Timothy Tan of Flexform noted that some collectors insisted on taking all three versions. The Rabbit had an additional nuance this Easter season of spiritual renewal.

Timothy Tan, Alberto Grottin, Robbie Santos, author Lisa G. Nakpil, Jaime Ponce de Leon, and Thibault Pointe at the Manila launch

“(For collectors) it’s a very accessible way of owning your own Koons, without having to pay $58 million and having a billionaire-size museum to put it in,” Tan explained. “There’s been such an unexpected demand that the pieces we displayed at Art Fair Philippines — and which I personally owned — had to be given up for sale,” he added with a mildly forlorn tone.

Thibault Pointe cleverly opined that Koons’ art invests emotion in the every day, recalling childhood memories of birthday parties and juxtaposing them with the mirrored reflections of what we have become today — while at the same time, making an incisive commentary on today’s commercial appetite for “bright, shiny objects.” It’s understandable that that can be a heady combination.

On top of all that, Koons’ animal art pieces are also smart investments on their own. When first released a few months ago, the members of the Balloon Zoo were “a mere” $9,000 each. They have since leapfrogged to the current level of $16,000 — or almost P850,000 — for one adorable animal.

Now that’s one irony — a satire on the high-priced but infant-like appeal of our current times — not about to be lost on the avid collector.



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