Driving in the country, you sometimes see a large crowd of plaster statues in the gravel yard that fronts a cinder block shed. There is usually a Venus de Milo and a Discus Thrower, sometimes a Farnese Hercules. Jammed inside a cyclone fence, these dreadfully white objects look like the ghosts of Western Civilization, rounded up and waiting for nothing in particular. Nature answers Civilization in the form of a dolphin balancing on its tail and there might be a unicorn to represent fantasy, if not the supernatural. These statues always look forlorn, as if the indifferent sunlight had long ago leached away their meaning. They have the presence of husks, flimsy and dusty and preserving their familiar shapes out of habit, not conviction. But what a difference the “art context” makes.
Last month, Jeff Koons showed a batch of these plaster statues at the David Zwirner Gallery, in Chelsea. Because this was a Koons exhibition, there was a snow man—just as there might be in a sculpture yard along Route 9W in upstate New York. There was a row of mailboxes and a bird bath, but most of the objects on view were casts of classical statues: the Barberini Faun, a crouching Venus, Apollo with his lyre, and so on. Far from flimsy and dusty, they looked crisp and solid. They looked confident and ready to be claimed as the trophies they are. Yet they were as empty as their counterparts on 9W, their meaning sacrificed to their service as pedestals for “gazing balls”—spheres of of dark blue mirror glass.
Jeff Koons, Gazing Ball (Apollo Likeios), 2013
Modeled on garden ornaments, the “gazing balls” recall the basketballs Koons suspended in glass cubes. One of them balances on top of Apollo’s lyre. Another rests on the shoulder of Diana, goddess of the hunt. Gazing into one of these balls, you see yourself and your environment curving around to center on you. Each globe reduces everything—the entire world, potentially—to a backdrop highlighted by your solitary presence. You are the subject and so there is no need to recall the significance of Apollo or wonder what it means that Venus, a goddess, is crouching as if in fear. Or your image is the subject and you already know all you need to know about that. With the gazing balls, Koons has found a device that automatically flatters our laziness and the residue of infantile self-absorption that persists in us all. Imagine a revised edition of Shakespeare, who, according to Harold Bloom, is responsible for “the invention of the human.” It’s a big, thick book with an elegant cover made of some flawless, high-tech material. You open it and find that there are no pages, just an empty box of space. On the back wall of the box is a small mirror. You look into it, see yourself, and now you know all you need to know about Shakespeare. Because you are, after all, human and what else is there for you know?