Jeff Koons during the preview of “Hulk Elvis” at Gagosian Gallery Hong Kong, 2014. Photo by Siobhan Bent for ArtAsiaPacific

Nov 07 2014

Jeff Koons: Hulk Elvis

by Siobhan Bent

Jeff Koons, one of the world’s most expensive living artists, widely known for his balloon-animal sculptures, began his bronze “Hulk Elvis” series more than a decade ago. Since then, the ceaselessly ongoing group of works has seen a splashy debut at Gagosian Gallery’s Britannia Street location in London (2007) and was chronicled, perhaps prematurely, in a 5-pound, 138-page catalogue in 2009.

As early as 2011, at a joint talk in Abu Dhabi with Koons and his longtime dealer Larry Gagosian, it was mentioned that the artist’s Hulk figures were destined for Hong Kong in what would be his first Asian solo exhibition. Yet it was not until this week that the Hulks and their camera-ready creator arrived in Asia for the first time.

The artist did not disappoint, delivering his well-known Koons-isms on topics ranging from the collective unconscious and collecting art, to parenthood and politics, to gender and genetics—and, of course, art itself.

Incidentally, in 2008, Andy Warhol’s silkscreen painting Eight Elvises (1963) sold for USD 100 million, making it the highest priced work by the artist at the time. Koons has often cited the groundbreaking Pop artist as an inspiration; what remains to be seen is whether Koons’s homage to the King in “Hulk Elvis” will have the same impact that his hero did.

In the preview of “Hulk Elvis” at Gagosian Gallery in Hong Kong on November 6, Koons elaborated on a few of the running topics surrounding his practice.

Jeff Koons on “Hulk Elvis”:

It has been very demanding bringing the technology to a level that would make this work—that’s why it took so much time [to complete]. But it has been so meaningful to be able to share a dialogue between Western and Asian culture. [To create the works] we use a scanner, take that data and reverse engineer it to create the sculpture without any human touch.

On sexuality:

The first segregator in art is sexuality. I try to remove all forms of segregation. The first segregator is whether you’re male or female, so I love to work with images that are masculine and feminine. In Hulks (Bell) (2004–12), the bell is feminine [in] the sound it makes, versus the sound Hulk (Organ) (2004–14) makes. The latter is as loud as a helicopter. It doesn’t have perfect pitch. It has only 24 notes, but … it’s very, very powerful.

If you look at the Hulk, it’s very masculine; but it’s [also] wearing a “skirt.” [The “skirt”] is supposed to be the result of the Hulk growing [big from rage] and ripping up his pants. But, [to me] he actually has a skirt—so, there’s always this combination of the masculine and the feminine. It helps remove the segregation. The paintings, like Couple (Dots) Landscape (2009), counterbalance the masculine, high-testosterone Hulks.

On mortality:

I really enjoy working together the animate and inanimate, as with Hulk (Wheelbarrow) (2004–13). With live, growing plants, we have a sense of their mortality. We know that the plants are here. They’re flourishing. But we also know they don’t have much time. This gives us a sense of our own mortality. At the same time, there’s also a funerary aspect. They allow us to be conscious of mortality.

JEFF KOONS, Hulk (Organ), 2004–14, polychromed bronze and mixed media, 252.7 × 127.6 × 80.3 cm. Copyright the artist. Photo by Siobhan Bent for ArtAsiaPacific

On Asian influences:

[In 2012] I went to the Beilin Museum [which houses a collection of stone sculptures and steles dating to 1087] in Xi’an, China. I had one of the most moving experiences of my life. In one room there were eight sculptures of the Buddha on one side and another eight on the opposite side. The Buddha figures were very different in each of their features. The “highest” Buddha figures were minimal, and located on the other side of the room were the “lower” Buddhas, which were more decorative. It was an experience that made it so clear to me that “less is more.” The [high Buddhas] were like Aphrodites in Greek culture: so pure. That’s why I have the “Hulk Elvis” pieces facing each other.

On kitsch:

I work with ready-mades, just because there’s a sense of familiarity and acceptance to them. It’s all a metaphor for acceptance of the self and others. I don’t believe in “kitsch.” [Acknowledging the notion of] “kitsch” establishes a hierarchy that dictates whether one thing is not at the same level of something else. The word “kitsch” itself disempowers. If you segregate things they’re no longer at the same level [as one another]. Certain things may have more significance to you; but that can change, and it doesn’t mean there has to be a hierarchy. Everything can be accepted.

On museums:

If I had to work in any museum in the world it would be the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. It has [Peter Paul] Rubens, [François] Boucher and [Nicolas] Poussin. I love encyclopedic museums. The Louvre is astounding with all the different works in its collection.

On collecting as an artist:  

I collect. I love that responsibility. [My collection] is mostly Western, prewar. I have some postwar pieces by contemporary artists, but I find that getting involved in contemporary art becomes a dialogue that I’m already involved in via my own life. I’m more interested in having a dialogue with artists that have passed. Picasso is one of my favorite artists, a life-changing [artist] who has really helped me define the value of an artwork. I don’t think that I have any Asian pieces [in my collection], but I have Asian references in my work a lot. I have references to [Kitagawa] Utamaro’s Poem of the Pillow (1788).

JEFF KOONS, Hulk (Friends),  2004–12, polychromed bronze, 181 × 123.2 × 66 cm. Edition of 3 plus 1 AP. Copyright the artist. Photo by Siobhan Bent for ArtAsiaPacific

On fatherhood:

I make things in editions of three, plus an artist’s proof—and that’s so I can keep it. I have eight children so I have to maintain quite a bit of my work just so that when they’re older, my children can have a work of mine. I don’t live with my own work, and the reason for that is I want my children to be able to know me as “dad” and their mother—who is also an artist—as “mom.” When our children think of art, we want them to think of Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, René Magritte, Kitagawa Utamaro.


On genetics:

I’ve been working on my “Antiquity” series (2009–13), which goes back within Western culture, from ancient Greece to the present time. It tries to show connections, the sense of family and of being able to change your genes and your DNA, through your interests in life. It’s not that when you develop these interests and ideas then nothing happens, or that it doesn’t [result in] a biological transformation. I believe that the true value of art is that it’s life-changing. It’s a scientific fact that through environment—through the things and ideas that stimulate you—you can change your genes. That doesn’t mean you can change them for your offspring, but within your own life your genes can adapt and change.


On art and money, and the value of art:

The first time I heard Led Zeppelin, my life became different. All of a sudden I realized that I did want more in life. I did want stronger feelings. I became connected—not intellectually, but through feelings—to a vaster world. I was able to interview [Led Zeppelin founder] Jimmy Page the other day in New York. Talk about the value of art. I paid $19 for that first album. It’s hard to tie these things to money; it’s about experience.

On the art market today:

I’ve always enjoyed commercial galleries. I’ve always enjoyed the excitement, at the interaction of things in a gallery setting, and people having desire for things, and liking and participating in them. My works do go off into different places: public museums, private collections. They’re in the world.

The works have to be funded by somebody. I can’t fund all the works by myself. But I try to make people know that it’s always about ideas. You don’t have to own something to carry it with you all the time. Students can come in here and look at a work and, if they really enjoy it, they can absorb it and carry it with them for the rest of their lives. They don’t have to take the responsibility of ownership—which would mean having to protect and care for it for the future. It’s a lot of responsibility to collect. It’s not the most ideal situation to put [oneself] in.


What I care about is participating. I’ve always wanted to be the best artist I can be and I try to do that every day. But the value [of art] is in how it moves you and how it can transform your life. If society finds that this work is important and we should try to protect it and assume that responsibility, that’s great. But I don’t think about money, and it’s a shame that art today is always being looked at that way.

On transcendence:

What I’ve really tried to do is continue to have transcendence in my work: to become a better artist and a better human being; to exercise the freedom that we have in life for gesture. I want to make the things that I would like to make, and that’s the hardest thing for us to do in life: to do what we really like to do. I want to exercise the freedom to do that and take advantage of that.

I like to think that my art is political because art has changed my life and given me tremendous opportunities. Through philosophy you access the spiritual. It makes me feel a sense of transcendence, and I try to share that. Art objects are transponders. They get your mind going. They relay a certain amount of information that you would like to convey. But at a certain point, the viewers bring their own personal experience and their own lens to the artwork. They finish it off, complete their own meaning for it, bringing their own interests and desires. That’s art. That’s where the art is. It’s inside the viewer. The [works] are just transponders.

JEFF KOONS, Hulks (Bell),  2004–12, polychromed bronze, bronze and wood, 172.9 × 119.4 × 208.3 cm. Edition of 3 plus 1 AP. Copyright the artist. Photo by Siobhan Bent for ArtAsiaPacific

Hulk Elvis" is on view at Gagosian Gallery Hong Kong until December 20, 2014.