Europe Reopening: ‘Jeff Koons: Works From the Pinault Collection’ at Marseille’s Mucem Museum

Above: Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Magenta)

With vaccinated Americans now able to travel to Europe for the first time in nearly sixteen months, the thrill of reading about some or other thing happening in Munich, Madrid or Amsterdam and quickly planning a weekend trip to catch it is happily once again a part of our regular cultural agenda. And of course, the return of the vital exchange of travelers between America and the Continent should soon begin to correct the considerable economic damage done to the hospitality/tourism industry over the course of the coronavirus crisis – which climb back will likely be a long one, and will require our help and enthusiasm.

France, specifically, opens today to US residents who have already gotten the full vaccine. And the harrowing brush with mortality we’ve all just experienced should have decisively reminded us to finally do those things we’ve been putting off while we still have the opportunity to do so. For traveling sorts, one of those things should most definitely be to make haste for some of the perhaps less well-trodden but still culturally copious destinations – so instead of Paris again, perhaps Bordeaux, Lyon or Marseilles?

The latter has been steadily buzzing since its particularly successful run as the European Capital of Culture in 2013 – during which year the spectacular Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (Mucem) was unveiled, with a striking building by controversial French architect Rudy Ricciotti. And last month it opened the much anticipated Jeff Koons: Works From the Pinault Collection, though perhaps without the typical fanfare from the US press (understandably, as we have been so busy covering vaccination programs and political warfare).

Jeff Koons, Dolphin

Now, one might wonder as to the reasoning behind traveling to Europe to see the work of an American artist. But the very title of the exhibition gives it away: these are works specifically from the collection of PPR CEO Francois Pinault – so it may indeed be a one time opportunity to witness this particular overview of Koons’ provocative and polarizing career.

Like Marcel Duchamp before him (and from whom he drew much inspiration), some still cling to the view that Koons is a very clever prankster – or possibly even overarchingly kitsch – with his seemingly cheeky reimagining of everyday objects. But the full nineteen works exhibited here remind how he has always instead been trying to capture something keenly insightful and revelatory about the increasingly ephemeral nature of our disposable pop cultural zeitgeists. He actually very much follows on from Andy Warhol, whose now legendary and yet perpetually misunderstood Campbell’s Soup Cans painting was really just the advertising age’s most idealized update of the modern still life.

But the Mucem exhibition takes Koons’ contextualization into singularly conceptual territory, as each of his works is juxtaposed with another work from the museum’s permanent collection, so as to more readily spark the sort of dialogue that he had surely always hoped he would inspire – even if it were critical of himself. So for instance, his New Hoover Convertible, New Shelton Wet/Dry 10 Gallon Doubledecker (1981) is put into discourse with the “unité écologique,” a historic museographic device with a folk-art resonance – and there’s a very good chance it will leave viewers with something to consider for long after. As it did the artist himself.

Jeff Koons, Lobster

“I was astonished by the vastness of the museum’s collection of everyday objects and images,” Koons enthuses. “One minute you could be looking at the tools of a beekeeper and a moment later turn your head and you are looking at wind instruments. There’s an endless montage that you encounter walking through Mucem collection, and it is always a wonderful experience to stop and ponder the everyday and to let the richness of some of the most accessible images and objects present their beauty.”

The show was co-curated by Émilie Girard and Elena Geuna, with the latter ultimately offering this observation on the genuinely well-executed and unprecedented exhibition: “It invites visitors – room by room – to a spontaneous re-discovery of the everyday. Different kinds of resonances are offered to the viewer: the encounter between Jeff Koons and the Mucem’s collections generates formal, symbolic, or poetic associations, exploring new meanings and interpretations of the works displayed, and promoting a dialogue of openness.”

And after sixteen months of quarantine, openness seems like exactly what we need.

Jeff Koons: Works From the Pinault Collection will be on view at the Mucem in Marseilles through October 18, 2021.

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