Splendour in the grass
The beautiful bubble of St James's Square
The beautiful bubble of St James's Square
JEFF KOONS is a big baby. The 53-year-old American artist is entranced by balloons, toy rabbits and big-eared puppy dogs. For nearly two decades he has used these images to create outsized, over-the-top kitsch sculptures finished to magnificent, shiny Brancusian perfection in a foundry in Germany. One of his important influences, he has said, was the snap, crackle and pop of breakfast cereal.
Wealthy art buyers find themselves strangely drawn to the world that Mr Koons conjures from the countless parties, circuses and fairs of childhood. A gigantic puppy made of flowers was once pitched in front of Rockefeller Centre in New York. His yellow balloon-dog perches on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a red Koons heart hung in pride of place when François Pinault's Palazzo Grassi held its inaugural exhibition in 2006. A year later it was sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $23.6m.
But consider, for a moment, the more practical question of how to actually install Mr Koons's pieces of shiny stainless-steel ephemera.
“Balloon Flower” is one of five similar sculptures that Mr Koons made between 1995 and 2000. He kept one, which is currently on show at 7 World Trade Centre in New York. Two are in private collections in France. DaimlerChrysler bought a blue version, and installed it on Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, and the fifth, in magenta, is displayed to great effect in a pond in front of the Dallas home of Howard and Cindy Rachofsky, where it seemed to float on the surface of the water (pictured).
The Rachofskys are well-known buyers of American minimalism and Italian art associated with the Arte Povera movement. Three years ago they pledged their art collection to the Dallas Museum of Art. Mr Koons's “Balloon Flower (Magenta)” was deemed incidental: better to sell it to help fund other purchases.
The lightness of “Balloon Flower (Magenta)” is wholly illusory. The sculpture weighs more than eight tonnes and sits in the Rachofskys' pond on a concrete plinth hidden below the surface of the water. The first step, then, was to drain the pond and hire a very large crane.
Christie's, where the sculpture was consigned for sale, had already turned to its operations team in London to draw up plans to transport it to London. Wrapped and boxed in a special reinforced wood and steel crate, the package measured 437 by 318 by 361 centimetres.
Sending it by ship would have taken too long (it would not have docked in Liverpool until July 20th, nearly three weeks after it was due to be auctioned). Not only was the crate heavy, it was also an awkward shape. It would not fit in a Boeing 747 freighter, and once it got to London it was too big to be carried up the stairs of Christie's elegant headquarters in St James's.
The only answer was to leave the work outside.
From its packing site at the edge of the Rachofsky's pond, “Balloon Flower” was loaded onto a ten-wheel Landstar flatbed truck with twin exhausts (suitably painted magenta) and driven to Savannah airport. There it was loaded onto a chartered Antonov 124, a Soviet military aircraft that had been used to ferry tanks and troops to Afghanistan during the 1980 invasion. The Antonov opens by the nose and is the only aircraft that was big enough to take the box.
After refuelling in Newfoundland, Canada, the Antonov flew to Geneva. Another flatbed truck, this time a Mercedes, took the sculpture to the foundry in Germany for a polish. The consignment was accompanied all along the 386-mile route to Hollenbach by a special police escort.
Meanwhile, Christie's in London stepped up its negotiations to display the sculpture in the garden of St James's Sqaure, a process that included not just Mr Koons's studio, but also the St James's Square Trust, a fine-art handling company, a landscape-gardening operation, Westminster Council and the Metropolitan Police.
From Germany the sculpture was trucked through Belgium and France, before heading for London where the police insisted it had to arrive before 6.30am in order to avoid contributing further to London's rush-hour traffic. A 20-tonne crane lifted it over the railings of St James's Square and settled it on the lawn where its giant frame was buried in an elaborate trench that had been dug beneath the surface of the grass.
Ever since the sculpture arrived, puzzled Londoners have been flocking to take pictures of Mr Koons's purple perfection on their mobile phones, and three security guards are on duty round the clock to chase away teenage pranksters who leap over the railings at night when the garden is locked.
Christie's won't say how much it has spent, but everyone knows moving always ends up costing more than you expect. Still, even if the buyer has to charter the trusty Antonov to take the sculpture away, it'll be pennies compared to the purchase price.
“Balloon Flower (Magenta)” is lot 12 in Christie's post-war and contemporary art sale in London on June 30th. Estimate £12m.