Art Basel 2012

Private Parts: At Basel’s Beyeler Foundation, Jeff Koons Unveils, Explains New Work

The highlight of his talk came when Mr. Koons got around to the monumental magenta aluminum balloon animal swan. Completed last year, it’s his newest piece in the Beyeler show, so new that no one has yet attached (publicly) a price tag to it (but one suspects, with his main dealer, Larry Gagosian, in Basel, it has likely sold). “You come upon it and it’s phallic, it’s a totem,” Mr. Koons said. “You go to the side and all of a sudden, sexually, it starts to have this harmony, where the testicles at the base of it start to become the breasts of the swan.”

Would the belief that the biological narrative is the only valid narrative seem indicative of a profoundly conservative Weltaschauung? Totally. Does that lessen my appreciation of Mr. Koons’ art? Not in the least. In fact, his swan is all the more impressive now that I know the ways in which it taps into my base animal nature. To get from his talk to his book signing, people had to walk through the gallery containing the swan. I hung around in there for a bit, watching people gaze at it, and had one of the deeper, and pretty much universally applicable, insights of my trip to Art Basel: everyone here is thinking about breasts and testicles.

But let’s back up. During the talk’s Q&A session, a man in the front row began his question by saying, “I feel like I’ve just been to my shrink, I feel fantastic.” I’d listened to Mr. Koons speak on a number of previous occasions and been lulled into a sort of nodding-along, highly suggestible state, but it had never before occurred to me that the
cadences of his voice are remark-ably similar to those of a professional hypnotist. In Basel, I was able to make this observation with a certain degree of authority, having a few days earlier, at 3 a.m., been driven by jet lag-induced insomnia to listen to an iPhone recording of myself being hypnotized by a professional hypnotherapist. Listening to yourself being hypnotized in order to rehypnotize yourself into falling sleep is, yes, pretty weird and meta, but this seems a good enough place as any to say that it, in fact, works.

If Mr. Koons is, however inadvertently, a kind of hypnotist, he’ll fit right in at the Whitney, which included in one of its biennials an audio tape of a séance meant to summon the soul of Joseph Cornell. Not that it’s the same thing, but it’s close. Anyhow, it’s worth noting in the Basel context that, whatever they are, Mr. Koons’s powers of persuasion are nothing compared to those of the Russian philanthropist Dasha Zhukova, who, the previous evening at the Beyeler, at a dinner she co-hosted with Bryan Lourd, Tina Brown (who didn’t make it) and Credit Suisse, had gotten 200 art world A-listers to sit through a rigorously intellectual onstage discussion between Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rem Koolhaas—by the Political Situation vs. Gross Domestic Product Growth PowerPoint graph, there was audible fidgeting—before settling down to crawfish on a bed of artichokes, steak with truffled potatoes and spring vegetables, and socializing, aka, for many of them, doing business.

I’d intended to buttonhole Mr. Koons at his talk’s afterparty and ask him if there was anything to the hypnotism-vocal cadences thing, if anyone else had ever noticed it, but I got distracted by Pamela Anderson, who, along with the other swells, had headed for the even more bucolic hills on the other side of the Beyeler, where everyone commenced sipping from flutes of champagne near a fence beyond which a cow nursed a calf and, every few seconds, in an action amplified by a cowbell, gave it a swift kick.