Jeff Koons Split-Rocker
May 27–October 1, 2000
In Conversation with Jérôme de Noirmont, Gallerist, on the Presentation of Split-Rocker at Palais des Papes, Avignon
What was it that originally attracted you to Split-Rocker?
In 1998, Hôtel de Ville (Paris’s City Hall) requested that I extend an invitation to Jeff Koons to create a site-specific artwork for the city’s upcoming millennium celebration, a sculpture exhibition that was to be held on the Champs-Élysées. Jeff visited Paris several times to study and experience the proposed sites (the Rond-Point des Champs-Élysées, the Place de la Concord, and others), and he immediately imagined a monumental Split-Rocker. The idea was so exciting that I immediately decided to produce the work! Ultimately, it became apparent that it was technically impossible to present such a large-scale work within the city of Paris for this project.
Several months later, Jean de Loisy came to visit, as he was preparing the "La Beauté in Fabula" show, held at the Palais des Papes in Avignon in May 2000, as part of the huge national millennium celebration managed by the Mission de l’An 2000. Jean proposed that Koons should participate in the show, and thus we all went to Avignon. After our first visit to the Palais des Papes, we decided that it would be magnificent to show Split-Rocker within the beautiful courtyard of the Benoît XII cloister.
What surprised you the most about presenting this work?
After we organized Jeff’s first solo exhibition in France, in 1997, as a very young gallery (we opened in 1994), it was deeply exciting to achieve such a monumental work. Also, Jeff is one of the greatest artists working today, so it was even more touching to participate. We were honored by the trust he placed in us.
My first surprise was the complexity of the production process; it echoed the sophistication of the work. The artist was American, the engineering company was located in Australia, and the stainless-steel structure was manufactured in France. It was like erecting a small but very sophisticated building!
Once Split-Rocker was completed and installed in the cloister, I was struck by its monumentality and its impressive presence within this beautiful Middle Ages courtyard . . . It was a wonderfully meaningful illustration of the force and power of Jeff’s art!
Was there any specific reaction that you found particularly memorable?
The amazement that appeared in the eyes of President Jacques Chirac when he opened the show was a treasure, something I will never forget! His moment of discovery, when he encountered the work through the first-floor windows of the Palais des Papes — he was quite animated when addressing his friend François Pinault: “It’s incredible, extraordinary!”
Why do you think people are so fascinated by this sculpture?
Whoever the visitors were, whether art connoisseurs and specialists or uninitiated viewers, all were equally fascinated by this monumental two-headed artwork. Like a Janus, Split-Rocker deeply moves everyone, most often as an impressive flashback to childhood. This enormous toy, half dino, half pony, acts like an archetype.
Because it’s made with real flowers, the sculpture strikes the viewers with its life force. It evokes an important tradition of topiary, an art form that was popular in France for a long time, notably in Versailles throughout the seventeenth century. Split-Rocker is so spectacular that it’s been regarded as a contemporary wonder of the world, an allusion to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Do you believe art can transform an audience?
Definitely! It is precisely the purpose of Jeff’s art, the foundation of his creative process, and I totally share this vision.
Why is public art important?
Public art leads people to consider familiar places in a new light. It enhances our views and perceptions, and thus changes our attitude.
For example, concerning the topiary aspect, France has a long tradition of public art within towns, where it humanizes urban spaces, as well as in parks, where one can enjoy the beauty of a human creation against the enchanting quality of nature. The confrontation between an artwork and its environment, whether natural or architectural, gives birth to a new vision and to a feeling of harmony within the community.
How did people respond to the sculpture in Avignon?
In 2000, Koons was already very well known as one of the great American artists. Avignon was the first exhibition where the French public could view his monumental work, and also the first time they could experience such an iconic and lively artwork. It quickly became the main symbol of this millennium celebration.
Perhaps you can comment on the history of Picasso’s late exhibitions at the Palais des Papes and the Cubist influence on Split-Rocker.
First of all, it was a great pleasure for Jeff to show his art within the Palais des Papes, almost thirty years after Picasso’s historical show there in 1973. Like the Catalan master, Jeff was unveiling a new and previously unseen work.
The conception of the sculpture itself, its split head specifically, is a direct allusion to Picasso’s art. Also, its toy-based creation reminds us of Picasso’s sensitivity, as he would create small figures and toys out of household materials such as metal, wood, and paper for the sole pleasure of his children and friends.
How would you compare it and Puppy?
Jeff Koons created Split-Rocker based on a concept similar to Puppy, his first monumental sculpture made of living flowers, which was unveiled in Arolsen, Germany, during Kassel’s Documenta in 1992 and versions of which are now displayed in front of the Guggenheim Bilbao and in the collection of the Brant Foundation.
Split-Rocker, which is larger than Puppy, was a wonderful project to celebrate an homage to France and its art history. As Koons has explained: “The creation of Split-Rocker comes originally from the idea of combining two children’s rockers, one featuring a pony, the other a dinosaur. I have lived with both these rockers for many years, and since then, I have always wanted to just split them down the center and then connect them with the handlebar. The result reminds me of two distinct periods of French art: modernism and Baroque. This is a work that I hope will be interesting for everyone, enriching the life of children as well as adults.”
This is a challenging work to install and present. Are there any other thoughts, stories, or memories that you would like to share about your experience showing the work?
I have plenty of memories!
As I mentioned, Split-Rocker is constructed through a series of stages, comparable to the construction of a small building, and is by essence a challenge to install because of its complex technical nature. It was all the more challenging at the Palais des Papes, which is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is visited daily by hundreds of visitors, with very strict regulations regarding weight, protection, and security.
When you create and install such a work for the first time, there are a lot of hazards. Don’t forget that Split-Rocker weighs about 250 tons, is over 11 meters high, and is composed of more than 65,000 flowers!
The watering system is very sophisticated, too, and Jeff wanted the structure and space inside the work to be as perfect as its external surface. The idea was to allow the public to enter this internal space through the two split heads as you would enter a cathedral . . . Thus we had to hide all of the water pipes and all technical components.
This work appears to me a very pure act of love. Its installation was the moment of a true communion between Jeff, Justine Wheeler (who wasn’t yet Mrs. Koons), Gary McCraw, and me . . . During the few weeks of installation, we lived a fantastic adventure, spending our days on scaffolding from dawn to nightfall. Not only did Jeff select and precisely position all the flowers, but he was also there full-time to participate in their planting and to put the final touches on his work.
It was important to Jeff to interact with all of the workers participating in the mounting and the planting, because he wanted to make them love the sculpture even before it was achieved. He intended to pass on his energy, his passion, and his admiration for their expert work.
It was a unique experience for me, a great lesson in both humility and will power.