PRINT September 1990

Michael Tarantino

WHAT IT REALLY comes down to is the difference between the erect and the limp cock. The installations by Jeff Koons and Gran Fury at “Aperto 90” have provided, predictably enough, the controversy at the 1990 Venice Biennale. Both are organized around the phallus. Yet their use of it as a symbol is telling: on the one hand, works by Koons that seem stripped of any power to engage the viewer, the artist’s sex waving in the wind like a pathetic symbol of a failed gambit; on the other, the disembodied, erect penis utilized by Gran Fury, positioned between a text advocating the use of condoms and one reading “AIDS Kills Women.” These are both works of direct address. Yet in their treatment of women and their relationship to representations of sexuality and politics, they could not be further apart.

This is a Biennale characterized by expressions of excess and of spent desire: Izhar Patkin’s grotesque, fawning Don Quixote; Jenny Holzer’s bombardment of the spectator with a series of texts that become unreadable; Antoni Miralda’s gargantuan, lurid celebration of the marriage between the statues of Liberty and Columbus. Koons and Gran Fury represent the extreme poles of this phenomenon. The former is represented by four photographs and one polychromed wood sculpture, the imagery having already achieved the status of an overexposed ad: Jeff and Cicciolina, the artist and the porn star, the artist and his model, the artist and himself. What might have been a radical gesture, the ultimate exposure of the artist as commodity, winds up as an empty, formalist nightmare, where the woman—Ilona on Top (Pink Background), Ilona with Ass Up (Blue Background), Ilona’s Legs Up with Silver Shoes, etc.—is the latest in a series of appropriations, like basketballs or bunnies.

“Appropriation diminishes, the Self’s certitude grows lighter.”1 This Roland Barthes quote seems particularly appropriate with regard to Koons’ newest stratagem. For what do we find in these works but a series of minutely constructed compositions in which the place of the artist is affirmed over and over again. Most of the photographs show Koons gazing directly toward the camera/viewer, while Cicciolina’s eyes are averted, concentrating only on the task at hand. Thus the work takes on all the trappings of a porno film. Which seems to be the point. Yet, like the child looking for approval in the form of condemnation, Koons’ ploy becomes more transparent as we try to engage the work. Far from affirming the artist’s role, it makes it seem redundant: another scene to plod through, as his limp penis and bored, Alfred E. Neuman–like expression attest. Koons appropriates the gestures and compositions of pornography with a totally uncritical eye, as if the mere transposition of these codes into another context could provide a sense of distance.

In his previous work, such as the stainless-steel replicas of Bob Hope or Louis XIV or the series of glossy self-promoting ads taken out in art magazines in 1988, Koons dealt directly with the issues of media manipulation and the infiltration of high and popular culture. His placement of the artist at the heart of these processes—as both subject and object—represented a crucial stage in contemporary artistic practice. While it is hard to deny the importance and prescience of these works, they also make the current pieces seem that much more dubious. If the former were about blind ambition and deception, the latter seem to be nothing more than a smug representation of those states.

Gran Fury’s piece uses classic propaganda means in order to elicit a reaction from the spectator. In the case of Giovanni Carandente, the director of the Visual Arts Section of the Biennale, it was almost too successful. In a blatant attempt at censorship, he managed to keep the work out of “Aperto” for the first day of the press opening, threatening to resign if it was installed. Eventually, an Italian magistrate cleared it for exhibition. Carandente did not resign.

The work itself can be divided into three sections: a series of texts about “taking direct action against the AIDS crisis”; a moralistic, homophobic statement by Cardinal O’Connor of New York, with a complementary text by Gran Fury criticizing the Catholic Church’s contribution to AIDS “hysteria”; and a yellow posterlike collage about the dangers of the disease to both sexes. The middle section is accompanied by a photograph of the Pope, while the last centers the texts around an image of an erect penis.

Gran Fury utilize a basic strategy of opposition, both textual and pictorial. On the one hand, the sacred image of the spiritual leader, on the other, the profane image that connotes a proscribed activity. On the one hand, instances of AIDS activism, on the other, the church’s position that promiscuous sex is responsible for the disease. “Good morality is good medicine.” This is the crux of the church’s “response” to AIDS. The artists’ text answers: “The Catholic Church has long taught men and women to loathe their bodies and to fear their sexual natures.” It is with this evasion in mind that the image of the erect penis (and its connotations of both homosexual and heterosexual activity) becomes crucial to the piece. Not just to shock (although only a thoroughly naive viewer could deny that intention), but to free the image from the current atmosphere of disinformation and censorship. For both Koons and Gran Fury, the penis is a symbol; for the former, another cynical nail in the coffin of the power of art to speak anything but a language of narcissistic consumerism; for the latter, a refutation of a theocentric, moralistic discourse.

Whether Koons’ dick is limp because he has just finished having sex or he is about to is of no consequence. His portrayal of a sexual act, and the positioning of the woman in this scene, must be understood in the context of the promotional still. Previewing the film that is to come, that is to put these scenes in motion, these images revolve around the notion of “promise.” In this case, it is the male who holds the key to that promise, who either performs or does not. Cicciolina is the prop, the vessel (willing or not) of one more predictable discharge.

With Gran Fury, the very fact that it is an erect penis that is featured speaks to a basic misogyny that underlies much of the current controversy over pornographic images. This “debate” seems to fade mysteriously into the background whenever the images concern women or heterosexual couplings. Thus, nude representations of women, or of men with women, seem unproblematic to the culture cops. Yet the current attacks on obscene images imply that it is permissible to exploit women’s bodies, while men’s are to be hidden. In putting their dick squarely in the context of homosexual and heterosexual, male and female concerns, Gran Fury have addressed this dichotomy. Koons has only reinforced it.

Michael Tarantino is a writer who lives in Brussels and contributes regularly to Artforum.



1. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, New York: Hill & Wang, 1977, p. 85.