Photo by Jonathan Lorange

Jeff Koons in the age of VR

An interview with Dillon Orr about his digital-stage event at Phi Centre.

Jeff Koons is easy to pick on. A living stand-in for the capricious, coke-jawed machismo of the global art market, an influential pop cultural sensation whose dewy-eyed forays into porn (Made in Heaven) are both comically self-congratulatory and somehow dweeby, it can seem impossible to tell, watching footage of Koons mugging for photographers at press events, whether he believes in his work or is just very proud of having successfully fleeced his way into the hearts and luxuriant bank accounts of the one per cent.

As a symbol, as the man whose “Rabbit” sculpture sold for slightly over $91-million in May of this year (breaking the record for an auction price for a work by a living artist), Koons’s work remains somehow peculiar, fun and possessive of an uneasy physical appeal, making him hard to pin down as just a cartoonish capitalist shill. It’s no doubt what made him such an intriguing subject for the German author Rainald Goetz, whose 1998 play Jeff Koons is being presented this month in a French adaptation at the Phi Centre (in collaboration with la Chapelle) by the Franco-Ontarian theatre director Dillon Orr.

Speaking about the art world as subject matter, Orr’s cynicism is palpable. His “mantra” for the show is “le mensonge de l’art,” going on to comment that “we’re all here in our art galleries pretending that life is beautiful and pretending that we’re solving all of our problems and most of the time what we’re doing is we’re vampirizing real life to [make it into] art.”

He’s attracted to Koons’s “kitschy aesthetic,” but mentions that after researching “the person” behind the work, he felt as though Koons was “just feeding [him] all this crap.” Koons is, absolutely, a polarizing figure. His work is something a thinking young person these days tends to enjoy furtively if at all. Then again, when Orr points to a critical consensus about Koons’s artistic illegitimacy, he’s not quite right, quoting the critic Jerry Saltz out of context (“pretend Jeff Koons is an artist”) to prove his point, when Saltz is in fact a defender of the paradox he reads in Koons. So while Orr is not wrong in identifying the “weird dynamic between the collectors and the gallerists and the critics” vis-à-vis Koons, his dislike for the man, both personal and symbolic, seems a little easy and under-substantiated.  

Nevertheless, Orr points out that the play isn’t as much about Koons as it is “about our relation to art and the art world,” specifically about a culture of misplaced reverence in that world. Like some other postmodern plays, Jeff Koons lacks dramatis personae and is experimental in its form and narrative, making it an exciting and challenging prospect for directors. Where the original Jeff Koons tackled the early internet age, Orr has taken the opportunity to use his adaptation to look at the promises and alienation of virtual reality.

Orr’s version of the play places the actors in VR headsets, so that the audience can see both the performers and the projections they’re watching. “The idea is not to attract the audience to want to be in the headsets with the actors but to take a step back and be like, ‘Ugh, that’s right, that’s what we’re doing, we’re all just in VR headsets pretending that art is great and art saves the world and art is a vector for motion and social change.’”

Where the production sounds most intriguing is in the ways it plays with the dramatic irony of the characters’ virtual world versus their physical selves. If Orr is skeptical about the social value of art and artists (he seems to mean art in a sweeping visual-arts-only sort of way that excludes the theatre), then he’s optimistic about the potential of the theatre and programming worlds coming to work together — if not to be world-changing, then at least world-creating. Certainly the capacity to integrate VR into theatre has not been heavily explored, and themes of unchecked consumption, in art and elsewhere, could scarcely be more relevant. ■

Jeff Koons is on at the Phi Centre (407 St-Pierre) from Nov. 2022, 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., Nov. 23, 4 p.m. $16.17$32.35