Jeff Loves Cicciolina: Looking Back at 'Made in Heaven'
The series dates back to 1989, but the themes of sexuality, love, lust, and taste that it raises are evergreen.
As the cliche goes, and as Lana Del Rey sings: life imitates art. In 1989, the artist Jeff Koons created a series called Made in Heaven, centered around a photoshoot with Italian pornstar (turned politician) Cicciolina AKA llona Staller. The photos for the show, done in airbrushed 80’s porn-mag glamour style, and employing Cicciolina’s usual photographer, would cross the line between pornography and art, between “good” taste and bad, it would be about obscenity and romance and the staged celebration of a relationship that didn’t yet exist but would blossom quickly.
Koons had seen photos of Cicciolina in a magazine and approached her during a live show about the photoshoot, which quickly sprang into a love affair and then a marriage. It somehow didn’t matter that Cicciolina spoke very little English and that Koons’ efforts to communicate amounted to him pronouncing English words with an Italian accent! The couple had to rely a on a translator to get through the courtship, a tradition that Ludwig (who has a tattoo on his neck of his own name) would continue when (it’s rumored) he visited the studio as an adult and had to have his girlfriend act as a translator with his estranged father.
Koons’ friends were reportedly surprised over the coupling, often thinking that he was idealizing the relationship, expressing the opinion that he went through with it only to give authenticity to Made in Heaven. The two married, had a child named Ludwig, then split in two years, starting a virulent battle for custody over the child when Staller ran away with him to Italy. Staller often claimed that she felt unsafe with Koons, and that she was scared of his power, his money, and his lawyers.
The imagery of Made in Heaven includes the giant glamour-aesthetic posters of Cicciolina and Jeff as well as intricate glass sculptures of couple having sex. The project was a blatant celebration of passion against all odds, of heterosexual love, of marriage, of “love at first sight”. But it’s hard to not read the Made in Heaven exhibition through the lens of what would happen afterward, the future would cast a shadow on the perfection of the union that Koons wanted to represent in this divine, biblical, eternal way, like how the future decay of the body casts a shadow on the present perfection of its beauty.
Perfection is a word that is often used with Jeff Koons, whose works (and especially sculptures) aspire to be replicated perfectly, regardless of cost and difficulty of execution. The crinkles in the tinfoil wrap of a chocolate easter egg are reproduced precisely in Baroque Egg, and his eleven-foot reproduction of a play-doh mound that little Ludwig made took more than a decade to complete and had to be remade from bronze into aluminum as it couldn’t otherwise stand its weight. Jeff Koons is, against his usual descriptions of a cynical persona, a tragic believer in the perfection of the moment and the ability of art to immortalize it.
Durability is always on his mind when he designs the work, transmuting (for instance) a balloon dog into steel “because it lasts”, and “and because it’s inflated, you imagine the birthday party was recent, not 20 years ago.” What is his sculpture One Ball Total Equilibrium, where a basketball is suspended in glass, other than the attempt to capture a ball in in mid-air, stuck in that moment forever.
Objects that serve Koons well as objects are more durable than emotions, than whole people (it’s been said that Koons refers to his numerous children as biological sculptures.) The Kama Sutra series, in the Made in Heaven exhibition, consisted of a series of crystalline New-Agey glass statuettes representing Koons and Cicciolina having sex in a variety of positions (“Blowjob”, “Jeff eating Ilona”, “Ilona on Top”) in an attempt to transubstantiate the sex act into an object as enduring and mystical as crystals.
More than being expression of 80s yuppie consumerism, Koons reflects the American desire of the 90s to believe that history had come to an end, the Berlin wall fell, and the American vision was of a white picket-fence suburbia utopia with a porno-hot wife and inflatable toys floating on a crystal clear pool, the ideal life for all of humanity that would last forever. And in thinking of the suburbs as eternal, we are confronted with how unbearable the prospect of a life that completely revolves around tchotchkes and luxury goods actually is. Consumerism by design was supposed to be a moment of passage, an effortless activity that would gratify us in between work hours, and not a permanent condition.
Arthur Danto called Koons “a vision of an aesthetic hell,” and that’s because the present he has attempted to immortalize is both as desirable as a pile of Play-Doh in a living room, and as sustainable as precarious million-dollar dog balloons made of stainless steel.