Made in Heaven

Made in Heaven was the name New York artist Jeff Koons gave to his risqué 1991 exhibition. A Match Made in Heaven was also the term I used to describe the food pairing of Boets Nel’s De Krans Tempranillo 2006 with a fighting peri-peri chicken. A pairing that did not go unnoticed – or unrewarded – by Kevin Utian, MD of Nando’s South Africa, who sent me a Nando’s gift card. Many thanks, Kevin! In the meantime, some reflections on lunch with Jeff from Sour Grapes, my book being published by Tafelberg later this month.

32cherubs Made in Heaven
Was it a case of synchronicity that the electrons bearing the news that French authorities are allowing the use of oak chips to flavour their wines arrived shortly after lunch with Jeff Koons? Koons is arguably the most famous living artist who made a name for himself in the eighties with stainless steel sculptures of giant inflatable rabbits and vacuum cleaners standing silently in glass vitrines.

One of the images Koons presented at a lecture at Wits University was a gaily painted bouquet of daisies carved in wood and presented as such. Or was it perhaps “a bunch on fifty assholes?” Which is probably what some French winemakers think of the apparatchiks of the CNAOC (national AOC confederation) who made the decision to permit oak shavings, spinning cones and listing grape cultivars on wines above the Vin de Pays level.

Koons had agreed to talk at Wits, as that’s where his wife Justine studied fine art. I’d just bought a digital Dictaphone from and thought the Koonival was the perfect occasion to try it out. Introduced by Professor Penny “Pinky-Pink” Siopis, the Dictaphone captured her gushing welcome verbatim. But the great man’s address was unintelligible – having had recent well-documented copyright problems, this technological savvy artist was taking no chances, jamming all recordings.

After his standing room-only performance, Penny and her motley crew of Fine Art Profs and hangers-on descended on De Luxe restaurant in Milpark, where another Wits Fine Art graduate, Andrea Burgner, had prepared bowls of cucumber gazpacho and platters of spicy Thai fish cakes and salad.

SA is starting to feature in the Koons iconography. His latest paintings use Cape Town as backdrop for giant cartoon figures Popeye, Olive Oil and the Incredible Hulk. But the highlight of the Koons talk were images from a 1986 exhibition “luxury and degradation” held at the gallery International with Monument on New York’s Lower East Side.

Koons’ idea was brilliant in its simplicity. Starting in one of the poorest neighbourhoods of New York, he took a subway to Grand Central Station, slap bang in the rich core of the Big Apple. Along the way he recorded advertisements for alcohol presented to commuters.

In sub-$10 000 pa neighbourhoods, the text was Spanish; the product advertised Bacardi rum in a casino setting featuring a pair of dice – message: life is a gamble and alcohol is your bet.

Moving up to $25 000 pa, skyscrapers of Dewars whisky bottles mimicked the Manhattan skyline while at $40 000 it was a wild west steam train, faithfully transformed into stainless steel, with a bottle of Jim Beam under the smokestack and another in the caboose.

Arrival at Grand Central was represented by the travel bar: a faithful reproduction (again in stainless steel) of a fifties Tiffany-style picnic basket for alcoholics: cocktail shaker, glasses, decanter will liquor sealed inside and unobtainable without destroying the work. A potent metaphor for the charms of advertising.

Koons remarked that one of the attractions of his fethishistic vacuum cleaners was the wet/dry capability which he likened to Sartre’s being/nothingness. This appropriation of “ready-mades” predictably splits the art world into appalled purists and fans. Probably in the same proportions as the French addition of wood shavings will divide anoraks, or cagoules, as they call them over there.

Hopefully the price of first growths will fall as chips are cheaper than barrels in the same way that a “Rolex” bought on a fifth Avenue sidewalk is much cheaper than one from Tiffany & Co.

Of course a wood chip Bordeaux is not a counterfeit wine – just a manufactured one. And for Koonsians, a kitsch wine. US art critic Clement Greenberg, in his essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch, describes kitsch as “the debased and academicised simulacra of genuine culture”, and while the avant-garde “imitates the processes of art, kitsch imitates the effect.”

Fine wine is no less a cultural artifact than a Koons bunny sculpture or Popeye painting, and Greenberg’s kitsch argument applies to wine. In the same way that Koons appropriates the forms and techniques of classical art to manufacture works that required absolutely no effort on the part of the viewer to “understand” them, so too is wood chip Bordeaux a simulacrum of classic claret and one wine show judges are sure to appreciate.