By Jon-Michael Poff
Jeff Koons’ Gazing Balls – a series of plaster casts paired with metallic blue globes – figures largely into Lady Gaga’s 2013 VMA performance. A little over halfway into her performance, Gaga holds a blue gazing ball above her head as she sings, “One second I’m a Koons, then suddenly the Koons is me.” (In a wide shot, one can see her backup dancers hoisting gazing balls above their heads as well.) Though visible for only ten seconds of the performance, the Koonsean gazing balls give insight into Gaga’s professional ambitions, her personal struggles, and her relationship with her fans.
Koons’ Gazing Balls exhibit, which ran through early summer at David Zwirner’s gallery in Chelsea, is arguably the ultimate combination of art and pop culture, high and low. As a New York Times review put it, “The show resembles the plaster-cast collections that were once de rigueur at museums,” noting, “That each has affixed to it a mirrored blue ball that you might find in a suburban birdbath almost reduces the sculptures to yard ornaments, but it also gives them a visual, contemporary spark.” Koons makes it new by pairing casts of Greco-Roman statues, (i.e. the essence of high art), with once popular lawn adornments. What some might call “ideas…yoked by violence together” Koons – and Gaga – find deeply inspiring.
It is no wonder, then, why Lady Gaga adopts the gazing ball for her VMA performance. Indeed, she sings, “Pop culture was in art, now art’s in pop culture in me,” as she holds the ball above her head. And she does bring high and low culture together in her performance, as Roland Betancourt has expertly noted here on Gaga Stigmata. At the beginning of the performance, he points out, Gaga’s white headpiece and gown recall not only her own “Bloody Mary” costume from the Born This Way Ball but also Malevich’s Black Square – and even the Image of Edessa. Toward the end of the performance, Betancourt notes, Gaga’s seashell bikini channels both Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and The Little Mermaid. Each source has something to offer, and Gaga pulls equally from both, integrating so as a equalize them.
II. On self-acceptance
In an interview with New York Magazine published in May, Koons remarks on the difficultly of accepting oneself as an artist. For years, Koons found himself rejected by the art community. Eventually, he found success by, as the magazine put it, “insert[ing] himself into art history in the most literal way imaginable – by making new work that collages with several-thousand-year-old work.” Koons goes on to say, “That’s the reason I like to work with these external things. I really think that the journey that art takes you on as an artist is that you first learn self-acceptance.”
Koons’ journey, then, is not unlike Gaga’s. As the “Marry the Night” music video recalls, Gaga found herself rejected by the music world after she was dropped by Def Jam in 2006, after which accepting herself became all the more difficult. In the video, Gaga crouches beneath five other ballerinas who stand tall on stage, their condescending eyes gazing down on her. Gaga, sobbing, stares up at them as she struggles to cover her bare breasts while also grasping at the heels of another ballerina. Eventually, though, Gaga too learns self-acceptance. As Peter Kline notes here in his analysis of the “Marry the Night” music video, “Marrying her own pain and suffering has freed Gaga,” who now relishes in “her newfound courage and strength.”
Like Koons, Gaga has thrust herself into the music world “by making new work” with centuries-old ideas and materials.
III. On performance
Though Gaga’s performance is very much about Gaga, it is also about her fans and her intimate relationship with them. Her performance of “Applause” at the VMAs is her first performance since her hip injury and surgery earlier this year, and it is therefore a reunion with her Little Monsters. Less than a week before her performance, Gaga remarked on Good Morning America that the worst part about her injury was that it had taken her away from her fans: “That was the hardest part, not seeing the fans, not performing, not playing the music,” Gaga said. “I would play [“Applause”] and I would do the choreography on my back and visualize the fans. I thought of them every second.” She also used her GMA appearance to refute critics who had said the song is “entirely about being Lady Gaga.” Instead, she said, “What I mean is not that I live for attention, but I live for making [the audience] happy. And that’s when the applause happens. When the audience loves it.”
In the aforementioned New York Magazine story, Koons comments on this very concept: the spectacle being not for the artist, but rather for the audience. Describing a time when gazing balls were popular lawn decorations, Koons notes, “People put them in their yards because they enjoy the visual aspect of the ball, but they really do it for their neighbors.” Similarly, when Gaga takes the stage, she does so primarily for the audience. In that way, Gaga is herself a gazing ball, on display largely for the enjoyment of others. At the VMAs, the audience even became a part of the spectacle, as Little Monsters’ faces reflected in Gaga’s gazing ball.
Jon-Michael Poff is a recent graduate of Lyon College where he earned a bachelor's degree in English. Beginning in September, he will be a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Spain. He has previously written for Edutopia magazine and Numbers, Inc: art journal. Tweet him all things Gaga @JonMichaelPoff.