[This page by Michael Wood]
Rainald Goetz’s 1998 play Jeff Koons is a masterpiece of the postdramatic form. It was premiered in German at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg in 1999. It received a premiere in English, translated by David Tuschingham, at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 2004.
As the playwright says himself, Jeff Koons is a play about art. Yet it does not focus on art as a practice removed from the everyday, rather Goetz is explicitly interested in art as a public phenomenon. Of Goetz’s works, this is perhaps the most clearly influenced by his encounter with Niklas Luhmann, whom, in Abfall für alle; Garbage for all he refers to as ‘the theorist of democracy’ (in fact, this is a two-way encounter, as Luhmann refers to Goetz in his 1997 work Die Kunst der Gesellschaft; Art as a Social System).
Despite the play taking its title from the legendary contemporary American artist, Jeff Koons, it allegedly has nothing to do with him; at least, it is in no sense ‘about’ him. Rather, Goetz uses this title to refer to an aesthetic and political influence. He notes this explicitly in the final text of his collection Kronos; Chronos. Notably for a work by Goetz, there are no images dividing the sections of the play: instead, he refers to images and sculptures which exist in the real world, such as Koons’s 1989 sculpture of St John the Baptist.
Both formally and structurally, Jeff Koons is dauntingly complex: absent of dramatis personae and character attribution; written in both what appears to be prose, and what appears to be verse; and containing large amounts of text which might or might not be spoken, including quotations set apart on title pages and scene and section titles, it is a challenging piece for directors and dramaturges. Goetz’s verse-like sections are immensely rhythmical, and eventually come to resemble the thumping beat of techno music. Furthermore, it is structured apparently non-linearly, beginning with the third act. Nonetheless, a strong sense of narrative can be discerned, as we see the artist in several stages of creativity, including conceiving of the work of art and addressing an audience at an exhibition opening. The work of art figures in this play as a means of communication between the artist and audience and between audience members; it is not that meaning is communicated, rather a space for social discourse is opened. For Goetz (as for Luhmann), this is the basis of any open, democratic society. In the play, social discourse is depicted in many forms, and there is the implication that the artist figure is involved in it.
Further Reading in English
David Barnett, ‘Text as Material? The Category of “Performativity” in Three Postdramatic German Theatre-Texts’, in Performance and Performativity in German Cultural Studies, ed. by Carolin Duttlinger, Lucia Ruprecht and Andrew Webber (Bern: Peter Lang, 2003), pp. 137-57
Martin Jörg-Schäfer, ‘“Fantast Realism”: Rainald Goetz, Jeff Koons and the Ethics of Pop Art’, in Martin Jörg-Schäfer and Elke Siegel (eds.), The Germanic Review 81:3 (2006), Special Issue: The Intellectual and the Popular: Reading Rainald Goetz, 255-68
Jeff Koons and Robert Rosenblum, The Jeff Koons Handbook (London: Thames and Hudson, 1992)
Niklas Luhmann, Art as a Social System, trans. by Eva M. Knodt (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000)
Further Reading in German
Johannes Windrich, TechnoTheater. Dramaturgie und Philosophie bei Rainald Goetz und Thomas Bernhard (Munich: Fink, 2007)
Review in Die Zeit (1999)
Review in Frieze art magazine (2000)
Review of Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh production (2004)