I Hear That Train A’Comin’

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A number of papers have been reporting that Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has agreed to give a home to an unrealized Jeff Koons project — a replica of a 1940s locomotive that would hang nose down from a 161-foot tall crane. As Koons envisions it, every so often the thing will chug, turn its wheels and belch some smoke.

Photo: Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Koons’ locomotive to nowhere is an ingenious artprank and I hope it happens. I first wrote about it in Time two years ago in a piece about artists who emerged in the 1980s. At the time Koons was hoping to have the thing constructed in Paris. Now Govan plans to put it in front of LACMA. But I find it strange that Govan, who thinks it could provide LA with a new icon, compared it to the Eiffel Tower. The Eiffel Tower was iron symbol of a confident new industrial age. It exudes strength and stability. It’s an arrow of progress pointed towards the sky.

The Eiffel Tower — Photo: Standblog.org

Koons’ hapless engine, pointed at the ground and making periodic outbursts of pointless effort, looks more to me like a symbol of thwarted energies and cultural exhaustion, a metaphor for frustration, like Duchamp’s Large Glass. Koons swears he doesn’t see it that way, but he long ago perfected that Warhol vacancy that hides any critical intentions behind a benign facade. Govan should certainly pursue his plans to build that train. But forget about offering it as a new icon for LA — unless the city wants to see itself reflected in what could just as well be a giant monument to erectile dysfunction.