July 9, 2014

split-rocker
a landscaping
perspective

Jeff Koons’s flowering sculpture Split-Rocker, at once imposing and adorable, has cast a spell on New York City’s Rockefeller Center. Derek Blasberg interviews Matt Donham, Koons’s landscape designer on the project, to find out more.

<p>Jeff Koons, <em>Split-Rocker</em>, 2000, stainless steel, soil, geotextile fabric, internal irrigation system, and live flowering plants, 446 ⅞ × 483 ⅛ × 427 ⅝ inches (1,135.1 × 1,227.1 × 1,086.2 cm). Photo by Tom Powel Imaging</p>

Jeff Koons, Split-Rocker, 2000, stainless steel, soil, geotextile fabric, internal irrigation system, and live flowering plants, 446 ⅞ × 483 ⅛ × 427 ⅝ inches (1,135.1 × 1,227.1 × 1,086.2 cm). Photo by Tom Powel Imaging

Jeff Koons, Split-Rocker, 2000, stainless steel, soil, geotextile fabric, internal irrigation system, and live flowering plants, 446 ⅞ × 483 ⅛ × 427 ⅝ inches (1,135.1 × 1,227.1 × 1,086.2 cm). Photo by Tom Powel Imaging

Derek Blasberg What do you think is the most unexpected thing about Split-Rocker?

Matt Donham The sheer quantity of plants. It’s staggering. And the fact that they are alive.

DB What are the numbers?

MD Fifty thousand flowers. One hundred cubic yards of soil. There’s an internal drip irrigation system which is zoned based on sun orientation and the slope of the soil, forty zones in total, each tweaked to a different part of the sculpture’s watering needs. You need a little water here, a lot over there, no water there.

DB Is that the most difficult part of the installation?

MD Aside from erecting the sculpture, balancing moisture is the toughest part. Don’t forget, we have plants growing upside down and sideways, and they are living things that need to be kept alive and growing.

DB That’s an important point: This isn’t a big vase. The plants are growing up there!

MD Yes, they are. Split-Rocker is a garden and the Rockefeller Center gardeners will be carefully tending to it all summer. The plants will grow substantially: the plugs that are now a few inches tall could grow a foot or more in height.

DB But if they die—

MD We will replace some of them, and others will be subsumed by their neighbors; the stronger plants will crowd out the weaker ones. Jeff is really interested in the order-to-chaos that happens over the life of the installation. Right now, the image and form of the sculpture are very distinct, but as we move toward the end of the summer it will become wilder.

Fifty thousand flowers. One hundred cubic yards of soil.

Matt Donham

Jeff Koons, Split-Rocker, 2000 (detail), stainless steel, soil, geotextile fabric, internal irrigation system, and live flowering plants, 446 ⅞ × 483 ⅛ × 427 ⅝ inches (1,135.1 × 1,227.1 × 1,086.2 cm). Photo by Tom Powel Imaging

DB Tell me the truth, are you rooting for any specific flowers?

MD I’ve never thought about that. I have come to really like geraniums. I planted hot magenta geraniums in my garden this spring, which is a first for me.

DB Have you always wanted to work with flowers?

MD Not really. In fact, I have to admit that I wasn’t much of a flower guy before this project. But through the process of working with Jeff I’ve really come to appreciate the allure of the blooming plants. Jeff likes the plants with the largest petals, so we have these big, colorful flowers. I couldn’t help but be seduced. They’re irresistible on the sculpture.

DB Have you been able to detach from the production side of the piece, and look at it from an outsider’s perspective?

MD When I first laid eyes on Split-Rocker at Fondation Beyeler, I was struck by the tension between its imposing scale and its light-hearted cuteness. And it’s the flowers that make that possible.

DB When did you first meet Jeff? How did you get put on this project?

MD I’m a designer. My landscape architecture background blends science and horticulture with spatial and urban design. We’re trained as generalists in outdoor space. In many ways, Split-Rocker is like any other high-performance landscape that results from the careful coordination of soils, irrigation, plant material, drainage, and so on. I had been working on the landscape architecture of Glenstone [Mitchell and Emily Rales’s Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Maryland] with PWP Landscape Architecture for five years before the Raleses bought Split-Rocker. We choreographed a procession through their hundred and fifty acres, hiding and revealing artworks as visitors move through a refined agrarian environment. When the Raleses bought Split-Rocker, they asked me to guide its permanent installation. Not just where it goes, but also how it works, and most importantly, how we adapt the plant’s palette to all four seasons.

Jeff Koons, Split-Rocker, 2000 (detail), stainless steel, soil, geotextile fabric, internal irrigation system, and live flowering plants, 446 ⅞ × 483 ⅛ × 427 ⅝ inches (1,135.1 × 1,227.1 × 1,086.2 cm). Photo by Tom Powel Imaging

Jeff likes the plants with the largest petals, so we have these big, colorful flowers. I couldn’t help but be seduced.

Matt Donham

DB Because, previously, Split-Rocker was only shown in single seasons, right?

MD Yes, exactly. Previously it had been shown in Avignon, and at Versailles in France, and Fondation Beyeler in Switzerland.

DB How did you do the research?

MD It was a remarkable experience. Recognizing that information existed mostly in the heads of gardeners around the world, the Raleses sent me to Bilbao to see Puppy [Jeff Koons’s flower sculpture in the shape of a dog, which preceded Split-Rocker] because it has lived there for seventeen years. And I went to see Peter Brant’s Puppy in Greenwich, Connecticut. I even brought an interpreter and visited the head gardener at Versailles. I went to Fondation Beyeler too, to talk to that team about their experiences with the works. Initially, those trips were just about gathering information. But everyone was so passionate about these projects that we became a bit of a community.

DB Why do you think that is?

MD Very few gardeners have faced the unique challenges of a gigantic flowering topiary. These pieces are unlike any other in the topiary tradition, which is typically limited to creating shapes in evergreen shrubbery. To try to grow flowers in this quantity and this form—to be honest, I can’t think of any other examples. So there’s a small group of gardeners, all isolated in their own locations around the world, who have never met. I had an amazing dialogue when I got to meet them, and then pass all this information back and forth. I’ve started to think of these people as kind of gang.

DB The Split-Rockers?

MD Yes! And I would love the team at Glenstone to meet the team at Bilbao. We had to learn and develop so many techniques. For example, the soil should be fast draining because plants don’t like to have their feet wet, so we developed fast-draining soil that’s also long lasting and doesn’t have to be replaced very often. There was also a great deal of innovation on how to grow the flowers so they bloom all at once, so that Jeff can mix them like paints and blend them into colors. We used a new fabric covering at Rockefeller Center that improves breathability. I hope we will be able to propose this to the rest of the gang.

DB Do you think that an uninformed observer could sense all the work that goes into this process?

MD If you’re into plants, you’ll know how remarkable it is. Which is different from looking at it as if it were simply a surface. To understand its workings makes it a different level of marvel.

DB But, if someone looks at it and thinks it’s a simple, adorable object, and that it was easy to put together, is that in a way a compliment to what you’ve done? If it looks effortless, is it a testament to how well you’ve put it together?

MD I suppose it is. Not everyone can or should be as fascinated as I am by all the details that go into Split-Rocker.

Artwork © Jeff Koons

Black-and-white portrait of Derek Blasberg

Derek Blasberg is a writer, fashion editor, and New York Times best-selling author. He has been with Gagosian since 2014, and is currently the executive editor of Gagosian Quarterly.

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