A lustrous silver rabbit sits atop its podium, eyeless yet taking everything in – the swirl of activity and clamour of curious faces reflected in its perfect mirrored steel belly, featureless face and puckered ears.

It looks to all the world like a plastic inflatable toy – the type children throw around in swimming pools – but is, in fact, one of the most important works of contemporary art.

Welcome to the strange world of Jeff Koons, who for four months has graced Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum with the most thrilling, and possibly controversial show, in its history.

Rabbit (1986) faces a Spalding basketball suspended in perfect equilibrium in a tank of water. It looks deceptively simple but is a feat of engineering, realised with the assistance of a Nobel Prize-winning quantum physicist. Behind it, is a supersized rendition of a kitsch ornament of three cherubic children – one modelled on the artist – pushing a pig sporting a green ribbon bow.

As Captain Spock of the Star Ship Enterprise might have said: “It’s art, but not as we know it.” Yet this blockbuster exhibition has put the world’s oldest public museum, and Oxford itself, on the global art map.

It has been more than two years in the planning, involved almost military planning and, in the words of museum director, Dr Xa Sturgis, some “holding of breath”. Yet finally it’s here – with experts queueing up to pass judgement on a unique show by the man, until recently, famed as the most expensive living artist. Koons’s Balloon Dog (Orange) sold at Christie’s in New York for US$58.4 million – a record sum for an auctioned work by a living artist.

“I create works which are about the removal of judgement... the removal of criticism, and here there are art historians and students who embrace the work,” Koons told guests at the Beamont Street museum when he launched his show last week. “You can find things in everything... and that’s what my work embraces. Everything is accessible.

“I hope that my work can be involved with the transcendence that art can bring.”

The Oxford Times:

The show, jointly curated by Koons and the art historian Sir Norman Rosenthal, features 17 works, 14 of which have never been exhibited in the UK before.

They span the artist’s career and include his best-known series including Equilibrium, Statuary, Banality, Antiquity and his recent Gazing Ball sculptures and paintings – in which perfect glass spheres are juxtaposed on reproductions of classic sculpture and paintings.

Highlights also include the gleaming, liquid-like Ballerinas and Seated Ballerina – towering graceful pieces of mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent colour coating, the latter evoking images of a classical Venus.

They are based on porcelain figurines but dominate – huge yet still fragile. The urge to reach out and touch their shimmering surfaces is irresistable but strictly forbidden; poised gallery assistants launch themselves ninja-like at anyone who dares get too close.

“They are tactile but we are not allowed to touch them,” laughs Xa. “The surfaces are fantastically fragile and quite technically extraordinary. And the gazing balls are glass. Touching is absolutely not something we want to encourage or even put into people’s minds!”

Indeed, so perfect is each hand-blown gazing ball that around 350 are rejected for each one deemed sufficiently flawless to feature in a work.

The most striking piece is probably Balloon Venus (Magenta) a monumental mirrored steel rendition of a balloon figure of a tiny ice age fertility symbol called the Venus of Willendorf. Like Rabbit, the Ballerinas and the gazing balls, we the viewer are central to the work – our own images reflected back at us, creating a dynamic sense of movement and change but also engagement with the piece. No two viewings can ever be the same, each is deeply personal and ephemeral.

“I couldn’t think of a better place to have a dialogue about art today and what it can be,” the artist says, referring to the museum’s collections of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, Egyptian mummies and Renaissance art.

The Oxford Times:

The show is the result of efforts by a group of art-loving students, members of the Edgar Wind Society – named after the first Professor of Art History at Oxford University.

The undergraduates invited Koons to Oxford after naming him the first recipient of a new contemporary art prize. Incredibly Koons accepted, making a day trip from New York to the Ashmolean to receive the honour. He fell in love with the place – and the wheels were set in motion for this groundbreaking show.

“I do think it really works and is convincing, says Xa. “It makes sense within the Ashmolean and it’s clear why it’s in the museum and how it relates to different parts of the museum.

“It also makes a case for Koons who, fantastically successful as he is, is somewhat unfashionable. It feels like a bit of a coup for the Ashmolean too as it’s been very difficult to see his work in the UK and most of these works have not been seen here before.”

Koons denies being a perfectionist but is nonetheless very exacting. He personally planned the positioning of his work in a model reproduction of the Ashmolean’s galleries. Work was flown to Luxembourg before being shipped to Oxford. The Balloon Magenta was transported in five sections and reassembled.

The process was overseen by Koons’s studio team before the artist himself arrived to make the finishing touches.

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“He’s not a perfectionist because he finds that unattractive, but he’s going to get as close to perfection as he possibly can,” says Xa. “His attention to detail and his concern for flaws is incredible, and installing the show was challenging and painstaking. It was complicated but not hell – and there was a certain amount of holding one’s breath until he came.”

And, he says, he is delighted with the results.

The Oxford Times:

“You can see as many pictures of work like the Balloon Venus as you want but nothing beats standing in front of it,” he says. “They are things in space around which you can walk, but the added element is their reflectivity. You can’t help but respond.

“That sensation is impossible unless you are with the real things.

“It makes you very aware that you are seeing something that no-one else will see, because you are in the work.”

He adds: “Koons inevitably divides opinion but everybody says ‘what a surprise’ and they can see how it makes sense.

“It makes people sit up and, I hope, makes people think.

“It’s a very positive affirmation of what art can do – and it’s deeply enjoyable.”

  • Jeff Koons is at the Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford, until June 9. Tickets are £12.25 (concs available)
  • ashmolean.org