Installed above the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s imported bedrooms, ceilings and tombs – above its vitrines and containers full of old porcelain, jewels and weaponry, above Athena Parthenos, Ugolino and his Sons and the Temple of Dendur, and above its archives, where 5,000 years of art and objects have been categorized by period and style and are preserved within the museum’s holdings – Pakistani-born artist Huma Bhabha has, for this year’s Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden Commission, staged ‘We Come in Peace’, an unsettling, post-apocalyptic confrontation between two extraterrestrial entities. These enormous bronze sculptures warp the public space they occupy and comment on the histories they stand upon, claiming the Met itself as their pedestal.
The first of these is the titular We Come in Peace (2018), a twelve-foot-tall, weather-beaten golem. The figure is brooding, its brittle surface textured with gashes and scars. Its blue torso is marked with various asterisks, like ritualistic markings that shape and contour the creature’s multi-sexed frame. A yellow swath of paint stains one of its knees: does this idol kneel, as the draped, bowing figure across from it does? As the many eyes that surround its head – cocked, buggy or gouged-out – survey New York’s skyline, I find myself asking: what does it want to see?
Opposite We Come in Peace lies Benaam (2018), an 18-foot-long, prostrate, Sphinx-like figure. (Its title means ‘unnamed’ or ‘without name’ in Urdu.) Unlike its many-faced counterpart, Benaam’s face and most of its body are covered with a glossy, black, tarp-like shroud. Two gnarled hands protrude from the front, evoking a scene of prayer or surrender. From the other end, rubble resembling fecal matter, bones and industrial waste extends past Benaam’s shroud, as if the figure were slowly creeping toward its counterpart while leaving behind an abject trace. Bhabha’s spare, minimal installation leaves the rest of the Met’s terrace empty, intensifying the drama between these two figures.
Bhabha, who now lives in Poughkeepsie, is known for her grotesque, semi-figurative sculptures, which she creates out of industrial waste and found material. Originally made using air-dried clay, cork, plastic and Styrofoam, these two sculptures were crafted by the artist to scale before they were cast in bronze. Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) or Sigmund Freud’s Prosthetic-God (from his Civilization and its Discontents, 1930), ‘We Come in Peace’ cobbles together various historical styles and traditions to collapse the bridge between Eastern and Western art production and, in doing so, inverts the pulpy sci-fi visitation implied by its title; we come up to these ‘otherworldly’ sculptures and, within them, find multiple entry points to our own political and environmental ‘others’: the Islamic other, the mutilated other, the discarded other.
‘We Come in Peace’ is one of three shows of Bhabha’s work currently on display in New York. In ‘With a Trace’, at Salon 94’s Upper East Side Location, the artist presents five large-scale photo-drawings alongside several studies on paper for the Met commission, as well as an early version of Benaam: Untitled (2006). A third exhibition at Clearing, just a few blocks south of the Met, includes abstract sculptures and drawings made between 2013 and 2015.
For the five photo-drawings at Salon 94 (all Untitled, 2017), Bhabha used images of places she’s lived – Poughkeepsie, Bhopal, Kauai and her home-town of Karachi – as backdrops for ink, acrylic paint and oilstick faces. Behind these large, distended heads – their appearance irresolute, almost animal and biomechnical – lie desolate fields of dirt and desert, their hues stained with colour and, in some areas, warped or dissolving. Growing out of the gouged eye sockets of one figure are ripe nuggets of marijuana; caked within the mouth of another is a mound of dirt. Neither apparition nor alien, skull nor helmet, these giant psychedelic renderings keep you guessing as to what constitutes a face or an identity.
At Clearing, this mode of questioning continues. In Moment to Moment (2013–14), two slabs of what seem like Styrofoam are stacked and hung at eye level. Like We Come in Peace, however, the appearance of fragility is contradicted by its actual material – these are not found pieces of foam but white, lacquered bronze. In the centre of the gallery lies Snakes (2013), a sculpture made of rubber tyre and metal. One tyre braids around another; both lie flat on the floor, their busted treads facing up. Standing above these two shredded reptilian belts, you get a sense of the intensely terrestrial nomadism and the abraded forms of embodiment that continue to inform Bhabha’s suggestive, profoundly visceral universe.
Main image: Huma Bhabha, 'We Come in Peace', installation view, Met Roof Garden, 2018. Courtesy: © the artist, Salon 94, New York and the Metropolitan Museum, New York; photograph: Hyla Skopitz
First published in Issue 197