How would you navigate one of the world’s largest encyclopedic art museums, if all its systems to classify objects by region, culture, and time disappeared?
Argentinian artist Adrían Villar Rojas presents that very situation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he has uprooted artworks from their assigned departments and gathered them all in one space: the institution’s rooftop. Don’t worry — they’re replicas. The latest recipient of the museum’s Roof Garden Commission (and its youngest yet), Villar Rojas created detailed copies of nearly 100 objects from the Met’s sprawling collection, with the help of its technicians, who 3D-scanned the originals. The results are made of CNC-milled urethane foam that he and his assistants later coated with black and white industrial paint.
Beyond presenting what recalls an attic of wondrous artifacts, Villar Rojas took an extra step to splice together the scans, rescaling and seamlessly merging them to form the final 16 massive sculptures. Some also integrate scanned, life-sized statues; others, full-scale models of humans. The results are confounding contemporary hybrids of cultural pasts. Look closely, and each will reveal treasures culled from the Ancient Near East, Medieval Europe, and Africa, among other regions.
Titled The Theater of Disappearance, the installation, curated by Beatrice Galilee, reinterprets art history as established by one of the most influential Western institutions while also investigating the collecting practices that have shored up its troves. As its name suggests, it does so by relying on drama and grandeur: Villar Rojas, known for his larger-than-life works — usually of carefully handled clay — has entirely transformed the open-air space into a dystopian banquet hall where culture is the main meal, long-ago consumed. The otherworldly diorama was a result of conversations the artist had with the museum staff, from curators to conservators, to learn about the collection.
“In the process, he holds up a mirror to what we do at the museum, questioning the ideological stance of the museum and, in particular, how we choose to present cultural histories over time,” Sheena Wagstaff, the museum’s head of modern and contemporary art, said at the exhibition preview, adding that no other living artist has interacted with the Met’s staff as exhaustively as Villar Rojas.
The roof reflects this kick into overdrive. Sculptures lie on and surround the tables and chairs (these, too, are part of the installation, and are barred from weary bottoms), and the artist has redesigned the roof’s architecture to match the calcified party scene, from its benches to its pergola to the floor, which is now a checkerboard of gray, white, and black. It’s a complete shift from last summer’s Psychobarn by Cornelia Parker, which was simple and confined to a corner of the public space.
Villar Rojas’s vision far from underwhelms; it may even stir slight anxiety. Immersive and elaborate, it situates you as witness to the eerie remnants of a Bacchanalian feast that could either exist in a new, alien world or represent the ruins of our current ailing one. The integrated humans, dressed in 21st-century garb and posing unlike any classical statues would (slouching, smoking, making out) — they could be us, although some seem like prehistoric or medieval characters (and others like gimmicky Hollywood props). On a few tables, tiny crustacean sculptures also allude to primordial times (recalling another previous roof commission, by Pierre Huyghe).
The scrambling and flattening of time is a familiar theme in Villar Rojas’s exhibitions. Here, this space void of divisions considers the origins and composition of the museum’s patrimony — you’ll note, for instance, that replicas of Egyptian art are more prevalent than those of Native American and Asian art. The monochrome works, notably, also nod to the Met’s original practice of displaying plaster copies of famous sculptures when it first opened in 1870; only in the mid-19th-century did it begin to showcase genuine artifacts. Villar Rojas’s jumbled-up trove makes you wonder how all these diverse pieces came to eventually rest here, in New York. It also made me question why I connect certain forms and styles with certain cultures. The new configurations, placing all works on an equalizing, decontextualized stage, reveal the extent of our personal knowledge and cultural biases. More broadly, they also make you consider the museum’s power as a place that presents truths according to a particular framework.
The Theater of Disappearance encourages discovery, which is why its greatest success, ultimately, is to amuse. Surprises abound in this foreign way to view the familiar, with every nook and cranny of each sculpture revealing unexpected detail. For those acquainted with the Met’s collections, moving around this playhouse offers the particularly fun challenge of identifying as many objects as possible. Some may recognize a replica statue of the seated scribe Haremhab, which occupies a prominent spot in the Egyptian art galleries; others may know the travertine Head of a Hippopotamus, held, in the roof installation, by a man who regards it without emotion. Many may actually breeze past the famous yellow jasper face of a queen, which Villar Rojas has enlarged to serve as an inconspicuous perch for a sleeping youth. Discerning specific works of Ancient Egyptian art, for me, was by far the easiest — which is telling.
Villar Rojas provides no answer key to this intellectual hunt, and perhaps you’ll soon surrender and descend from the roof to search for the original objects. While certainly extravagant, The Theater of Disappearance lacks the emotional pull of the artist’s previous clay works. Those massive pieces, made with a team of assistants, were dusty sculptures with bold cracks that immediately recalled archaeological finds. On the Met’s roof, every surface in this series is immaculately polished; missing is the evocative fragility and handiwork of past pieces. Visitors with careful eyes, though, will note a slight coating of dust on some areas, which is actually paint. I’d argue that this manicured dirt plays the most intriguing role in this tableau: It introduces a subtle myth that raises uncertainty about the care of these instant artifacts, and it reminds us that everything is at risk of eventual neglect, of falling into cultural irrelevance.
The Theater of Disappearance continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden (1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan) through October 29.