Art

Capturing the Unfathomable Cosmos on the Met Museum’s Rooftop

Alicja Kwade’s rooftop commission at the Metropolitan Museum of Art shrinks the firmament to human scale, questioning the limits of perception in the process.

Alicja Kwade, “ParaPivot” (2019), installation view (all images unless otherwise specified courtesy the
Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo by Hyla Skopitz)

High above the trees of Central Park, Alicja Kwade has created a celestial ode to infinitude. Theories of the multiverse have perforated the public’s perception of spacetime in recent years, drawing us all into the metaphysical wormhole of alternate realities and branching paths through comic books (Marvel and DC), movies (Butterfly Effect, Sliding Doors), and television shows (The OA, Russian Doll). But rarely has an artist visualized the interstellar phenomenon with such poetic gravitas as this Polish-German artist, whose rooftop commission at the Metropolitan Museum of Art rejiggers the concept as a critical lens aimed at New York City.

Titled “ParaPivot I” and “ParaPivot II,” the sculptures resemble the destruction of an enormous orrery paused in mid-collapse. The mechanical model of our Solar System is here represented by a series of interlocking steel frames decorated with an assortment of daunting marble spheres sourced from around the world.

An artist whose work confronts the laws of physics, Kwade’s work can leave viewers feeling off-balanced and dizzy. Originally, the Met approached the artists with the rooftop opportunity, wanting something akin to her “WeltenLinie” presented at the 2017 Venice Biennale. A labyrinth of mirrors set within a steel skeleton, a Borgean rock garden of painted boulders, the installation questioned the rights to reflection that inanimate objects have, if any. Thankfully, the artist has removed the mirrors and simplified the concept for her rooftop commission, which indicts the city skyline in a power struggle with the stars.

Installation View

The empty space inside the steel frames of Kwade’s sculpture become snapshots of the surrounding city, a filmstrip activated by the viewer’s own perambulation around the site. But this is a landscape of contradictions; if Central Park is a reconstruction of Manhattan’s horticultural past, then the slim rising skyscrapers of the über-rich from Midtown along 59th Street signal an encroaching end to the profound beauty of the island’s largest reservoir of nature.

This revelatory moment would have been enough, but probably better suited for one of the many similar Insta-friendly tourist traps along the High Line. Introduction of the marble spheres into the frames elevates the 40-year-old artist’s work toward matters of environment, construction, and scale. Wedged between steel frames and suspended above the ground, the spheres look like weightless balloons despite many weighing more than a ton. Psychedelic symbols of globalization, each sphere is made of quarried marble from different sites in Europe, Asia, and South America. For example, there is white Carrara marble from Italy, green Mazi quartzite from Finland, and red marble from Portugal. Additionally, these spheres represent the nine planets of our solar system, including Pluto. (The objects listed above could correspond to Uranus, Earth, and Mars, respectively.) This accumulation of geologies resembles a planetary alignment of sorts, a unification of Earth’s ecological materials symbolizing a totality of systems — above and below.

Detail view with green Mazi quartzite in the foreground

More than ecology, the combination of different marbles into a single artwork has a long art historical tradition of conveying unity. Martin Creed’s “Work No. 1059” (2011) is a contemporary example initiated upon the Scotsman Steps in Edinburgh. For the project, the British artist encased dozens of stairs in different marbles sources from Europe and farther afield destinations like Brazil and India. A utopian pursuit, Creed has described the work as representing all colors and peoples of the world. Thousands of years earlier, the Romans routinely quarried rock as imperial plunder, decorating their palaces (and later churches) with veined marble. Installed as illusory patterns resembling a Rorschach test, the decorations conveyed worldliness while also eliciting spiritual reflection.

Kwade takes a different approach for “ParaPivots,” using marble to puncture the seemingly endless skyline of New York. She collapses the universe’s unfathomable scope into a few frames, tugging at the epistemological tensions between science and art, which are themselves a type of framework concerned with the building up and breaking down of objective truth.

Detail view (photo by author)
Installation view in the rain (photo by author)

When I visited the artist’s installation last week, it had only been days after scientists released the first image of a black hole. This embodiment of destruction envisaged as a blurry ring of red-hot energy, stayed imprinted on my mind as I reached the rooftop. Suddenly the skies quickly changed into a tempest of clouds that released an intense torrent of rain. The cityscape vanished into the grey until all that remained visible were Kwade’s sculptures and the trees. But despite the high winds, the marble planets stayed suspending in midair, motionless but imposing.

That got me thinking: There are so many threats to life on this fragile planet, cataclysms preordained in the stars and environmental disasters spurred by humanity itself. Kwade’s sculptures unite both categories into a picture book of melancholia, a pictograph spelling out our own destruction in Shakespearian detail.

Alicja Kwade: ParaPivot continues through October 27 on the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan).

comments (0)