On a sunny but chilly New York morning yesterday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art unveiled a quartet of gold-coated sculptures by Guyanese-British artist Hew Locke, installed against the niches of its Fifth Avenue building facade. Locke is the third artist to participate in the museum’s Facade Commission, launched in 2019, arriving on the heels of Carol Bove’s and Wangechi Mutu’s installations. His site-specific works are shining trophies, created in dialogue with items in the museum’s collection that are connected to histories of conquest, loot, and other forms of imperial violence. I’ll say it right away: The works are commanding, thought-provoking, majestic, and impossible to ignore. They are indeed magnificent.
Around noon, a cloud cleared the way for the sun to beam directly onto the gilded sculptures, setting them aglow. “Look at that; it’s almost blinding,” Locke told me in front of one of the sculptures, as we both basked in its brilliance.
Locke named the series Gilt, which is also a pun on guilt. Who’s to be guilt-hounded for the plunder and looting of the gold and other treasures of the Global South? You know who. But it’s not so literal. “It’s not an anti-empire or even an anti-Met piece,” Locke explained.
“What I’m trying to do is to make people question the stories behind these objects in the museum’s collection, and how they got here,” he continued. “The Met building itself is a trophy. It’s a New York trophy, an American trophy.”
The sculptures on display include a pair of large trophy cups, flanking the museum’s main entrance, and another pair of smaller trophy fragments. The pieces themselves are only facades of trophies supported by metal beams. That’s because Locke is not in the business of monumentalizing, but rather reacting, problematizing, and deconstructing surviving monuments. Look, for example, at his recent project in Birmingham in the United Kingdom, where he built a ship around a public statue of Queen Victoria and surrounded her with five smaller replicas of herself. That was a direct strike against empire.
All the pieces feature the sea monster from Domenico Guidi’s Andromeda and the Sea Monster (1694) at their bases. Greek legend has it that Andromeda, the daughter of the Ethiopian queen Cassiopeia, was chained to a rock and almost devoured by a monster because her mother couldn’t stop bragging about her daughter’s exceptional beauty. That’s a story about the hazards of hubris. For Locke, the gaping mouth of the sea creature also symbolizes the monstrous appetite of colonialism and modern-day consumerism. The handles of both trophies borrow the reptile pattern of a goblet from the Byzantine section, which may have been a war booty seized by the Avars, a nomadic tribe of Eurasian warriors who challenged the Byzantine empire, or a tribute payment from the emperor Justinian. The handles also feature tiger heads borrowed from an 18th-century flintlock that belonged to Tipu Sultan, the self-proclaimed “Tiger of Mysore” (he was famously obsessed with tigers). British soldiers looted the rifle from Sultan’s palace after killing him in 1799 at the end of the fourth and last Anglo-Mysore War over India.
There are two central figures in the complete trophies. One is taken from an eighth-century BCE Assyrian war booty depicting a human figure with an oryx and a donkey over its left shoulder; the other is from a first-century BCE bronze figure of a Greek boy believed to represent Alexander Helios, son of Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII. The boy, who was named the “prince of Armenia,” is dressed in “exotic” Eastern garb. He’s plump, decadent, and obnoxious, as many of those princes and kings were.
But at first blush, the most head-turning part of the trophies might be the sets of eyes on each, with their pupils darting in all directions. “They’re the all-seeing eyes,” Locke said. “We don’t know exactly what they’re keeping a watchful eye on.” That said, if you look from the point of view of the sculptures, you’ll see the Met’s mega-rich neighbors on Fifth Avenue, who are sure to have their own trophies.
The two far-out fragment pieces, which may look like smashed statues, also allude to imperial and colonial violence, but Locke said the idea behind them was also to encourage viewers to complete the sculptures in their minds.
With that, I asked a few visitors what they think of the new facade commission. “It’s not my style, but it’s definitely eye-catching,” said one woman, who wouldn’t give me her name. She was visiting the museum with her young daughter, who looked to be around the age of 10. “I like it,” the daughter disagreed, but her mother pulled her away before we could talk.
“I like the choice of gold because it represents the feverishness of all the wealth here,” said Wendy Welch, director of the Vancouver Island School of Art, who was visiting New York from her home city of Victoria in Canada. “The eyes are saying: We know what’s going on.”
I also got to talk with a volunteer guide at the Met who was coming into work and asked not to be named because she’s not authorized to speak on behalf of the museum. “It’s just so beautiful to have a Guyanese artist’s work on the front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” she said. “That’s what’s so amazing. This would never have happened 20 years ago.”
One thing is for sure: The luminous surfaces of the sculpture caught the attention of most visitors. I asked Locke if we should be afraid of gold. It’s a strange question to ask but it felt necessary considering all the historically charged associations of this precious metal. He replied with a resounding “NO.”
“Gold is beautiful. It’s to be admired. It shines like the sun,” he said and pointed a finger at the noon sky.