Earlier this week, all eyes were on the Metropolitan Museum of Art as some of Hollywood’s biggest celebrities flocked to New York for the annual Met Gala benefit. While the theme and accompanying exhibition at the Costume Institute — a tribute to the late designer Karl Lagerfield — was a source of controversy in itself, it was not the only point of contention at the prestigious event.
In the midst of all the social media chatter on the head-turning outfits grazing the red carpet, several members of the art community were quick to point out a resemblance between the plastic water bottle chandeliers hanging above the celebrities and the sculptural works of contemporary artist Willie Cole.
On Instagram, curator Ellen Hawley called the Met Gala light fixtures a “blatant copy” of chandeliers created by Cole, whose own large-scale water bottle sculptures are currently on display at Express Newark, where he is an artist-in-residence. She also pointed out that Cole’s work is on display at The Met and that his prints and design are sold in the museum’s gift shop.
“Interestingly, Willie wasn’t asked to be involved to collaborate on this installation, nor asked for his permission to use the likeness of his art,” Hawley wrote. “As a curator who has worked with Willie’s bottle works, I instinctively feel protective of his work.”
Cole expressed his agreement with Hawley’s remarks in his own Instagram post. “I’ve been receiving message[s] since last night about the blatant rip off of my water bottle works,” he wrote. “Is this flattery or thievery?”
Via a representative of Kavi Gupta Gallery in Chicago, Cole declined to comment.
The chandeliers on display at the recent Met Gala were designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando. Winner of the 1995 Pritzker Prize, Ando is a self-taught architect, widely known for his emphasis on simplicity and empty space in his work. Event planner Raul Àvila, who has been overseeing the Met Gala’s design decor since 2007, explained in an interview with Vogue that the design was meant to “highlight the importance of giving our everyday items more than one life cycle.”
Recycled water bottles also lined the staircase at the gala entrance, and were used in conjunction with florals for an enormous circular centerpiece in the Great Hall. A spokesperson for The Met told Hyperallergic that the event’s designers “carried the décor theme through to the decorative lighting in the red carpet tent.”
“The Met is a great admirer of Willie Cole, and has reached out to the artist directly on the matter,” the museum’s spokesperson added.
On social media, many jumped to Cole’s defense. On one of the artist’s Instagram posts, Pamela Council agreed with a comment that the Met Gala’s fixtures were a “rip-off,” adding that they lacked Cole’s “formal swagger.” Some users pointed to the long history of found-object sculptures and upcycling in art, but many conceded that the designs were uncannily similar.
Cole is a New Jersey-based artist whose multimedia practice includes printmaking, sculpture, drawing, and photography. He is best known for combining everyday objects in works that deal with sociopolitical issues at the crossover of race, history, and traditional African artisanship. In February, Cole unveiled “Spirit Catcher” and “Lumen-less Lantern,” two chandelier-like sculptures constructed of over 3,000 plastic water bottles fastened together using basket weaving techniques and metal wire. The bottles that make up the chandeliers were gathered in and around Newark, and are a commentary on the city’s water crisis, as well as the planet’s toxic reliance on single-use plastic. The two works are currently on view as part of Express Newark’s Aliveness series.
Editor’s note 5/3/23 5:59pm EDT: This article has been updated with a quote from a Met Museum spokesperson.