Huma Bhabha “We Come in Peace” Exhibition
And after your exhausting expedition through the paradisal continents within the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and after gifting your wonder to the hanging gardens of painted beauty that blossom to enchant the world within, you arrive at the top, melting, and in need of rest. But something has landed. You anger your feet and take-off higher and higher towards the summit of the Met, and there, on the roof, you see the only peaceful visitors in the museum. Freshly fixed to the ground are two mythical sculptures titled: “We Come in Peace”. Before you is artist Huma Bhabha’s exhibition for the Met’s Roof Garden Commission, which runs until 28th October and keeps you still and quiet until you manage to free your feet from petrification.
As many have noted, the exhibition’s title “We Come in Peace,” is adapted from a famous line in the 1951 science fiction movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, in which a very terrestrial-looking alien assures the humans he comes in peace at the moment of first contact. The title, thus, is appropriate for this exhibition, as the two extra-terrestrial sculptures possess strangely humanoid physiques. Although they are alien enough to unnerve you, they are human enough to invite you. Or maybe the reverse is true.
However, Bhabha’s sculpted visitors do not come from another world. The two characters were made from earthly materials: originally Bhabha assembled them from clay, cork and Styrofoam, along with scraps of metal and wood and other free substances, but, due to their ephemerality, the sculptures were then cast in bronze to endure the weather. Of the two sculptures, the most imposing is a twelve-foot-tall cosmic creature. It is finished with a scorched-black bottom half that contrasts with its pale blue torso and totemic brown head, which is enveloped by ghoulish faces on every side, leaving no person unwatched. The colossal monster-man stands ominously in front of the Manhattan skyline, over which it appears to tower from specific perspectives, while it installs itself as a unique skyscraper within the backdrop, being made of the same materials as the towers themselves. Clearly, the sculpture is a man-made idol. Yet the figure itself bears the alien-inspired name of the exhibition “We Come in Peace”, and so its connection with the cosmic or the celestial or the godly is subtly deceptive. To gain a deity, this mortal effigy requires our help.
This is a mistake seemingly made by the second sculpture, named “Benaam”, which means “unnamed” in Urdu, as it lies frozen on its knees, praying in fearful reverence to the false god. It lies unseeing and unseen under a black bag which covers its body completely, except for two enormous hands which are outstretched in servitude and a tail which bizarrely protrudes from the being’s behind, implying severe mutation. Mutated by fear is one possible explanation for the startling appearance of the second sculpture – it dares not look up at the silent deity. But maybe the pious sculpture fears the carved god precisely because it cannot see it. The unknown and fear are natural companions. A being which is unknown is one on which you can project both omnipotence and your deepest fears, making it a god. The irony is that if the hidden sculpture did look up, it would not find a god, but a creature made of terrene materials. The idea of false godhood is evoked strongly by Bhabha’s exhibition. Perhaps her work is a warning against worshipping humans, or maybe it is a scathing criticism of humans’ ability to deify themselves and pose as almighty alien invaders as they colonise and concur and enslave those whom they deem inferior.
I’m probably wrong.
But this is just one humble interpretation of Huma Bhabha’s haunting exhibition. Her mysterious work encourages you to hypothesise its meaning by both deliberating over what kind of relationship exists between the two sculptures and musing over their allegorical significance. No doubt, this exhibition will inspire loud debate. But in the presence of these behemoths, one thing is certain: you will not feel at peace.
Words / JAMIE KONTIS