Savagery, Mulled in Airy Precincts
‘The Roof Garden Commission: Imran Qureshi,’ at the Met
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
By KEN JOHNSON
The roof garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the lovelier places to go in New York during the warm seasons. Every year its pastoral bliss high above Central Park is complemented by some sort of benign sculpture exhibition, usually three-dimensional works of formal decorum or playful ingenuity.
This year visitors will discover something strikingly different: the 8,000-square-foot terrace is splattered with paint the color of dried blood. At first glance it looks like a crime scene or the site of a ritual slaughter.
But upon closer inspection the viewer finds the spillage has been delicately altered. With deft white and red brush strokes, the Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi has worked into the messy, raw paint a pattern suggestive of leafy shrubbery, bird feathers and angels’ wings — pictorial and ornamental motifs used in Indian and Persian miniature painting.
“These forms stem from the effects of violence,” he explains in a statement posted by the museum. “They are mingled with the color of blood, but, at the same time, this is where a dialogue with life, with new beginnings and fresh hope starts.”
It’s an obvious metaphor. From death grows life; from horror comes transcendence; hope emerges from despair. But for me and, I imagine, others, that inspirational symbolism will be overlaid by the sobering, still-fresh memories of the blood-splattered street where bombs exploded at the finish line of last month’s marathon in Boston. Thoughts of war and other terrorist acts naturally come to mind, too. Mr. Qureshi’s title, “And How Many Rains Must Fall Before the Stains Are Washed Clean,” from a poem by the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984), underlines the deeply plaintive mood animating his piece.
Mr. Qureshi’s work depends heavily on context for its emotional impact. Two years ago, in the courtyard of a modern building in the United Arab Emirates, Mr. Qureshi made a similar piece for the 2011 Sharjah Biennial. In an interview in a small book that accompanies the Met’s rooftop exhibition, he recalls the personal and intense response: “It was amazing,” he said. “People were crying — and, at first, I thought maybe I had done something wrong!”
Translated to the United States, however, something about the work is lost. A curious, illustrative thing happened on the day of my visit to the Met. Across the terrace I saw a large man lying face down on the stained floor pretending to be a bombing victim as his wife and several children laughed and took pictures. Then the kids piled on top of him in a heap of chortling bodies.
I was chatting with Sheena Wagstaff, the Met’s chief curator of modern and contemporary art and the exhibition’s organizer, and we were dumbfounded. Ms. Wagstaff went over to ask the man what he was thinking. She reported back that he said, “A sick sense of humor runs in the family.”
It amazed me that someone would react so buffoonishly to a work of such serious import and that none of the other several dozen people on the terrace seemed to pay much attention or take evident offense. One reason, I guess, is that although the Sept. 11 attacks unfolded only a few miles to the south, terrorist acts are far less common in the United States than they are in the Middle East and parts of South Asia, including Mr. Qureshi’s hometown, Lahore. And I suppose that, given how our awareness of war and terrorism comes mostly from the mass media, we have become relatively desensitized to the sufferings of usually distant others.
The incident on the roof points up a significant weakness in Mr. Qureshi’s piece: it’s not as site-specific as it claims to be. It isn’t adjusted to the complicated social and cultural context of the United States, which is vastly different from that of the Middle East and Pakistan. In its initial shock effect, it is as likely to suggest horror movies and episodes of “C.S.I.” as current events. With its splattering technique, reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, the work can also be just as easily read as another piece of contemporary art — safely bracketed off from deeper emotions.
So it is worth considering a different way of working that Mr. Qureshi is known for: small, finely detailed paintings in the style of 16th- and 17th-century Indian miniatures, a genre that flourished under Islamic rulers of the Mughal Empire. Mr. Qureshi, a Muslim, was trained in this technically demanding genre at the National College of Arts in Lahore, where he is now an assistant professor. With their exquisitely executed images of fauna, flora and people, his creations look a lot like those by his artistic ancestors, but they often include modern updates.
One pertinent example is “Blessings Upon the Land of My Love” (2011), which is reproduced in the exhibition booklet. It pictures a bird’s-eye view of a rectangular enclosure built of stone or concrete blocks with bloody splatters on the floor within and bushes and gold-leafed ground without. Though it measures only about 8 ½ by 6 ½ inches, it evokes a whole world’s history of art, religion and violence. It comes, that is, with its own fully realized context and thereby has an intense specificity that the Met’s public piece lacks. (This summer the museum will also present an exhibition of Mr. Qureshi’s small works.)
None of this is to say that sympathetic viewers won’t find much to ponder in the rooftop piece’s visual poetics. In fact, its weakness is paradoxically its strength. A dreamlike carpet underfoot, bound to be scuffed and soiled by thousands of shoes and beaten by sun and rain, it remains generously open to meditative reflection. It doesn’t impose a partisan ideology. It’s a place that anyone from anywhere might come to pray for the healing of our wounded world.