Even on a Saturday afternoon some rooms at the Met remain sparsely populated and seemingly forgotten. Wandering accidentally into one of these overlooked alcoves, the first thing you notice is the dank smell that seems caked in the ancient carpeting and the even more ancient artworks. Quietly tucked away in the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas collection between centuries-old masks and textiles is a surprisingly contemporary pièce de résistance grandly titled Between Earth and Heaven.
The inclusion of recently-anointed Ghanaian art star El Anatsui’s piece from 2006 seems an attempt at breathing life into the less-visited corners of the museum’s permanent collection.
At first glance the work resembles a tapestry hung on a wall, a type of strip-woven textile that the confident plaque tells us originates among “Akan and Ewe weavers” in the artist’s country of origin. But if, en route to see the congested Impressionism show, the looker slows from a brisk walk to stationary, it becomes clear that the fibers of this modern day textile repel the muskiness that has settled onto the glass-enclosed, primly hung works that rest on either side.
Anatsui’s creation does not lie flat against the wall as an ordinary square of fabric does—certain sections of the whole are pinned up from behind so that the surface bubbles and swells. An undulating movement is built into the display of the piece. Long rectangular blocks of glistening gold cut horizontally across the 10-foot-wide composition and flicker even in the dim, steady light of the gray gallery. After a few minutes’ observation, the work begins to float off the wall—hovering like a body of water frozen in time.
Taking two steps closer to the surface reveals an unlikely choice of material. The woven strips of fabric are actually small bits of base metal strung together with wire. The regality of the glistening gold is nothing more than the cheap matte metal that comes wrapped around the tops of Ghanaian liquor bottles, and the intricately woven pattern of small red, yellow, and black squares along the bottom edge consists of bottle tops.
The tactile organic swells turn out to be an amalgamation of abandoned metals, the refuse of mass manufacture. The tapestry becomes the topography of an abstract landscape littered with trash, as if the abandoned bottles have been lifted from the ground and transplanted onto the gallery wall.
If you’ve visited the Brooklyn Museum, been to any major art fair, or walked down the High Line in the past year, you’ve probably noticed Anatsui’s large metallic tapestries. Not long after the smallish Anatsui piece (measuring about 7-by-10 feet) was installed in the Arts of Africa galleries, the Met installed a gargantuan Anatsui titled Dusasa II in the quasi-foyer of the contemporary section. This behemoth, measuring nearly 20-by-24 feet, commands a regular audience of European tourists who like to pose in front of it for pictures.
The Met has treated this piece like the showstopper it is, installing it in one of the few rooms in the Met that has natural light, which creates a dazzling effect when the sunlight hits the metal. While the larger Anatsui is installed with ideal lighting conditions in the contemporary galleries, the smaller one hangs tucked away and dimly lit in the Arts of Africa section.
Why the curators at the Met chose to separate these works, placing them in two very different sections of the museum, is unclear—it’s hard to imagine a Ghada Amer being installed in the Egyptian galleries.
But even in its quiet corner, Between Earth and Heaven has the capacity to command the same attention as its colossal sibling. Unlike a conventional textile, the edges of the secluded piece appear unfinished and uneven. The tactile edges defy boundary or constraint, causing the piece to move and change from every perceived angle. This tapestry made of trash is in stark contrast to the traditionally displayed artifacts around it—foreign objects pinned like insects to pallid white walls in the spirit of ethnographic inquiry.
Anatsui’s piece demands a life of its own and resists the constraints of Western display. Its presence is demanding and overwhelming. The piece insists on an interactionary viewing experience, perhaps transporting the viewer between earth and heaven. Or maybe a bunch of Italians are missing out on a really good photo op.