A buff-and-gray stronghold of stone, steel and glass set against Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is designed to shut out pretty much everything the park represents. It’s sealed off from weather and seasons, and natural change of any kind. The one part of the museum that’s an exception is the Cantor Roof Garden. Open to the elements, it’s rain-washed and sun-washed year round.
And while the rest of the museum has been as dark and still as a tomb since the start of the pandemic lockdown, the Roof Garden has percolated with life. Seeds, carried by wind, sprouted in its pavement. Wild ducks nested and raised a family in a planting box. In July, work on a sculptural installation by the Mexico City-based artist Héctor Zamora, left half-finished in March, went back into high gear in time for the Met’s reopening to the general public on Aug. 29. (It will be accessible to members on Aug. 27 and 28.)
Mr. Zamora’s project, “Lattice Detour,” the eighth in a series of annual Roof Garden Commissions, proves to be exactly right for its moment and place. Organized by Iria Candela, the museum’s curator of Latin American art, it’s a monument to openness over enclosure, lightness over heaviness, transience over permanence. It’s also an image fraught with political meaning about what a wall — and specifically the planned U.S.-Mexico border wall hailed as “beautiful” by our current president — should be and do.
When you first enter the Roof Garden from the elevator, the piece looks the very opposite of open and light. A free-standing curved wall of terra cotta bricks, over 100 feet long and 11 feet high, it appears to have a solid surface and to be perversely positioned to obscure a spectacular view of the park and the Manhattan skyline. You get the impression that to take in the open-air vista you need to make your way around this forbidding obstacle.
But as you approach, the surface slowly reveals itself to have unexpected transparency. The bricks, it turns out, are hollow and form a porous mesh. As you move along the wall, the openwork texture very gradually becomes clear. When you face the wall directly, you have a full, though filtered — pixelated — view, through it, of the city and park beyond. Also, if you return during the course of a day, you’ll see the wall cast changing patterns of shadow and light, most dramatically in early morning and evening (and no doubt on full-moon nights).
At the same time a wall is, by tradition, a purpose-built barrier, one that in this case you can look through but cannot pass through. At its most aggressively political, a wall is an instrument of separation and exclusion, meant to keep “us” away from a despised and feared “them,” a dynamic all too familiar to Americans on both sides of our southern border today.
Mr. Zamora, whose New York solo debut comes with this commission, has made political commentary through architecture central to his work. In 2004, he built a temporary structure of steel and wood high up on the exterior of the Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil in Mexico City and lived in the appended addition for weeks, tapping into the museum’s power lines for his electricity. The piece, “Parachutist, Av. Revolucion 1608 Bis,” referred both to illegal shelters erected by rural squatters on the city’s edges and to the inclusion of the now-marketable “outsider” presence in the mainstream art world.
In 2009, he installed a work called “Atopic Delirium” in two near-identical Modernist high-rise buildings on a street in downtown Bogotá, Colombia. One housed upscale tenants; the other was falling into decay. He crammed an upper-floor apartment in each building with bunches of ripe plantains, so many that the fruit seemed to be pushing, tumorlike, from the windows, and began to rot within a few days.
The plantains were a reminder of Colombia’s past and present colonialist history, specifically the so-called Banana Massacre of 1928, when, apparently under U.S. government pressure, Colombian troops gunned down striking employees of the North American-owned United Fruit Company. The political legacy persisted, and, as recently as 2007, Chiquita, the multinational successor to United Fruit, was fined $25 million for having paid protection money to a right-wing paramilitary group there in the 1990s.
And in a 2014 performance piece, “The Abuse of History,” Mr. Zamora had hundreds of potted palm trees tossed from upper windows of the Matarazzo Hospital in São Paulo, Brazil, a once-vital urban resource left derelict since 1993 and now the site of a planned luxury hotel. The trees were left to lie where they fell on the hospital’s deserted courtyards. Before long several began to take root, suggesting that, despite its abuse throughout human history, Nature rules, or can, as it did for a while on the Met’s rooftop. (In preparation for the museum’s reopening, workers cleared wild vegetation from the roof, and park rangers moved the ducks to a new home.)
Plantains and palm trees have, of course, become clichéd images of “tropical” life, and Mr. Zamora makes full use of their exoticizing implications, as he does with the building material in “Lattice Detour.” The baked clay bricks used are of a type popular throughout the Southern Hemisphere. Called “celosía” in Spanish, they are molded of readily available material, basically the earth underfoot in any given place. Their hollowness makes them easy to transport and arrange, and gives them useful thermal properties.
That the bricks used for the Met piece were manufactured in, and brought from, Mexico — trucked across the border and driven to New York — adds a topical dimension to Mr. Zamora’s wall. So does the fact that in building it, he has used the bricks in an unusual way. Ordinarily, they would be stacked upright, with their open ends invisible, to form closed vertical columns. In the Met piece, they’re laid out horizontally, so their hollowness, and the geometric design it reveals, becomes functional in a different way, practical but also aesthetic, ornamental.
And art historical. The wall’s curve, and its play of transparency and bulk, brings to mind another, earlier wall-like sculpture, Richard Serra’s 1981 “Tilted Arc.” The Serra piece was also curved and free-standing, but fully, interruptively solid. Twelve feet high and cast in dark Corten steel, it bisected the plaza outside the Federal Building in Lower Manhattan. Office workers who crossed the space daily objected to the work from the start: to its intrusive, path-altering mass and to what some saw as its adamant ugliness. In 1989, after heated legal battles, “Tilted Arc” was removed.
Mr. Zamora’s Met commission serves as both a homage and a critique of “Tilted Arc.” In doing so it reasserts the idea that public art and politics should be — just are — inseparable. And it suggests that in ways the current leaders of our country cannot even begin to imagine, a wall can expand and deepen our love for a world that no politics of aggression or protection can ever keep out.
The Roof Garden Commission: Héctor Zamora’s ‘Lattice Detour’
Through Dec. 7 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which reopens Aug. 29. (Member preview days are Aug. 27 and 28.) Visit metmuseum.org for an overview of safety protocols and ticketing information.