The Metropolitan Museum of Art has selected three international artists for commissions that will showcase contemporary art’s capacity for “earned optimism,” the organizers said.
On Wednesday, the museum announced that the Kosovo-born artist Petrit Halilaj will take over the museum’s Roof Garden in April with a meditation on conflict; the South Korean sculptor Lee Bul will transform the facade in September with futuristic statues; and the Taiwanese artist Tong Yang-Tze will design two new works of calligraphy featuring classical Chinese texts for the Great Hall in November.
“Art has to be a form of communication,” said David Breslin, curator in charge of the modern and contemporary art department. “It has to embed within itself a form of critique, but it is also a form of optimism for how we can relate to each other.”
The facade and Great Hall commissions are the first projects at the Met to bear Breslin’s fingerprints. He joined the museum last year, but the majority of his time is being spent on the development of a new wing for the collection that carries an estimated cost of $500 million. He succeeds Sheena Wagstaff, who favored exhibitions that connected art historical threads across continents. The new commissions hint that Breslin might follow her lead.
In fact, the Halilaj exhibition started development under Wagstaff. The artist’s work is deeply rooted in biography, recalling his experience as a child refugee through the 1990s during the brutal fighting in Kosovo as part of the breakup of Yugoslavia. For a recent exhibition, he restaged drawings he had completed during that period as massive set pieces inside a gallery. For the Met Museum’s Roof Garden, he is planning to further explore questions of displacement and history.
“Petrit is a true scenographer of collective memories linked to his homeland,” said Iria Candela, the Met curator working on the project. “He is a master at bridging that gap, and at juggling memories and imagination as equally fragile.”
The last artist to create an exhibition on the Roof Garden was Lauren Halsey, who installed a monument to friends and family from her Los Angeles neighborhood in the style of an ancient Egyptian temple. Before her, the Philadelphia artist Alex Da Corte presented a satirical image of Big Bird from “Sesame Street” swinging on an Alexander Calder mobile.
For the museum’s Fifth Avenue facade, which currently hosts a series of sculptures by Nairy Baghramian, officials said they quickly reached a consensus on who the next artist would be when Lee’s name was mentioned.
Lee is regarded as one of South Korea’s leading artists. She came to prominence during the 1980s, when she staged performances denouncing restrictions on women’s rights in her country. Her practice later transformed into glittering installations and cyborgian sculptures that addressed the dystopian nature of progress. And though her work is the frequent subject of exhibitions in European and Asian museums, her presentation of four sculptures in the niches of the Met facade will mark her first major project in the United States since her 2002 solo exhibition at the New Museum, where she welcomed audiences into futuristic karaoke pods.
Tong, at 81, is one of the oldest artists to be commissioned by the museum, and this will be her first public commission outside Asia, where her Chinese calligraphy has appeared everywhere from perfume bottles to Taiwan’s official passport stamp. She has become celebrated for connecting the ancient practice of calligraphy with modern art, magnifying character brushstrokes to epic proportions that force viewers to contemplate the size and sweep of her movements.
“We usually understand calligraphy as something scholars and elites enjoyed in their leisure time,” said Lesley Ma, the Met curator who helped conceive of the Great Hall project. “But she enlarged characters in the scale and compositional strategy almost akin to abstract painting.”
Ma observed that visitors next year will pass below Lee’s futuristic sculptures outside the museum, which she also helped plan, before experiencing the two large calligraphy projects wrapped around the Great Hall.
“There will be a sense of wayfinding, orientation and repose,” the curator said.