City Paper is not for tourists
A creature has arisen from the lower worlds. A witchy figure with twisted features and five furious faces. A swamp thing that looks like it crawled out of the muck, pushed a statue off its pedestal, and took up residence as the new big bad in town.
Huma Bhabha’s “We Come in Peace” (2018) is an unmissable, unmistakable new addition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The statue by the Pakistan-born artist now greets visitors as they descend into the well of the museum’s submerged outdoor park, which reopened to the public on Aug. 17. Where for years people once filed past a modernist equestrian bronze (by Marino Marini), they will now be confronted by Bhabha’s otherworldly emissary. The experience may be unsettling.
“We Come in Peace” promises a pact, as if an outlandish extraterrestrial had just emerged from the saucer-shaped Hirshhorn building, olive branch in hand. Yet the sculpture embodies contradictory ideas about safety and stability. Bhabha’s grotesque figure isn’t threatening, exactly. With its long arms pinned to its side, the sculpture appears to be docile—as if this misunderstood monster is surrendering to public display.
Bhabha’s piece is crude, yet captivating. Divided into three horizontal bands of color, the statue has a magenta head, a teal torso, and a lower body the tone of sludge. “We Come in Peace” has the same ramshackle quality as an exquisite corpse drawing. The sculpture was cast in solid bronze but first carved from fugitive materials—cork for the lower third, styrofoam for the upper sections—to emphasize its antithetical nature. Its closest kin anywhere in the city might be Louise Bourgeois’ looming “Spider” (1996–97) at the National Gallery of Art’s sculpture garden, another sculpture that conveys danger and fragility.
At nearly 14 feet tall, “We Come in Peace” is monumental in its scope. Yet its arrival is a direct challenge to the whole notion of monumentality. Standing in pride of place on the National Mall, Bhabha’s sculpture dovetails with national conversations about statues and how we, as a people, choose to express identity. With its scarred breasts, gaping navel, and paint-dashed toenails, the figure suggests femininity without embracing any essentialist notions about gender. A splotch of paint over the crotch is a gestural dab, while the dots on its buttocks are precise. New ideas about representation—about art—are dangerous. Despite the titular pledge of assurance, “We Come in Peace” is here to overthrow dusty ideas about the figure.
With the new piece by Bhabha, the Hirshhorn is making good on a promise to rethink its long-overlooked sculpture garden. “We Come in Peace” is joined by another new work, Sterling Ruby’s “DOUBLE CANDLE” (2018), a sly image of the Twin Towers as they burned on Sept. 11. The additions by Bhabha and Ruby, artists who are at the forefront of contemporary practice, are a sign that the Hirshhorn is not content to merely make do with old bronzes.
Both of these pieces come at a time when artists are re-engaging with practices that were declared dead only a few years ago. Abstract painting rocked the art market in the era before the coronavirus pandemic made art fairs impossible; a backlash against so-called “zombie formalism” has taken the form of figurative painting and traditional sculpture. Neither Bhabha nor Ruby’s works are revanchist, by any means, but they do embrace time-honored practices in artmaking. Bhabha’s nightmare may look like a cartoonish Batman villain, but it’s a splendid piece of craft.
Sculpture gardens too often read like graveyards for artworks, static sites where vital pieces by Auguste Rodin or Henry Moore can’t shine and new ideas by the likes of Bhabha or Ruby never show up. With a planned renovation by photographer and designer Hiroshi Sugimoto, the Hirshhorn hopes to make its sculpture garden a place for performance, installation, and changing exhibitions. In recent years, the museum has delivered on new possibilities—through a 1992 Chrysler Spirit crushed by a volcanic boulder (Jimmie Durham’s 2007 “Still Life with Spirit and Xitle”) and an enormous polka-dotted gourd (Yayoi Kusama’s 2016 “Pumpkin”). Rarely do visitors come away from a sculpture park feeling belly laughs, but here, it happens.
With Bhabha’s piece—which is it? Are we supposed to laugh or are we supposed to cry? The thing that keeps coming to me is how the piece signifies trauma, the kind of unspoken terrors that lurk behind children’s fairy tales. Things that go bump in the night aren’t supposed to be seen by day. “We Come in Peace” speaks to the anxiety that adults are feeling, too, as the country falters, as its economy collapses, as its people die needless deaths. Bhabha’s contribution to the National Mall is jarring—playful, sinister, and disorienting, as if it’s been there all along, but we’ve only just now let ourselves see it.