While the world gawked at the annual fashion spectacle’s outlandish red carpet looks, art insiders called out suspicious comparisons between its scenography and the work of artist-activist Willie Cole.
Earlier this week, a star-studded crowd descended on the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the Met Gala. Adorned in extravagant looks in honor of the late couturier Karl Lagerfeld, stars ascended the museum’s famed entryway as hordes of paparazzi captured the red-carpet spectacle. While most gawked at Jared Leto’s head-to-toe Choupette costume or Jeremy Pope’s lengthy Balmain cape emblazoned with Lagerfeld’s face, art insiders fixated on something else entirely: the scenography, which included a transparent barricade wall and a group of chandeliers, each made using recycled plastic bottles.
Some claimed suspicious similarities between the chandeliers and the work of Willie Cole, a decorated artist who uses found objects as raw materials in ambitious sculptures that probe environmental crises. (Cole himself called out the fixtures on Instagram.) The Met acquired one of his works—an assemblage of women’s shoes forming the shape of a man’s head, nodding to 19th-and 20th-century masks from Cameroon—in its permanent collection and even sells his prints in the gift shop.
The pieces in question resemble two large-scale chandeliers made of 3,000 plastic water bottles that Cole made at Express Newark, where he’s a current artist-in-residence. They were conceived in response to the 2019 water crisis afflicting the New Jersey city when lead contamination in aging pipes prompted the government to distribute thousands of single-use plastic bottles.
According to event planner Raul Avila, this year’s concept is credited to Japanese architect Tadao Ando, the 1995 Pritzker Prize laureate who also spearheaded the design for the Costume Institute’s new exhibition “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty.” (Lagerfeld was a fan of his work, photographing his famous Vitra House and enlisting him to design his own house that was never built.) The recycled plastic bottles reappeared in the gala’s centerpiece, a giant tubular structure that, as Avila says, “reflects the surrounding lights to make the entire design feel immersive.”
Ellen Hawley, a curator who has worked with Cole in the past, shared her take on Instagram: “Interestingly, Willie wasn’t asked to be invited to collaborate on the installation, nor was he asked permission to use the likeness of his art. The fashion and art worlds face copycat challenges all the time. This seems like a blatant copy—at the Met of one of their exhibiting artists.” A museum spokesperson said the designers “carried the décor theme through to the decorative lighting in the red carpet tent,” adding the institution “is a great admirer of Willie Cole and has reached out to the artist directly on the matter.”