As celebrities walked the red carpet at the Met Gala on Monday night (1 May), they struck poses beneath several chandeliers made of recycled plastic water bottles. For some viewers, the fixtures seemed familiar: they recall sculptures by the artist Willie Cole, who is now accusing the event, hosted by Vogue and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of a “blatant rip off” of his art. In multiple Instagram posts on 2 May, Cole shared photographs of the fundraiser’s chandeliers and his sculptures, writing that he has been receiving messages since the event about the alleged plagiarism.
“Is this flattery or thievery?” he asked. The social-media posts were first reported by Artnews.
The New Jersey-based Cole is known for using discarded objects such as shoes, hairdryers and musical instruments to create sculptures that consider ideas around memory, appropriation and environmental threats. He has repurposed used plastic water bottles for over a decade, turning thousands of them into works like a full-size car, larger-than-life birds and chandeliers.
Two examples of the last were exhibited as early as 2013 at a Newark gallery; this February, Cole unveiled another pair for an ongoing exhibition at Newark Express, which received coverage in The New York Times. The sculptures are meant to address the city’s “dual environmental crisis of 2019: the lead contamination of drinking water in ageing lead pipes and the opening of citywide centres to distribute water through thousands of single-use plastic bottles”, according to a text on the gallery’s website.
The Met Gala’s decor was conceived by the event designer Raul Àvila, who has been overseeing the ball’s visual production since 2007. According to Vogue, “the concept [of using thousands of recycled water bottles] originated from Tadao Ando”, who designed the Met’s new Costume Institute exhibition, Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty.
“Given today’s climate, we wanted to highlight the importance of giving our everyday items more than one life cycle,” Avila told Vogue. “We wanted to find a way to create a sustainable design that would implement the bottles into a breathtaking installation unlike anything we’ve done before.” Thousands more bottles formed barriers that lined the red-carpet stairs, as well as a monumental, rotund installation inside the museum’s Great Hall.
The Met also owns several works by Cole, including his sculpture Shine (2007), which is made from high-heeled leather shoes. The work is currently on view in the museum’s exhibition Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room.
Representatives for the Met and Vogue did not respond to requests for comment.