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.
"The décor concept for the evening—which featured recycled plastic bottles used to create the press hedges on the red carpet, the Great Hall centerpiece and large wall panels lining the Great Hall staircase—was inspired by Tadao Ando, the architect who designed the Karl Lagerfeld exhibition that the Gala celebrated," a spokesperson for the Met said. "The event’s designers then carried the décor theme through to the decorative lighting in the red carpet tent. The Met is a great admirer of Willie Cole, and has reached out to the artist directly on the matter.”
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 Vogue did not respond to requests for comment.
Update: This article has been revised to include a comment from a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.