Ancient Egypt, so strange yet familiar, is a projection screen for every age. A culture wars skirmish was recently fought over the “race” of the Ptolemaic queen Cleopatra. Because the ancient Mediterranean knew no such concept, we may as well ask whether Cleopatra was a Hufflepuff. From Shakespeare to Netflix, we map contemporary anxieties and aspirations onto the shores of the Nile.
Flanked by sphinxes and columns topped with Nemescapped faces, Lauren Halsey’s Met rooftop commission bares an ornamental similarity to the museum’s Temple of Dendur, whose Egyptian-looking bas reliefs actually depict the Roman Caesar Augustus. Unlike the temple, which equates bilateral symmetry with divine mystery, Halsey’s porous pavilion has no single path of entry, no inner sanctum, no imperial footprint. An open roof and off-axis entrances on two sides frame views of Central Park that are the real draw for tourists. Rather than scenes from the Book of the Dead coaxed from stone, Halsey has carved the iconography of her home, South-Central LA, and hieroglyphic flourishes into concrete panels. She calls upon the Egyptian Revival tradition as a talisman of Black excellence. The visages of the sphinxes and the column capitals belong to Halsey’s personal loved ones, a monumental tribute to otherwise private individuals.
Even as it tilts toward the monumentality of the ancients, the installation is very much an architecture for passing through. Its markings are like the graffiti carved by French soldiers into the Temple of Dendur, an assertion of presence in an indifferent world, a claim to remembrance. Halsey projects a postmodern, disorganized utopianism onto ancient Egypt. But one must wonder if a grab bag of forms and a building that doesn’t want to be a building are much of a jumping-off point for a freer future.