The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s decision to invite Pakistani painter Imran Qureshi to splatter blood-red acrylic paint across its elegant rooftop patio was a deliberately jarring aberration from tradition. Past projects have built up and extended out from the patio, creating temporary environments for surprise encounters and social interaction. Offered some of the most coveted, elevated real estate in New York City, recipients of the museum’s summer commission project typically respond with playful celebration. Qureshi’s piece, And How Many Rains Must Fall Before the Stains Are Washed Clean (2013), is participatory in the sense that visitors walk across it, but the bloody floor painting is also provocative, despite, or perhaps because of, how easy it is to ignore.
The installation is both humbling in concept and humble in execution. Stretching over roughly half of the roof’s surface, the work combines stark gore with brisk brushstrokes. Taking what looks like the remnants of a public massacre, Qureshi works pools of paint into luscious layers of petals, accenting them with hints of white. The floral motif comes from the miniature painting traditions of the Mughal and Persian courts, techniques that Qureshi studied, and now teaches, at the National College of Arts in Lahore. The intricate details of the miniature format, however, do not translate to his installation projects. Although the floor painting is dense, it is much coarser, brusque and seemingly more hurried than his miniatures. Qureshi takes one spill at a time, developing each design as he feels appropriate without a preconceived plan. For the artist, who sees the incorporation of chance and accident as going directly against the miniature tradition, transgressing the medium’s boundaries is both a deliberate and a liberating act.
While intentionally resisting the refinement and rigidity of his works on paper, the rooftop painting still feels formally constrained. In spite of the arresting implication of a violent explosion on top of one of the most prestigious art museums in the world, the actual effect of the work is remarkably muted. This may have more to do with the space itself than the painting occupying it. Nonetheless, the experience of the piece is somewhat compromised. The painting seems arbitrarily cut off halfway across the terrace—the splatters creep up along the adjacent walls on three sides, but on the fourth side they form a neat boundary line before reaching the wooden deck on which the rooftop’s bar is situated. Perhaps necessary to preserve the underlying surface of the terrace, this deference to recreational priorities dulls the assertiveness that is Qureshi’s fundamental premise.
Trying to reflect on flung-apart flesh as a form of fine art is perplexing when most viewers are scampering across the terrace, posing for pictures or sipping drinks from the bar. Instead of shocking with its hostile appearance, the floral carnage remains unobtrusive underfoot, as visitors enjoy the party-like atmosphere above. It is this unease that Qureshi is aiming for, inviting—or even daring—visitors to take pleasure in the privileged sanctuary above the treetops of the Upper East Side, while remnants of political violence remain obvious but ultimately irrelevant. “You don’t immediately want to walk on it, but slowly you get comfortable,” he states in a brief video accompanying the installation.
The work deploys similar tactics to those of his previous site-specific floor paintings, They Shimmer Still at the 2012 Biennale of Sydney, and Blessings Upon the Land of My Love at the 2011 Sharjah Biennial. In both of these, Qureshi engaged more convincingly with the sites’ particular architectural features to enhance his evocation of an explosion, in which splatters spilled down steps and seeped into crevices. The neatness of his floor painting in New York may best serve Qureshi’s thesis—that life goes on—but it remains aloof. People naturally gather around the perimeter of the work, as if it were a crime scene, but instead of staring down at it with morbid curiosity, they look out at the Manhattan skyline, taking photos of that instead. With their heads in the clouds, their feet are soon planted firmly inside the boundaries of the “blood-spattered” floor, now also flecked with coffee and chewing gum.