Puffed-up chest, hacked-up ribs, arms bearing cryptic symbols — pentagrams and foreign-looking script — and back covered in spray paint, Bhabha’s character, as she calls it, combines the aesthetics of a vandalized bathroom stall and the confidence of D.C.’s proudest monuments. The figure’s rough countenance, carved in cork and foam before being cast in bronze, evinces the effort of an artist sketching a figure, approximating a form with lines. But the result — gashes that resemble teeth, hair, breasts — have startling severity, as if slashed by an ax murderer.
Pulling on references from art history, Bhabha has created a figure that looks like a Giacometti sculpture inflated like a balloon, or the corpse of Willem de Kooning’s “Woman I” freed from the grave.
Bhabha’s work defies categorization. The Pakistani American aspires to make forms that are genderless, country-less. “When you are nothing, you can become everything,” she has said, and the wide-ranging references that critics have found in her work — it’s primordial, post-apocalyptic, inspired by sci-fi, horror movies and religion all at once — suggest she’s succeeded.
When encountering this work, many will gasp and move on. But if you spend some time with it, you’ll see it’s not all that menacing. It emits a wrinkled, toothless smile toward the Mall. An apologetic eye settles on the Capitol. And it seems to chuckle in the direction of the Washington Monument.
As with a movie monster, which loses its shock value once you’ve stared at it long enough and there’s nothing left to imagine, you might come to a realization: What’s scariest about “We Come in Peace” — an ultimately unthreatening “other” that has made its home on the Mall — is what it stirs up in your mind.
The garden’s other new addition, Sterling Ruby’s “Double Candle,” is also about what lingers in the corners of the psyche. The two tall, bronze, candlelike forms are described as a 9/11 tribute, meant to evoke associations that come with the twin towers.
But this is no straightforward commemoration.
Cast from one of Ruby’s soft sculptures — inspired by quilts from the rural Pennsylvania of Ruby’s youth — the forms resemble pillows more than obelisks. From the side, they appear to have seams, as if they’ve been stuffed with feathers and sewn together, as if you could rest your head comfortably on their black flames.
Another iteration of “Double Candle” was shown in Ruby’s recent exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston. Covered in American flags, it looked like an inflated lawn decoration for the Fourth of July.
That one might have seemed more openly critical of the nationalism associated with 9/11 memorials. Here — perhaps reading the room — Ruby turns it down a notch. But still there’s something off about the work. Are these meant to evoke the twin towers — or a plush toy? Could they be both?
Looking at this strange quasi-memorial calls to mind the much-criticized gift shop of the museum at Ground Zero. The work suggests the way memorials sometimes overshadow the thing they memorialize. Once desensitized to the tragedy, we’re left with a shadow of truth, a candle with no light, a gnawing memory, searching for associations.
We Come in Peace/Double Candle
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW. hirshhorn.si.edu. Although the museum building remains closed, its sculpture garden is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Enter from the National Mall.
Dates: On permanent view.