Per­fect form

Sculp­tor Diana Al Ha­did is a star on the rise. Nick Leech talks with the Syr­ian-born artist as her first solo show in the re­gion opens at NYUAD Art Gallery

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - Nick Leech is a fea­tures writer at The Na­tional.

Diana Al Ha­did re­fuses to be pi­geon­holed about mean­ing. She wants to talk in­stead about the pro­cesses, ma­te­ri­als and fin­ishes she uses in her ex­tra­or­di­nary work.

“I like to re­mind peo­ple of the process, be­cause peo­ple think that artists have this agenda or a mes­sage, but that’s not how my work is con­structed at all,” ex­plains the Syr­ian-born, US-raised sculp­tor whose work now at­tracts in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion, de­spite her ca­reer be­ing only a decade long.

“I don’t come in with this big im­por­tant mes­sage and mean­ing or all this stuff that I want to tell the world and dish it out for peo­ple to un­ravel,” in­sists the 35-year-old in a softly-spo­ken voice.

“I don’t have that kind of clar­ity ahead of time and I don’t have that kind of agenda.”

Our con­ver­sa­tion soon moves to the com­plex re­la­tion­ship be­tween form and nar­ra­tive in her work, about sculp­ture’s need to “en­gage” with the floor and about Al Ha­did’s fas­ci­na­tion with in­de­ter­mi­nacy in all its forms and with pe­riph­eries.

All of which things, nerdy and ob­scure though they might sound, have a lot to do with the en­joy­ment of Al Ha­did’s par­tic­u­lar brand of sculp­ture which con­stantly blurs the bound­aries be­tween two-di­men­sional marks and three-di­men­sional struc­tures, in­te­ri­ors and sur­faces, and be­tween vol­umes and voids.

“The rea­son I keep point­ing back to form is be­cause I can’t imag­ine a mes­sage with­out the form hav­ing drawn me to it. The phys­i­cal prob­lem solv­ing the small­est minu­tiae in the work – the weld­ing or the metal rods that I’m us­ing – are so con­nected that I can’t not talk about form, and I’m as­sum­ing that peo­ple are re­spond­ing to the way the thing looks, not the mes­sage be­hind it.”

The as­sump­tion would be a rea­son­able one – once you have seen one of Al Ha­did’s sculp­tures you soon re­alise that there is very lit­tle else like them, were it not for the kalei­do­scopic ar­ray of nar­ra­tives and ref­er­ences the sculp­tor has al­ways al­luded to through­out her ca­reer.

For the past eight years, the pro­lific Al Ha­did has worked out of her stu­dio in Brook­lyn, helped by a small army of as­sis­tants in pro­duc­ing a se­ries of ar­chi­tec­tural, hand­made in­stal­la­tions that en­gage with the sto­ries, art and ar­chi­tec­ture of the clas­si­cal and Is­lamic past.

The re­sults have been a rep­u­ta­tion-defin­ing body of work ex­e­cuted in poly­mer gyp­sum, fi­bre­glass, poly­styrene, steel and pig­ment that fre­quently bor­row el­e­ments from artists such as Hans Mem­ling, Fra An­gelico and Paolo Uc­cello while cit­ing the ar­chi­tec­ture of Gothic cathedrals and the ge­om­e­try of pipe or­gans, the myth of Th­e­seus and the labyrinth as well as the sto­ries of Scheherazade and the Tower of Ba­bel. When the New York Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art re­cently asked Al Ha­did to choose a work from its col­lec­tion for a short, artist-nar­rated film, the sculp­tor chose the cu­bicu­lum ( bed­room) from the villa of P Fan­nius Synis­tor at Bosco­re­ale, a Ro­man villa whose im­mac­u­late fres­coes had been pre­served by the volcanic erup­tion of Mount Ve­su­vius dur­ing the de­struc­tion of Pom­peii.

“I can’t look at th­ese and di­vorce my­self from the event that brought them to us,” Al Ha­did ex­plains in the film.

“It’s one of the most un­for­tu­nate, but for his­tory’s sake, for­tu­nate events. It’s kind of hor­ri­ble to say, but it’s a strange para­dox: this com­plete de­struc­tion an­ni­hi­lated an en­tire re­gion, but at the same time, pre­served it.”

De­spite all of th­ese ref­er­ences and al­lu­sions, there is noth­ing de­riv­a­tive about Al Ha­did’s work, which draws upon the art of the past be­cause of the for­mal is­sues it raises, such as the shift­ing role of per­spec­tive in the fres­coes of the cu­bicu­lum or the fig­ure-ground re­la­tion­ship in the pat­tern found in a piece of me­dieval fab­ric, rather than for rea­sons of nar­ra­tive or his­tori­cism.

The re­sults are an oeu­vre that has se­cured Al Ha­did a unique po­si­tion in the pan­theon of con­tem­po­rary art, where such his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences are rare. It has si­mul­ta­ne­ously placed her in an un­likely tra­di­tion of Modernist clas­si­cists such as Brid­get Ri­ley who, like Al Ha­did, dis­played an early ob­ses­sion with Cy Twombly and Jan van Eyck. Twombly’s pro­longed and thought­ful en­gage­ment with the art of Ni­co­las Poussin re­sulted in works that are both un­apolo­get­i­cally mod­ern and his­tor­i­cally nu­anced at the same time. And while she ad­mits that Twombly is some­thing of an ob­ses­sion and one of her art he­roes, Al Ha­did baulks at the idea that she might be work­ing self-con­sciously within a his­tor­i­cal tra­di­tion.

“I’ve re­ally never set out to think about where I was in the his­tory of art, and I never think of my­self or my work in quo­ta­tions. It in­flates your ego and it stops you prob­lem-solv­ing. I don’t even think of my­self as a woman on a daily ba­sis. It’s just not some­thing I’m deal­ing with,” she in­sists.

“A lot of the rea­son I’m drawn to his­tory is that I don’t know that much about it so I come to it with the same cu­rios­ity that peo­ple have for me. I’m not ac­tu­ally that knowl­edge­able. I have an in­ter­est, but its al­ways for a self­ish rea­son. It’s some­thing that I feel that I need for the work not just for learn­ing’s sake,” she says. “The process of mak­ing some­thing is a process of learn­ing. It’s my link to the rest of the world and ev­ery­thing that I get in­ter­ested in is through my work and to ben­e­fit my work. It’s all done in the ser­vice of mak­ing a bet­ter piece of sculp­ture.”

Phan­tom Limb, which opens to­mor­row at New York Univer­sity Abu Dhabi’s art gallery, re­veals that Al Ha- did’s par­tic­u­lar blend of sculp­ture and art his­tory has nev­er­the­less made her ex­tremely pop­u­lar with cu­ra­tors and col­lec­tors, not just in­ter­na­tion­ally, but in the UAE as well.

Named af­ter the in­stal­la­tion that also forms the cen­tre­piece of the show, Phan­tom Limb also refers to the con­di­tion, oc­ca­sion­ally ex­pe­ri­enced by am­putees, who

con­tinue to feel sen­sa­tions from and the pres­ence of a non-ex­is­tent body part. The epony­mous sculp­ture it­self is formed of a se­ries of stacked plinths and pedestals, topped by a re­clin­ing fe­male torso that echoes the stat­u­ary of clas­si­cal an­tiq­uity, that melts, drips, coag­u­lates and ex­pands into an im­prob­a­ble float­ing land­scape of moun­tains, caves and sink holes with a raft, which bears the phan­tom limb in ques­tion, trail­ing be­hind.

Cu­rated by Maya Al­li­son, the di­rec­tor and chief cu­ra­tor of the NYUAD Art Gallery, Phan­tom Limb fol­lows an ear­lier ver­sion of the ex­hi­bi­tion, 2014’s The Fates at the Vi­enna Se­ces­sion, which also fea­tured the epony­mous sculp­ture. As Al Ha­did’s first solo ex­hi­bi­tion in the Arab world,

Phan­tom Limb, the 22nd solo show of Al Ha­did’s ca­reer, is a cu­ra­to­rial coup for Al­li­son fol­low­ing Al Ha­did’s ap­pear­ance in nu­mer­ous group shows in Shar­jah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi that date back to 2009.

But thanks to a se­ries of high-pro­file lo­cal loans, from the col­lec­tions of Sheikha Hoor bint Sul­tan Al Qasimi’s Shar­jah Art Foun­da­tion, Sheikh Sul­tan Sooud Al Qassemi’s Bar­jeel Art Foun­da­tion, as well as the pri­vate col­lec­tion of Sheikha Manal bint Mo­hammed bin Rashid Al Mak­toum, there is a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence be­tween The

Fates and Phan­tom Limb. The show also re­veals Al Ha­did’s be­guil­ing and be­wil­der­ing cu­rios­ity for myths, ori­gin sto­ries and lim­i­nal states, some­thing that is re­flected in the way her work re­peat­edly ex­plores the in­de­ter­mi­nate space be­tween be­long­ing and alien­ation, fact and fic­tion, the past and the present, and be­tween two-di­men­sional mark-mak­ing and three-di­men­sional sculp­ture.

“An­other way of phras­ing this might be to sug­gest that Al Ha­did is a sculp­tor who ex­ploits the con­ven­tions of pic­ture-mak­ing in or­der to cre­ate phys­i­cal ob­jects that of­ten as­pire to the sta­tus of im­ages,” writes the art his­to­rian Alis­tair Rider in Diana Al Ha­did: Phan­tom Limb, the new Al­li­son-edited pub­li­ca­tion that ac­com­pa­nies the ex­hi­bi­tion.

“View­ers of Al Ha­did’s sculp­tures and draw­ings may won­der whether fi­nal­ity is a state her works ever fully em­brace,” he writes, de­scrib­ing works that ap­pear to un­ravel, melt, con­geal and co­a­lesce be­fore the viewer’s eyes.

“Even in their com­pleted state they ex­ude a pow­er­ful im­pres­sion of be­ing in a per­ma­nent state of flux.”

Com­men­ta­tors have been tempted to lo­cate the ori­gins of Al Ha­did’s very vis­i­ble in­ter­est in in­de­ter­mi­nacy and lim­i­nal­ity in the sculp­tor’s life story and the sense of alien­ation she felt as an Arab im­mi­grant, grow­ing up in the United States.

In 1986, when she was only 5 years old, Al Ha­did’s fam­ily made a life – and ca­reer-defin­ing jour­ney from the Middle East to the Mid­west, leav­ing Aleppo for Can­ton, a for­mer man­u­fac­tur­ing town in Ohio, known mostly as the home of the 70s R&B group The O’Jays and the NFL Hall of Fame.

It was here that Al Ha­did’s father, Mazen, found work as an in­sur­ance agent, her mother Kholoud es­tab­lished her own floristry busi­ness and the young Al Ha­did learned English.

“When I came to Amer­ica, I was in the first grade and Ara­bic was my first lan­guage,” the sculp­tor tells me.

“I just re­mem­ber hav­ing to learn th­ese phrases to say to the other kids in school. I re­mem­ber re­hears­ing say­ing ‘I’m not from here, I’m from Syria’, but peo­ple didn’t re­alise where Syria was,” Al Ha­did says.

“I also re­mem­ber, when I was prob­a­bly 7, one of my friend’s par­ents say­ing ‘Syria. That’s on the other side of the world!’ and I was like, ‘ Wow! I’m from half­way around the world’. I felt kind of spe­cial but I also re­mem­ber feel­ing a lit­tle scared.”

That bi­o­graph­i­cal nugget, one of sev­eral that Al Ha­did has of­fered up in the course of the many talks and in­ter­views she has given through­out her ca­reer, points tan­ta­lis­ingly to mo­tifs and themes that re­cur in her work and to her self-con­fessed ob­ses­sion with the clas­si­cal fig­ure of Gradiva. As Al­li­son writes in her fore­word to Diana Al Ha­did:

Phan­tom Limb, the fourth cen­tury BC low-re­lief im­age of a robed, walk­ing woman, Gradiva – which means “she who walks” – was first named in a 1906 novella by Wil­helm Jensen, Gradiva, a Pom­pei­ian Fancy, while Sig­mund Freud hung a replica of the sculp­ture in his of­fice, ‘to ‘sym­bol­ize the in­ter­play be­tween mem­ory and ar­ti­fact’.”

“That in­ter­play res­onates in Al Ha­did’s work,” Al­li­son notes. “Bear­ing ti­tles like Phan­tom Limb and Gradiva’s

Fourth Wall, her work in­vites ‘Pom­pei­ian fancy,’ to dis­cover and re­store a mag­i­cally pre­served past, to stop time, and to ex­pe­ri­ence the past liv­ing and breath­ing in the present.”

Fea­tur­ing a fe­male who ap­pears to float but who, in re­al­ity, is un­able to feel grounded, works such as The

Sleep­walker (2014) echo some of Al Ha­did’s ear­lier works, which deal more ex­plic­itly with her com­plex sense of Syr­ian and Amer­i­can iden­tity.

In The Grad­ual Ap­proach of My Dis­in­te­gra­tion (2006), Al Ha­did con­structed a model of the Aleppo citadel, the ar­chi­tec­tural icon of her birth­place, out of wood, poly­styrene, plas­ter, fi­bre­glass and paint. She then mounted this on a col­umn at whose base ap­peared a cast of Al Ha­did’s own hov­er­ing feet.

The sculp­tor then con­structed an­other col­umn op­po­site the model citadel and mounted a pair of her own sandals on top of this, con­nect­ing both col­umns with a bro­ken viaduct, the frac­ture in which re­sem­bled the al­most-touch­ing hands of God and Adam from Michelan­gelo’s Sis­tine Chapel ceil­ing.

“In read­ing about Aleppo I learned about all of the lay­ers of civil­i­sa­tion that had ex­isted there and that sur­rounded the land­scape,” Al Ha­did ex­plained in a 2012 lecture she gave at the Univer­sity of Ore­gon.

“There were all of th­ese Hel­lenis­tic ru­ins and I learned about the Corinthian or­der and I imag­ine that the city was float­ing on top of this float­ing Corinthian col­umn and that the top of it, kind of like the cork on a cham­pagne bot­tle, had snapped off and flew to the other side of the room.” While Al Ha­did ad­mits that works such as Gradiva’s

Fourth Wall and The Grad­ual Ap­proach of My Dis­in­te­gra­tion might in­volve a med­i­ta­tion on a sense of dis­place­ment, root­less­ness and alien­ation, she is keen to avoid what she de­scribes as “ro­man­ti­cis­ing” or “over­think­ing” her work, or of mak­ing too much of her Syr­ian ori­gins.

“When peo­ple con­tin­u­ally bring back the con­tent and ask me what it means, usu­ally it takes me a few years to re­alise what I was chas­ing in a work, and I rarely say ‘This is what this means’ or ‘This is what this about’,” Al Ha­did says. “I don’t mind when peo­ple cir­cle around my bi­og­ra­phy. I in­sist they know who they are and where they’re from, but peo­ple want to over­sim­plify ev­ery­thing. I am a Syr­ian artist, but that’s not the full story. I grew up in Ohio and that is a huge rea­son why I’m able to make the work that I make.”

Diana Al Ha­did: Phan­tom Limb runs at the NYUAD Art Gallery from March 6 un­til May 28. Visit www.nyuad-art­gallery. org for more de­tails.

The sculp­tor’s NYU Abu Dhabi show opens to­mor­row.

Cour­tesy Jae Song / Col­lec­tion of the Shar­jah Art Foun­da­tion; Markus Wo­er­goet­ter

Some of Al Ha­did’s works, pic­tured clock­wise from top: ‘Phan­tom Limb’ (2014); ‘Gradiva’s Fourth Wall’ (2011); ‘Sleep­walker’ (2014).

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