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.
“When people continually refer to the content and ask me what it means, it usually 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,” explains the Syrian-born, US-raised sculptor whose work now attracts international attention, despite her career being only a decade long.
“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,” insists the 35-year-old in a softly-spoken voice.
“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,” she says.
“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 Jan van Eyck and Cy Twombly, who throughout his career engaged in a prolonged and thoughtful engagement with the art of the seventeenth century Baroque painter, Nicolas Poussin.
Like Al Hadid, Twombly’s obsession with the art of the past resulted in works that are both unapologetically modern and historically nuanced at the same time but while Al Hadid admits that Twombly is one of her heroes, she 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 on Sunday at New York University Abu Dhabi’s art gallery, reveals that Al Hadid’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 found work as an insurance agent, her mother 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 art gallery at NYU Abu Dhabi from Sunday until May 28. See www.nyuad-artgallery.org for more details.
Nick Leech is a features writer at The National.