I met Diana Al-Hadid during last year’s Art Basel in Miami, where I helped her deconstruct one of her pieces—a manatee-sized skeletal tower made of crumbly-looking polymer gypsum honeycomb with a metal and wood infrastructure—in preparation to ship it back home to her studio. Heavy and colossal as it was, the sculpture seemed so fragile. We watched it rumble down the road and then Al-Hadid drove to Disney World.
We next met at her studio, a cathedral-sized space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where we ate falafel and listened to R&B hits while building shelves to house her sizeable working materials and molds. And though we’ve been in touch since, there’s a lot I don’t know about her. I know she was born in Syria, but not that she lived in Saudi Arabia. “Then we moved to the suburbs of Cleveland,” she says over the phone from Florida, where she is working on a residency at the Institute for Research in Art at the University of South Florida, Tampa. “We eventually moved to North Canton, Ohio, which is where my parents are still.”
That the most recognizable building in Canton is the pigskin-shaped Football Hall of Fame is severely at odds with Al-Hadid’s work; her sculptures resemble monuments seen while traveling by dream to far away destinations. “Self Melt” (2008), for example, could be a Tower of Pisa turned upside down, inside out and melted in
a microwave. An earlier series of pipe-organ-cum-shrines evoke mutated church basements where hunchbacks and phantoms roam and take turns bashing out haunting arias. It seems at times the organs could shuffle away on their own. “People tell me that [my work] could come to life,” says Al-Hadid. “Or that it died.”
Al-Hadid’s more architecturally-focused works are less animated, yet they’re still imbued with a sense of humanness and unsaid presence. “The body is implied not just in architecture,” Al-Hadid intones, “but in sculpture, generally. You understand a sculpture viscerally. You compare it, psychologically, by the scale of your own body.” One can walk around Al-Hadid’s work and sense that it’s intended to be explored like a ruin from another time, to be studied, to extract information about human interface with objects.
Despite the invitation from her pipe organs to be played, or her towers’ beckoning for human interactivity, Al-Hadid, a bit embarrassed for allowing magic into such earthly works, eschews them with literal figuration. “Part of the reason that I avoid working with the fully formed figure is—and I’m not a practicing Muslim—but it’s really superstitious. Sculpture has that anyway, when it’s doing
a good job. It is alive. But I would avoid making the figure look alive because there’s this superstition that I have where I would risk something actually getting up and moving. I don’t think that’s actually going to happen, but if anything I would want the non-figurative work to be alive.”
Mystic sensibilities in her work are inspired from a variety of angles. Recently, Al-Hadid reunited with a former high school acquaintance who had just moved to New York. He happened to be a world famous magician. “He does ‘close-up’ magic; it’s very intimate. Magicians: these are people that have secrets about the other side of the universe. It feels like [it, anyway]! They have presumably solved the laws of gravity. That stuff that you want to have power over, as a sculptor.” Motivated by a newfound sense for achieving the previously-thought implausible, for her residency in Tampa, Al-Hadid built a spiraling tower of what appears to be playing cards—a visual wink to the precariousness of her creations. In another recent work, “Actor” (2009), Al-Hadid returns to veiled figuration; her examination of the classic form of a woman in repose collides with her newfound interest in illusion and magic. “They both portray a sense of levity,” she says. “The ground that she’s sitting on is a spiral galaxy. You can’t really tell [she’s touching the ground].”
Al-Hadid appears to be pushing away a little bit from the towers she’s become known for, though her work is still monumental. “I’m still young in my career,” says the 28-year-old, “so I can work on something for one year. I have had
a year of really, really studying pipe organs and music and architecture, and the next year [I studied] architecture as ridiculously absurd ambition. This year I just want to try to make more constructive things and to try to introduce the character into the narrative again.” And hence the woman in repose? “I guess it’s a critique,” she explains. “I’ve always had this thing about the dramatic women that faint. There’s this dizzying vertigo. I’m not concentrating on the figures; it’s really about the clothes on her. It’s me trying to sculpt how someone would paint the fabric. With that posture, the clothes take on this mountainous landscape.”
When Al-Hadid shares about her process, one begins to realize why her work appeals to the rugged, largesse-fetishizing, blowtorch lovers in the art world. She’s nearly giddy explaining the history, the sizes, the leitmotifs and so on. There is a sort of grand dance of nature in her words, which explain the massive dynamic that she evinces so well. “There are a lot of materials that melt in my work,” she laughs. “[And one] looks almost like it’s shredded. It’s something between constructed and de-constructed. It is pulling it apart, but it’s distilling it in a way—locating all the fragments. It’s breaking it down. It’s like how you pull a chicken apart, fragmenting. But it’s not like I work with one thing and then pull it apart. I’m actually constructing it, which is a weird irony. I’m adding more than I’m removing.”x