Profile: Diana Al-Hadid
April 13, 2012 § Leave a Comment
To look at one of Diana Al-Hadid’s sculptures is to enter a point of perception that leaves you struggling — is this an architectural structure? The ghost of one? Or accidents meant to evoke structured, physical space? The Syria-born artist focuses on place as monuments to memory in her work — not necessarily specific locales, but more general swathes in the nostalgia that can infect our emotions and provide emotions of belonging through more vague structures that seem to span ages.
Her new work at Mass MoCA, “Nolli’s Orders,” which is part of the “Invisible Cities” show that opens on Saturday, April 14, reflects this quality in Al-Hadid’s work, mixed with a fascination for the human figure as it appears in classical paintings.
Pulling bodies from Renaissance paintings and reconfiguring them within the architecture of the sculpture, Al-Hadid has brought the relationship between the human body and its structural creations to a logical extreme.
“I started pulling from these figures in paintings a little bit at random. It was kind of privileging figures that I’ve had that were extremely different from each other as I collect them,” said Al-Hadid. “Holding a very different posture, but always looking a little bit relaxed.
“The first figure I pulled, he’d been stabbed with an arrow in his side and he’s laying down super-heroically and really comfortably, like he’s taking a nap under a tree. He had just been shot and it was a very weirdly beautifying as a violent moment.”
“They all have that quality about them where they look relaxed or comfortable. I felt like if I could get this part, then everything would fall into place, because they’re the anchor of the piece.”
Al-Hadid began the piece over a year ago, before being approached to participate in the Mass MoCA show, and while it was on the basis of her previous work that she was considered, it was really when Mass MoCA curator Susan Cross saw the beginnings of the piece in Al-Hadid’s studio that her inclusion was queried and the sculpture’s fate became linked with the actual show.
“I’m sure the concept of the show affected how I saw the piece, although I had sketched it out in advance of the piece,” Al-Hadid said. “I think there was something in my earlier works that is architecturally very structural and I think alludes to a city, but I think it’s really more of a structure that relates to a single figure. I mean that in terms of the scale but also in terms of the concept that might have inspired the work.”
The piece has grown upward from its beginnings down below, which have created a threetiered world for Al-Hadid to design. She wanted to include pedestals, and ended up placing six at the bottom, big white boxes from which the sculpture moves toward the figures.
“I’ve been treating the pedestals as a spatial blank canvas in my work recently,” she said. “I started by setting up six pedestals and started removing the figures from these paintings and started treating them as a compositional element rather than characters. So I set them up and I made the piece from one side very pyramidal and triangular and then changing a bit from different perspectives, from one perspective it’s really deep and from another it’s diagonal.”
The pedestals begin to resemble a Roman city, on top of which is a grid of sorts, with dripping elements, that form into a theoretical mountain flanking the city, above which the figures float like gods on Mount Olympus. The piece is inspired by Nolli maps of Rome, 18th century cartography meant to measure the density of a city by capturing the structures within in it, like a photograph taken in the air.
“I’ve been determined to create a mass, a population rather than a single entity or a work that corresponded with one,” said Al-Hadid. “So I started with that. I was looking at a lot of these paintings and I knew that I wanted to isolate figures from these paintings because I wanted to remove them from their narrative, decontextualize them. So I go off with some paintings here and there, and I would draw a line around a figure that I wanted.” Al-Hadid says that her latest sculpture is different from her previous work in several ways, most notably that in the past she had made use of computers to plan out the pieces and test ideas, which gave her more of a clear vision of what the sculpture would look like in the end. She started her work with a clear floor plan that gave some idea of what was to come, but “Nolli’s Order” retained mysteries even as she moved ahead on it.
“This one looks a lot different, it’s a lot more improvisational, a little bit more painted,” Al-Hadid said. “It’s a different kind of painting. This one’s little more like an expressionistic painting, while the last one’s more like a modernist painting in terms of the organizing principle, in terms of the surfacing.”
“This one started out a little more like groping in the dark. I’ve often had some kind of key to how to make the first move on a sculpture, and I really haven’t done that on the last year’s worth of work and it’s totally changed how I work. “ The long process is part of what makes “Nolli’s Order” different from previous works. Al-Hadid juggled four other commissions during the period of time she created it, but the lead-up to the Mass MoCA show offered her the excuse for full concentration and the ammunition to bring it to full fruition with spontaneity. It was a change of process that will affect all works to come “It was really hard to return to and give it the full attention after a year of not working on it one hundred percent,” she said. “It was like it had been at this stage fro a real long time and I have to change it completely and really fast, and it changed completely and really fast. In a month. I dealt with the problems.”