Samuel Jablon talks to sculptor Diane Al-Hadid about her monumental structures and their relationship to gravity, black holes, and “being our heads.”
The sculptural work of Diana Al-Hadid is imposing in mass, yet fragile in its construction. Her monumental towers, conglomerations of material, seem to mimic ecosystems in their precarious construction. Al-Hadid’s references to both architecture and particle physics, among many others, seem an attempt to make sense of the accumulations of stuff that somehow organizes itself into structures.
I met Diana on her lunch break in her Brooklyn studio, where she gave me a tour of work in progress. Female figures floated upwards towards the studio ceiling supported by a half finished pedestal of sorts, while another piece was just taking form wrapping its wire frame. We talked about good Turkish food, old studio buildings, and finally her work.
Check out Diana’s work at the Marianne Boesky Gallery, July 7 through August 5. This group show will include Diana Al-Hadid, Mathias Kessler, and Julião Sarmento.
Samuel Jablon Could you talk about your work, and your starting points?
Diana Al-Hadid The starting points for my work vary from piece to piece, sometimes it’s a small fact I have learned by accident or by research. Sometimes, I start by trying to address something I noticed I have been avoiding, like filling a gap or a blind-spot of sorts. Generally, I will have learned something (an experiment with a material for example) from the previous piece that becomes the catalyst for the following work.
SJ What inspires you?
DAH This is also quite varied from piece to piece. I have recently been looking at a lot of northern renaissance paintings. Broadly speaking, I look at architecture and structures, old art and new art, funny words, astrophysics, dinosaurs, musical instruments, caves, drips, puddles, black holes, obsolete inventions, sound and pitch and volume, magicians, the weather, postures, opera, time pieces, pyramids, pixels, plate tectonics, unusual mechanics, levers and pulleys, geometry, strings, staircases, briefcases, video games, muscles, acrobatics, invisible things, pedestals, hair, clothes, redwoods, maps, manifestos, and a couple other things I’m sure.
SJ What do you find significant and/or important about the space that your sculptures are displayed in?
DAH Unless it’s a site-sensitive work, I am only concerned that the space opens the work up, and doesn’t distract attention away from the piece. Of course, it’s important that people have enough space to walk around to view the sculptures, since they tend to change from different perspectives.
SJ Are there any specific qualities you intend to create in your work?
DAH I’m not sure how to answer that exactly. Let’s just say high qualities, at least as opposed to medium or low qualities . . .
SJ Your work has this post-apocalyptic thing going on, could you speak to this?
DAH Whatever you see is largely there as a a result of the materials and the aggressive nature of my process. Each piece needs something different from me and I try to be responsive to and responsible for its needs.
SJ Could you talk about Portal to a Black Hole?
DAH I made Portal in response to something I heard on the radio—that the deepest sound wave discovered in outer space was B Flat being emitted at 57 octaves below middle C from a black hole. I wanted to make an “architectural black hole”—a portal that would use this note to transport you to the black hole in the Perseus cluster. So my impenetrable building would consist of a dome, with a spiral staircase (made of piano keys) that would lead to the oculus. And no, it doesn’t work; no one can get to the black hole. The dome rests on the columns, which have pipes built inside of them.
SJ This sculpture is what I imagine a portal to a black hole looks like. It’s connected to all these historical references with the dome and columns, but seems very contemporary, and the piece seems so otherworldly. I like how no one can get to the black hole. Why didn’t you allow people to get to the portal?
DAH I guess I didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up that it would work. So i just didn’t give them the option.
SJ I liked the piece of the melting bronze woman, could you speak about this piece? Is this a new direction? I like the way you use bronze, it’s such a permanent material, and you it make appear to be fleeting and ephemeral.
DAH Thank you. Yes, this is a new direction in a few ways, it is the first time I used the figure so directly, and also the first time I used a pedestal, and worked with bronze. I felt like I needed to address a bit of a blind spot in my work—figuration. I had worked using a similar process before, but never cast it in bronze, so there were new challenges to making it technically work. I wanted the figure and the pedestal (it’s context, or a sort of “sculptural blank canvas”) to fit hand in glove, so that the pedestal was an equal and integral part of the work. My work had often suggested the figure, or was made as a direct result of bodily movement (dance, etc . . .), and I had started to draw out the female figure in repose on a few sculptures. Then when I was invited to work with GraphicStudio on an editioned work, I decided to use the opportunity to work with bronze to directly address the figure. Or more specifically, to work with this “lazy” posture, which turns a woman into a sort of landscape. I was interested in the posture, the shell of the figure, the clothes that draped around her. I imagined that if the bronze were outdoors, she would perhaps become tired, become more “mortal” (the title of the work is In Mortal Repose), and relax so much so that she would drip over the pedestal, which was built to fit a standing, erect monument. That is what steered the decisions on this piece, what guided me. I like your interpretation, as I think that tension between permanence and the ephemeral is very curious—sometimes I’m not sure which is leading the struggle, what comes first in the chain of events. This kind of frozen event (directed from either a permanent or ephemeral place), is something I think this piece has in common with my other work, broadly speaking.
SJ I like that you aren’t always sure who is in charge. It keeps the work fresh. Could you speak on your vendetta against gravity?
DAH I am not sure how to explain the vendetta exactly, but it’s a core sculptural problem to which I have tried to be mindful: how to address the relationship of the work to the floor? In previous, more distinctly architectural works, they appeared more destabilized, touching the ground as needed, sometimes the piece was inverted or precariously balanced to appear more weightless. The floor for a work is a bit of a spiritual (for lack of a better word) territory. It’s interesting to me that we conceive of our feet as the furthest part of our body, suggesting that what we locate as central to our self is the head. We are our heads, that is where we are, how we are most identified. Our feet keep us grounded in terra firma, real and sure (phrases like sure-footed suggest confidence and certainty, for example), while our heads, I think, are more mysterious to us.
SJ How has your work led to de-centered forms that remain figurative?
DAH I think that the figurative work comes in retaliation against my having worked so much with architecture and structure primarily, it was something I felt I had overlooked or, more accurately, circled around or alluded to (I have referenced the figure in my work for many years, for example, making an upside-down cathedral by plotting out the blueprint with my footprints after dancing the waltz alone—Spun of the Limits of My Lonely Waltz). I am making a work now with many figures and pedestals, creating a sort of combined cityscape and landscape, and looking at a lot of Northern Renaissance paintings. But without growing up knowing the narratives of many of these religious and mythological paintings, I am left without the story, so I am allowing them to coexist in a sort of disinterested isolation from each other and from the landscape—floating aimlessly, lazily, and without a script. So perhaps this loosening narrative as well as the shift toward the figure is causing the work to be a little more decentralized than before. There is perhaps less of a visible core axis, the figure is creating an interruption in the architectural symmetry. The scene is a bit more meandering and spilling over the edges of the page. The pedestal is an architectural element in some ways, but I am relying less on the pedestal to be the structural support. It is integrated into the work as an object, shape, or architectural device, and less so as a frame, or a centralizing context.
SJ You mentioned that there is no flexibility in your work. Would you expand on this?
DAH My work is often cast, the materials are rigid even if they may look fluid at times, they are fixed. I’m not sure why that is important to me, but it must be because I’ve rarely (maybe never) allowed the material to remain flexible or variable. Maybe it’s a control thing.
Samuel Jablon is a painter and writer based in Brooklyn, New York.