Syrian American artist Diana Al-Hadid’s abstract liquefied sculptures with flowing, dripping forms frozen in time uses historical references to comment on various aspects of our contemporary existence. The act of liquefying a material and solidifying it both strengthens and produces an abstraction in form, somewhat reminiscent of a Pollock in 3 dimensions and also of architectural ruins. In this respect, it can be said that she uses the language of ruins to convey her message.
Levitation is another consistent theme; those free-flowing gravity defying forms, aided by the strength of material solidification and by hidden structural members, are inspired from her interest in the Baroque.
What’s interesting is that there is no colour, or rather colour doesn’t seem to be part of the narrative. The colours that are there, the reds, browns and oranges are incidental, refracted derivatives of white. It signifies an abstraction of light, not of darkness, like the scene has been bleached.
Ambiguity is also present in many works as seen in the lower part of Trace of a Fictional Third (2011) where the melted material cascading down the levels twists and turns into a vague impression of a person seated and then another person reclining in his/her lap. But these ‘persons’ turn out to be hollow folding forms when viewed from the side.
It is also uncertain whether those many strands of paint/plaster are dripping off the platform, or whether the platform is being pulled upwards, causing the mass of paint to separate into strands.
Water Thief (2010) is a room sized sculpture inspired by the Turkish inventor Ismail Al-Jazari’s Castle Clock in 1206. But while Al-Jazari’s monumental clock has an ‘entertainment facade’ that tells the time, entertains the viewer on the hour and hides its inner workings, Al-Hadid’s one is a broken, leaking, spiraling mess with mechanical parts flung all over the exhibition room.
Perhaps by disjoining these parts and having water-like, solidified fluid leak all over the place, she is able to ambiguously reference other things, both in history and in contemporary culture, simultaneously. For instance, those spiraling forms look like it could be referring to a tornado or the mechanical coils of a spring, and the vertical pilaster like elements with little steel ‘rebars’ attached, reminiscent of those seen in Actor (2009), could be ruins from a terrorist bombing or the natural ruins of a medieval cathedral. The question is what does all this have to do with time or the world’s first clock?
While Water Thief (2010) weaves together different historical epochs with bits of Venetian, gothic architecture, ruinous pilasters and parts of historical time-telling machinery, it is this mischievous water running around that ties it together. What the water means is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps as water (and gravity), which was carefully directed and controlled, powered Al Jazari’s clock, here water that is running rampant, leaking and being flung all over the place, is what’s tearing it all apart.
Conversely, Actor (2009) is a much simpler composition, consisting of 2 parts; a vertical, ruin-like structural component and an organic part lingering around, trying to hang on to it at the bottom, vaguely resembling a person. This duality allows the piece to focus on its message, which incidently is ambiguous and open to interpretation as seen with our ‘actor’ here languishing around at the foot of the pilaster ruins, tragically reacting to some sort of banishment as in a Shakespearean play.
The ambiguity is whether the pilasters and rebars are the backdrop of a scene in a play, or a representation of the structure of the theatrical and movie industry. In the latter case the actor desperately hangs onto his/her dreams of becoming a ‘successful’ actor or just becoming ‘accepted’. Whether or not the structure in this case is ‘broken’ or ‘crumbling’ is up to one’s opinion.
Built From Our Tallest Tales (2008) is obviously about the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre which were then the tallest buildings in the world, as the ‘porcupine’ metal sheet/rod rolling element vaguely resembles the lobby steel structure left standing after the WTC towers collapsed.
The bits of honeycombed boards filling the space between the porcupine sheet metal pieces on the one hand reminds of gypsum boards used in construction, and on the other are a testament to the unity and diligence of worker bees who have a universal language, since bee hives use the same structure.
Borne from a chance encounter with a painting of the Tower of Babel, Al-Hadid quickly saw the parallels between it and its then contemporary counterpart, the towers of the World Trade Centre. Just as the plan to build the Tower of Babel came crashing down after God sabotaged it with the barrier of language, so too have the WTC towers met the same fate, albeit for entirely different reasons.
On the whole the meaning of it all is more than a commemoration of the September 11th attacks, but rather a reconstitution of a terrorism-produced ruin into a treasured work of art.
Another piece, The Tower of Infinite Problems (2008) depicts a gothic cathedral toppled over and on its side, the octagonal catacombic interior of its dome viewable from behind.
There is another famous building with an octagonal dome; the Duomo in Florence, Italy by Brunelleschi whose stepped interior ceiling of the dome is reminiscent to whats shown here.
A sense of dynamism is introduced by having the floor boards radiating outwards in a spiraling arrangement. This is further enhanced by using an octagonal maze pattern for the interior of the dome, which is taken from the marble floor of the Amiens Cathedral (1270).
But just which problematic tower does The Tower of Infinite Problems (2008) refer to? I’m not so sure about the Florence Duomo having an ‘infinite’ amount of problems.
A clue can be gained from a lecture Al-Hadid gave in which she described various depictions of the Tower of Babel by medieval painters as ‘epic’ productions and that seemed to have an ‘infinite’ amount of detail.
However the Tower of Babel was the tallest ancient skyscraper and the Duomo of Florence isn’t exactly known for its height, so the linkage between the two is not directly apparent.
The intention of the creators of the Tower of Babel was to ‘make a name for themselves’ by (physically) reaching God, but ultimately failed and the plan disintegrated. The Florence Duomo also has the intention for parishioners to reach God, via a spiritual method, but the last I checked, the Duomo was still standing, and there is only one dome, not two.
Another clue is from its mirror image (in title) the Problem of Infinite Towers (2008), which depicts several identical looking skyscrapers made up of long metal cylindrical tubes that are rusting and melting away at the bottom.
From her interest in astro-physics, Al Hadid also found an interesting correlation to the large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, a circular machine the size of a small city that also features an octagonal pattern of lights at tunnel entrances. Its purpose? To find the ‘Higgs Boson’, also known as the ‘God Particle’, which are the building blocks of all matter. In a sense it is the search for the origin of life in the universe, and possibly, where it all came from.
Is the Hadron Collider a modern day, horizontal Tower of Babel and a tower of infinite problems? Al-Hadid is not specific. But it does seem like an attempt to reach God, via a physical, empirical method. Whether it is ‘doomed’ to be spiraling, melting, mess is rather far fetched, but I would say that her work since 2008 and Water Thief in 2010, has been more focused and refined and ultimately more moving.