In her solo exhibition at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Al-Hadid continues to let the most elemental, universal facts of bodies morph into unique forms.
The sculptor Diana Al-Hadid, her hands working under a brown cover, a potato sack used like a pillow case, is making a face. Her arms bob, the tarp pulses, she looks away, and the face under the cover forms. She cannot see what she is making. She doesn’t care. Like a pianist she plays this burlap mass, as if hearing her art on her fingers. In this filmed studio visit, Al-Hadid explains that she doesn’t look at the head she’s sculpting because it’s the “only thing on your body you can’t really see.” The claim, so simple, so belatedly obvious, satisfies until the ensuing thoughts swarm: if the only head we can’t see is our own, if this is the logic of self-perception, then is Al-Hadid sculpting her face as she cannot see it? Or is it another’s face, as that other might sculpt it? Or is she suggesting that we warp even the faces of others because we cannot see our own?
In her absorbing show at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Diana Al-Hadid: Delirious Matter, Al-Hadid continues to let the most elemental, universal facts of having a body deform the bodies we have. The human figures that are found in the show are kind of anti-Pygmalions —not sculpture on the threshold of animation, but sculpture on the precipice of decomposing. Ruins are scattered throughout the show, and Al-Hadid delicately exhumes old sources without papering over their fractures. Her talent is to be clear without being clean, to study boundaries with care, without obeying them.
“Nolli’s Orders” (2012), the show’s largest piece and anchor, makes a soft allusion to Bernini’s “Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi,” displayed in the Piazza Navona in Rome, though the reference has dried up. Al-Hadid’s waterless fountain drips over its edges, the actual material of which it is composed (plaster, polymer gypsum, fiberglass, steel) in icicle-like fragments, as if this fountain froze before getting turned off. Its theater is its dereliction. No burly river gods keep watch along the fountain. Instead, Al-Hadid has placed headless, isolated figures posed around the heap.
The sculpture directly cites Giambattista Nolli’s 1748 map of Rome, revolutionary for its use of shading to distinguish public from private space, and it epitomizes Al-Hadid’s interest in the cartographic. Featured on a nearby wall, a segment of Nolli’s map seems both blueprint and lost cause. As if executing his orders, Al-Hadid builds distressed, model-size Roman arches near the base, but as the sculpture rises, the arches melt. Al-Hadid models not just a fragment of a city, but a city’s eventual decay —the future in which it ceases to matter, has been left to the elements.
The only reflective surface that mimics water is aluminum foil, conspicuously un-ancient and mass produced, cold in refrigerators. This material becomes the skin of the work and its preservation, as if, in a campy finish, the piece was pitched between relic and leftover.
Al-Hadid was born in Aleppo. Her family moved to Ohio when she was five. She knows how to layer and mix these histories of the classical and the contemporary; after all, artifacts from that part of the world are frequently moved from their original sites to new, temporary homes, sometimes stolen, sometimes saved. But here, pieces are jarringly decontextualized of their historical circumstances, as if stand-ins for an experience of immigration, of a new home.
Al-Hadid revisits her old house in the sculpture “Head In The Clouds” (2014). In it, a face adorned with a halo hovers above a coarse, tattered, almost non-anatomical body. It is a body without a situation. Fabric piles beneath the figure, who appears to be covered with a cloak or wings. This saint (or is it an angel?) rises high off its plinth. In an ecclesiastical allusion, this saint holds a model of Al-Hadid’s childhood home in Ohio; in typical religious iconography, saints might hold models ofdedicated churches as offerings to Christ. But this is no interventionist American angel, or patron saint of the American Dream welcoming immigrants with the prospect of home ownership. This ragged figure cuts across geopolitical myth. In this era of massmigration and displacement, what might it mean to sculpt, to reference the statuary, to meditate on movement with the stationary? Maybe Al-Hadid means to distrust our ability to ever fully arrive at the place we hope to go. Your house may still, may always, feel like a temporary model. You might feel like a place-holder, until the real you arrives.