Diana Al-Hadid's "Attack" and "Phantom Limb"
By Anna Niederlander
I was fortunate enough to encounter Diana Al-Hadid’s work at her first solo show in the Arab world at the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery. Al-Hadid was born in Aleppo, Syria in 1981, but at a young age, her family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio. She currently resides in Brooklyn, New York. Her personal history tempts many into connecting her art to her ancestral region Aleppo.
Aleppo, rich in cultural history, but currently in a state of collapse, has only influenced a scarce amount of her artworks directly. The deeper interconnection between Al-Hadid’s work lies in how she incorporates an aspect of joint decay and beauty in her art. Sara Raza, a curator said, “She provides a timely and relevant critique on the subject of humanity and ‘newness,’ where everything exists in a state of flux.” Two works by her, which not only engrossed me, but also encapsulate her style and her work as an artist are Attack (2015) and Phantom Limb (2014).
This work by Al-Hadid is titled Attack, and is part of a triptych with the two other works titled Counter-Attack and Attack Again. Standing in front of this 217.2 × 304.8 × 14 cm composition is slightly overwhelming, and at first appears formless, akin to the Abstract Expressionist traditions. After allowing your eyes to view the full composition, a white horse comes to life, on it a man wearing a large red turban. More horses in the background become visible, spears start to appear, and your mind slowly starts building a snapshot of a chaotic battle scene.
Al-Hadid refuses to fixate on meaning, and instead puts great emphasis on her production process, specifically on the medium. She describes her distinctive technique as a cross between fresco and tapestry. Using the wet gypsum that is already mixed with colours, she rapidly builds up the image backwards as the drips quickly run down the surface and dry. In the end, she peels off the worked surface and reveals the inside as the final product. The drips that are suspended in mid-air, almost appearing as though they are still moving, give the surface an organic quality. The applied liquid texture seems as though it will dissolve in any second. Attack protrudes 14 cm outward and almost becomes a bas-relief from the wall, adding to its form and grand presence. This process makes it hard to categorise Attack as a sculpture or painting, as Al-Hadid always leaves the viewer with a skewed perception of dimensionality.
The complete triptych draws its iconography from Paolo Uccello’s ‘The Battle of San Romano ’, which he painted around 1438, and which depicts the battle between Florence and Siena. Attack was specifically derived from the left-hand panel of Uccello’s series, which I was able to see earlier this year in The National Gallery in London. Al-Hadid’s panels echo the scale and vibrant colours of Uccello’s work, as well as his composition. She specifically utilises his bare skeletal figures, but obliterates everything else. Instead of following Uccello’s detailed and realistic approach, she makes use of atmospheric perspective, as the further your eye travels towards the background, the more abstract everything becomes. Al-Hadid has a BA in Art History, which has influenced her art as she often directly engages with art from the Renaissance and Classical period. Contemporary artists are often criticised for not incorporating past styles or references or ‘forgotten about art history’in their works, however one can observe the collision between historical art and modern scape in Hadid’s works. She shows just how successful an artist can be if they incorporate past movements, transforming them however into contemporary forms so as to resonate with the present viewer.
A few people would say that Attack is an inferior copy of the grand master Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano. As E.H. Gombrich wrote, “There is no greater obstacle to the enjoyment of great works of art than our unwillingness to discard habits and prejudice”. If one is open and embraces this work not as a regurgitation of sorts, but as an innovative perspective on a rich artefact, one may realise how each new generation of artists are a rebirth of their father’s. “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulder of giants,” said Sir Isaac Newton. Similar to the sciences, where knowledge is expanded through the use and trust of past findings, all creative works build upon what came before them. Attack is not a facsimile of The Battle of San Romano, but rather a transformation of it. Through studying and honouring Uccello’s work, Al- Hadid reshapes, moulds, and adapts it to the twenty first century, producing art that is unlike anything seen in the past.
Phantom Limb (2014)
Diana Al-Hadid, Phantom Limb, 2014, polymer gypsum, fiberglass, polystyrene, steel, wood, plaster, metal mesh, aluminum foil, pigment, 266 x 420 x 356 cm, NYUAD Art Gallery. http://www.dianaalhadid.com/work/phantom-limb/slideshow?view=slider#3
Her work Phantom Limb (2014) was the central work in the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery. Phantom limb means to have a sensation that a missing limb is still present. In this case,a connection is made with past art movements. The nude looks classical as she is reclining elegantly, however, Hadid contrasts this by abruptly cutting off her legs and arms and adding contemporary media such as polystyrene and aluminium foil, mixing classical and contemporary art.
Al-Hadid expresses an interest in “dissolving as much of the mass [of sculptures] as possible.” She does this through using different mediums, but still achieves the greatest effect through her vertical drip marks, which she repeatedly uses in many works, such as Attack, as mentioned above. Al-Hadid blurs the boundaries between painting and sculpture; drips literally looking like wet paint that is dripping as we observe. However, overall it is static and the drips do not move; thus they are also being perceived as a sculpture. “I like to remind people of the process, because people think that artists have this agenda or a message, but that’s not how my work is constructed at all.” Al-Hadid focuses on materials and process, trying to go away from the idea that a contemporary work of art is all about ‘what it means’. A work of art in and of itself should be visually stimulating and that is what Al-Hadid is offering the viewer here. She has always specified that her sculptures should not be places against a wall, but in an open space, in order to enable the viewer to walk around it. This is because as you view the sculpture from different angles it changes in front of your eyes. You discover something new every time you circle the sculpture and your eye is drawn to the many complexities that the sculpture entails.
As physical builder, she starts with materials and dimensional space and considers herself a sculptor, however she herself notes that she often blurs the boundaries between sculpture and painting. Her art is so capitating because there is so much for the viewer to explore. What you see changes depending on distance and angle. It is by defection a static work. However, just as her drips imply, it is dynamic, and is constantly in motion; transforming in front of the viewer.
Allison, Maya. “Diana Al-Hadid: Phantom Limb” Abu Dhabi: NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery, 2016.
“Diana Al-Hadid Phantom Limb” Brown.edu. David Winton Bell Gallery. https://www.brown.edu/campus-life/arts/bell-gallery/exhibitions/diana-al-hadid-phantom-limb(accessed March 27, 2019)
“Diana Al-Hadid Phantom Limb” NYU Abu Dhabi. https://www.nyuad-artgallery.org/en_US/exhibitions/diana-al-hadid/(accessed March 27, 2019)
Gombrich, EH. The Story of Art. New York: Phaidon, 2012.
Leech, Nick. “Acclaimed sculptor Diana Al Hadid on her new show opening at NYUAD Gallery.” The National. March 3, 2016. https://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/acclaimed-sculptor-diana-al-hadid-on-her-new-show-opening-at-nyuad-art-gallery-1.150757(accessed March 27, 2019)
“Standing on the shoulders of giants” Wikipedia.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standing_on_the_shoulders_of_giants(accessed March 27, 2019)