Diana Al-Hadid’s work – on show for NGV Triennial 2023 – layers history and memory in works of paradoxical delicacy. By Stephen A. Russell.

Artist and sculptor Diana Al-Hadid

Portrait photograph of a woman with dark hair.
Artist and sculptor Diana Al-Hadid.
Credit: Diego Flores / Supplied

In the large-scale but paradoxically delicate, almost spectral, work of Syrian–American artist Diana Al-Hadid, the trace of a woman’s arched foot, depicted in an ancient Roman bas-relief, carries us from the apocalypse of Pompeii to Ohio by way of Aleppo and on to Melbourne for the NGV Triennial 2023.

The image is a touchstone for Al-Hadid. When she stumbled across Wilhelm Jensen’s 1903 novella Gradiva, she was intrigued. It’s the tale of a German archaeologist, Norbert Hanold, who becomes obsessed with a Roman relief of a woman in motion that hangs in the Vatican. The title of the work is taken from the Latin for “she who walks along”.

The story became the subject of Al-Hadid’s “pretty intense” honours thesis. “It’s an allegory in which [Norbert] starts to hallucinate [Gradiva] in crowds on the streets in Rome and follows her all the way to Pompeii, where he then sees the eruption [of Vesuvius] happen and tries to warn her as she becomes particle-ised in the sun,” says Al-Hadid.

This intriguing story also captivated the dadaists, the art movement that pushed back against the nationalistic materialism that led to the global catastrophe of the Great War. Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí was so moved by the work he called his wife, Gala, “his Gradiva”. Sigmund Freud was similarly hooked, penning the 1907 essay “Delusions and Dreams in Jensen’s Gradiva” in response.

“She became very popular because of Freud, and he made this analogy that the story of the archaeologist pursuing this ghost through Pompeii is actually his attempt to peel back the layers of his subconscious and find the root of his desire,” Al-Hadid says. “[Then] post-structuralists came back and re-evaluated it.”

History, places, people and their stories are layered deep throughout Al-Hadid’s practice, from the largest installations to the smallest works on paper. Born in Aleppo, Syria, where the architectures of Muslim, Jewish and Christian faiths intermingle with secular artistry, her first memories date back to a short stint that followed in Saudi Arabia. “I remember being at kindergarten, standing in front of these kids and saying the morning greeting for the school in French, and the cadence of it,” she recalls. “My mom told me that memory was accurate, so it felt pretty magical when I normally have a pretty bad memory.”

After gaining a scholarship to study sculpture at Richmond’s Virginia Commonwealth University – “an incredibly interesting city … with a really strong materials culture” – Al-Hadid’s artistic practice began with topologically inspired installation works that attempted to capture the “skins of landscapes and the theory around them, memories and a sense of the spirit of a place, the genius loci”.

She moved to Brooklyn, New York, in 2005 to pursue a dream nurtured since her high school days, when hall passes allowed her to skip class and bunker down in the art room. The focus of her work shifted from the free-flowing architecture of nature to human-built spaces, partly inspired by New York’s tendency towards the Gothic and by Pieter Bruegel’s vertiginous painting The Tower of Babel. “All the answers go back to GlenOak High School, class of  ’98,” Al-Hadid says. She’s dressed appropriately in dark clothing, contrasting with the white walls of a back office squirrelled behind the scenes of the National Gallery of Victoria. “I was a Goth kid. I have a dark soul. The cat’s out of the bag.”

Despite scrawling “tiny, tiny, up close, a little obsessive” portraits in her high school notebooks, Al-Hadid long resisted the more figurative elements in her contemporary work. Which takes us back to the glimpse of that arched foot, which has so enraptured multiple artistic and philosophical movements and leaves its unmistakable trace in the work
Al-Hadid is creating for Triennial.

Al-Hadid’s first major figurative work, the 2011 bronze sculpture In Mortal Repose, depicts another woman in medias res, melting off the plinth that holds her aloft, almost as if consumed by the molten lava that destroyed Pompeii. Currently on show in her solo exhibition Women, Bronze, and Dangerous Things at Chelsea’s Kassim Gallery in New York, this piece marked the beginning of a new chapter for Al-Hadid.

“Now I could introduce subjectivity, or how the female form has been classified in contemporary art,” she says. “These were typologies, they weren’t a specific character, but narratives of women either in transit or captivity became interesting to me after that work.”

There were earlier dalliances, including a piece dedicated to the storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights, the 2006 work Finally, the Emancipation of Scheherazade, created when Al-Hadid was straight out of grad school in Richmond. “So a lot of these early themes I arrived at, in earnest, later in life,” she says. “The seeds were planted back then, but I maybe didn’t let them breathe so much.”

Al-Hadid’s family moved to Ohio when she was about five years old, when her father followed his doctor brother to the United States in pursuit of the “American Dream”. “I wasn’t born in conflict, which I want to clarify because people have called me a refugee before,” she says. “But it was a difficult move. He thought it would be best for his kids and for the family.”

They stayed briefly with her uncle’s family outside Akron, and soon moved to a small apartment in suburban Cleveland, where she was raised Muslim. “It was a pretty big culture shock,” Al-Hadid recalls. “Kids are sponges, but I do remember coming in and right off the bat being an outsider. Arabic is my native tongue. I still understand it, though I don’t speak it as well, and I was younger than the other kids in the class, so it was a weird dynamic.”

Luckily for Al-Hadid, her first-grade teacher, Mrs D, took her under her wing. “She’s the sweetest and a huge part of mine and my mom’s life,” Al-Hadid says. “When we reconnected online, as soon as we saw each other we were sobbing, and my mom finally got to talk to her in English for the first time. Isn’t that incredible? To imagine, like, she really took me on as this little foreign girl that couldn’t speak English or read, and taught me. She protected and took care of me, so I never really thought what that was like for my mom – who was young, only in her 20s – when they couldn’t really speak to one another.”

Like many kids of immigrant parents, Al-Hadid found herself teaching her parents as she learnt. “My dad was so thrilled to be in America,” she says. “It was constantly, like, ‘You know, we’re so lucky to be here.’ But because my parents were learning as I was learning, I couldn’t really go to them for help. I was on my own for my education, trying to figure everything out, and my parents needed help filling out forms, so as with most immigrants, you’re kind of parenting yourself in certain ways and parenting your parents.”

Even so, school wasn’t particularly rough. “There are always people who are bullies and cruel, and then there are always people like Mrs D, who are just delighted to be kind to someone who needs it,” she says. “There are so many incredibly wonderful people in Ohio, no matter how bigoted the reputation is. There’s good people everywhere and that’s probably one of the most valuable lessons I learned. I know, deep in my bones, that you cannot make generalisations about any group, ever.”

Because she attended state college in Ohio, Al-Hadid says she’s no stranger to Republican, conservative mindsets. “They were the people that I was debating and ruining their day, whatever,” she says, laughing. “They gave me strength, helped me find my voice and articulate myself. And, honestly, some of them are still friends. I try to see people’s humanity before seeing their political positions, because they may change. They’re abstractions half the time. They’re just mouthing off, but if you put them in the same room, they don’t think about it. If you take yourself out of their environment, you’re doing more harm.”

That held true when the national temperature shifted dramatically after 9/11. “I noticed immediately this explicit bigotry coming out, and I’ve definitely seen a certain narrative building,” Al-Hadid says. “I have never known the, quote, Middle East to have a moment of peace in my entire lifetime but, while it was a weird time, [the bigotry] was pretty easy to bat away, because you have your friends.”

Al-Hadid navigates her overlapping identities with aplomb. “A lot of it pivots on the determination that I don’t have to choose sides,” she says. “I don’t have to be American or Arab. And this is typical of any immigrant. In a certain context, you feel more Arab or less Arab, more or less American. And I had a pretty big chip on my shoulder when I visited Syria as a pre-teen and thought I was this cool American, so it was years of learning how to really see, or accept, all of these things as coexisting.”

Others have taken a narrower view of Al-Hadid’s work. Her first solo show in New York, Reverse Collider at the now-closed Perry Rubenstein Gallery in 2008, built on Bruegel’s imagery, gaining her work a lot of traction. Some of the sculptures went on to show at the Saatchi Gallery in London. “It was called Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East.” Al-Hadid sighs viscerally. “And so it was a lesson. And it was insightful. I was grateful to be on the international stage for the first time, even though it was kind of like seeing myself through someone else’s lens and not through the inside of my head. Looking back, it’s surreal, the way my bizarre biography, those statistical anomalies of my identity, were framed.”

Standing in the largely empty trio of gallery spaces given over to Al-Hadid’s Triennial contribution, What Remains of the Floating Man Hypothesis, I can already glimpse a truer sense of Al-Hadid’s self-framing manifesting incrementally on black box walls. “They’re built additively,” she says of the two large-scale works that will flank complementary pieces she drew from the NGV collections. “They might look like there’s been material removed, but it’s actually all constructed, mark by mark, in this very small-to-large, zoomed-in, layered process that starts from the back and gets built up and built up, going from an image to an object, essentially.”

As if they were those tiny sketches Al-Hadid scratched into her schoolbooks writ large, these emerging sculptural wall works wrap around cube-like spaces, enfolding viewing rooms for the historical works she selected. It’s similar to how her Gradiva-like melting figures once shared garden space with Hans Memling’s 15th-century painting, Allegory of Chastity, in her 2018 Madison Square Park show, Delirious Matter. “It’s an image of this woman that’s basically wearing a mountain as a skirt,” Al-Hadid says of that piece. “So she needs this fortress, this rock, to keep her holy. She’s sitting very prim and proper, but she’s literally holding in a volcano.”

Al-Hadid has chosen Memling’s pietà, The Man of Sorrows in the Arms of the Virgin, to appear alongside her new work at NGV. While she’s not religious, the iconography fascinates her. “She’s carrying him and, as a sculptor, feeling the weight of this figure in the painting was really powerful.”

She feels the weight of her inclusion in the epic Triennial, which opens on December 3. It encompasses 75 projects from more than 100 artists, including Yoko Ono, Tracey Emin, Sheila Hicks and Azuma Makoto. Al-Hadid’s remarkable contribution is a work in progress. “I make decisions to the very, very last minute, so I’m still discovering it as we speak. It’ll be, in some ways, like a surprise. I’m sure there will be things I learn after the show opens, because now I have a clearer view. I’m not in the weeds.”

Perhaps like the endlessly fascinating Gradiva, stepping free from the bas-relief. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 2, 2023 as "Spectral desires".

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