Attack Polymer gypsum, fibreglass, steel, plaster, gold leaf, pigment; detail of Still Life with Gold (right) Image Credit: Markus Wörgötter
Her artworks have been called hauntingly beautiful and surreal in their decay, and when you come face-to-face with them, those descriptions are at once apt and yet fall short of capturing their true splendour. Now, art lovers are being treated to a special exhibition of Diana Al Hadid’s works, titled “Phantom Limb”, at The Art Gallery at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD Art Gallery).
“I’m very excited about this exhibition; it’s my first solo show in the Middle East and I can’t wait to show my pieces here. I had exhibited before in the UAE [in 2009, 2011, and 2014] but it would be interesting to see people’s reactions to seeing my pieces stand on their own,” Al Hadid said.
The carefully selected artworks, which include sculptures and wall hangings, were first displayed at The Secession in Vienna in 2014, then under the title “The Fates”. After its run concludes at the NYUAD Art Gallery, it will be displayed at Brown University’s David Winton Bell Gallery.
“I wanted the exhibition to be a small survey of my work, featuring items from 2010 to 2014. As I was selecting the pieces, it was interesting to see just how my works and technique progressed over the years,” she said. 
The central piece, from which the exhibition derives its name, is a colossal sculpture that entices visitors into its orbit. Featuring a female bust set on a towering structure and a disembodied leg at its base, Phantom Limb reflects Al Hadid’s fascination with the way Renaissance artists explored space and perspectives.
“It actually started small — with a bust of a female model that I used for another sculpture. I put it in a corner in my studio and over time it began to decay,” she said. “I became quite attached to it ... I decided to place the bust high on a pedestal as a celebratory element.”
The leg, which appears on its own, is seemingly a part of the sculpture’s narrative and yet removed from it. “I’m obsessed with the concept of centres and peripheries. I’m always fascinated with the relationship between any artwork and the space it encompasses. I address this with the ‘leg’ of the sculpture. It was part of the original sculpture that went with the bust but it broke during casting. I liked the way it turned out so I didn’t discard it but while I was working on the sculpture it somehow became a part of the narrative. So I added it at the end, and it fit perfectly with my concept of playing with space. I didn’t set out to create the work like this. It arrived in a rather irregular way but it worked out perfectly in the end,” Al Hadid said.
The sculpture will be framed by two major wall insets: “The Sleepwalker” and “Still Life”, which were inspired by the fourth century BC bas-relief “Gradiva” and Hans Memling’s 1475 painting “Allegory of Chastity”, respectively. Al Hadid will also debut a new triptych of wall panels, whose inspiration is drawn from the Renaissance triptych “Battle of San Romano” by Paolo Uccello.
“I don’t like to say I’m inspired by someone or something, as that’s a romanticised notion. Instead, I react to different things, from other works of art to different experiences ... for example, once at a Leonard Cohen concert at Radio City Music Hall [in New York], after the first two songs, my mind was filled with all these images ... I’m a strong believer that good work begets good work, no matter in what form it appears,” Al Hadid said.
It is a mantra that has carried her over her 10-year career, which saw her experiment with various materials until she settled for the ones she currently uses, including fibreglass, polymer, steel and plaster.
“My style is something I’ve worked towards over the years. I’ve been manipulating materials as though I was in a science lab just to see the outcome ... the polymer is quite flexible and the infinite possibilities of working with it appealed to me; I enjoy using fibreglass because I can make it very thin and twist it into whatever form I want.”
For Al Hadid, it is difficult to set deadlines, as each piece goes through its unique gestation period until it seems that it is ready to be displayed. “I don’t have a specific timeline in mind whenever I’m creating something ... I’ve got some pieces that I’ve been working on for at least a couple of years now, and others that were completed in several months.”
The New York-based artist is currently experimenting with outdoor installations — something that would allow her artworks to be seen by a much larger audience, while incorporating a more interactive element. “Creating outdoor pieces is obviously different from creating those shown at indoor venues. Now, I have to factor in things such as the weather and people interacting with it ... but it’s a fun new challenge. I’m actually working on a couple of outdoor installations but I can’t reveal anything about them yet,” Al Hadid said.
Asked about the current crisis in Syria — Al Hadid’s family immigrated from there to the US when she was five years old — and whether it led her to create any work that addresses it, Al Hadid said: “It’s a trauma ... an ongoing crisis, but it’s too soon to react to it. But I’m not creating anything specific about it. It’s not something I’m unpacking in my psyche or work. Plus, there are others who are much more directly affected by the situation than I am. So it would be weird if I created something while living in relative safety in the US.”
Al Hadid takes pride in her heritage, but does not like to be defined by it. “I don’t like to be labelled or defined by my heritage, which is something I’m proud of. People always ask minorities or women to be representatives of these two huge groups ... if I do something, it’s because I’m interested in doing it.”
“I don’t use my biography from my work because I don’t want it to be a novelty. It’s something I’ve internalised ... people should know the context of art pieces, when they were created, but they shouldn’t exclusively look at them from those lenses. It’s unfair because it colours everything and influences their opinion,” she added.
For now, Al Hadid is enjoying her artistic successes while staying as creative as possible, besides savouring the delight of motherhood with the newest addition to her family.
“Being a mother is a life-changing experience, and has obviously changed my routine and schedule. However, it’s a conscious decision. Plus, as an artist, I’m lucky in that I can have a rather flexible schedule,” she said.
Nathalie Farah is a writer based in Abu Dhabi.
“Phantom Limb” will run at the NYUAD Art Gallery until May 28. For more information, log on to www.nyuad-artgallery.org