Self-Melt (detail), 2008. Polymer gypsum, steel, polystyrene, cardboard, wax, and paint, 147.3 x 142.2 x 190.5 cm.

The Labyrinth in the Tower: A Conversation with Diana Al-Hadid

Syrian-born Diana Al-Hadid lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Her first New York solo exhibition, “Reverse Collider,” takes its title from sources that range from Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s historical vision of The Tower of Babel (1563) to the futuristic-looking Large Hadron Collider or particle accelerator at CERN, in Geneva, which seeks to find “the god particle.” Al-Hadid’s visually evocative forms ooze residual waste and darkly allude to cataclysmic manmade disasters and acts of destruction. Drawing from both Western and Eastern architectural design, her structures suggest an archaeological layering of civilizations and can also be interpreted as metaphors of contemporary cross-cultural identity and its accompanying psychological struggles.

Robin Reisenfeld: You recently exhibited large-scale sculptures, a wall piece, and a set of related drawings based on architectural plans and structures. What are your visual sources for these works?
Diana Al-Hadid: Brueghel’s The Tower of Babel was the first thing that caught my attention for the show—that specific painting because the colors and the vantage point struck me as really surreal. The tower is huge, and the sky takes up half the space. When you inspect the painting closely, you see so much dense detail. He took on this laborious, haunting architectural structure as his challenge. And this clicked for me. Of course, the theme was also interesting to me because it related to my work from the previous two years.

My earlier work orbits around a kind of pole, such as the nave of a cathedral or the center of a labyrinth. When I was working with pipe organs, as in Record of a Mortal Universe (2007), it was usually a specific image of a pipe organ that launched my sculptural pieces, and prior to that, the interiors and exteriors of cathedrals launched works like Portal to a Black Hole (2007).

On a formal level, my work is constructed by assembling planes or layers, and a sense of transparency exists throughout everything. I tend not to think or build in a solid mass; instead, I start with a centralized “core,” and the sculpture unfolds from that axis. I build outward in layers based on a simple geometric pattern: organizing columns around a pentagonal shape or the points of a labyrinthine-looking map or spaceship, or planting stakes in the footprints of a square-shaped waltz. Most recently, I have been using spirals as a motif: I am looking at images of galaxies, as well as at the slow rotation of Muslim pilgrims around the Kaaba. I see things in terms of shelves or exteriors and interiors. That’s a common denominator. I build a lot of lines: little by little I add lines, and that relates to the drawings.