Q&A with Artist Diana Al-Hadid

September 1, 2010

Diana Al-Hadid in her studio. Photo by Dorothy Hong.

This interview was conducted by electronic mail. Questions were composed by the Hammer’s multimedia fellow Sasha Mann. Look for more information on Diana Al-Hadid's Hammer Project here.

SM: What led you to pursue sculpture in your artistic career?

DAH: When I first committed myself to sculpture, I was at Kent State for my undergraduate. I was first a drawing major because it seemed to be the most wide-open , the most non-denominational of the departments (I’m not sure why I felt that vibe, in fact, but nonetheless..). And of course, like I think most other artists, I was drawing before I did anything else. Then I changed to sculpture after my first class because I loved experimenting with materials and I loved imagining places and worlds I could build- it felt more limitless than anything, and more challenging to me. I spent a year doing photography intensively, and some time doing digital art. But I (personally) felt I could think more creatively and had more fun experimenting with more tactile materials, as if I were a lab researcher.

SM: Can you tell me about your fascination with architecture and ruins?

DAH: I am interested in architecture in much the same way I am interested in sculpture—both study how we implicitly relate our bodies to physical objects in space. I think that’s why I relate to architecture, broadly speaking, but I will describe the specific evolution of my research that has brought about some architectural imagery in some past works.

My graduate work came by a close study of the mythology of landscape in sculptural installation. I was interested in the 1979 architectural study of Christian Norberg-Schulz “genius loci,” or the “spirit of place” in arriving at man-made forms, an analysis of how our identity is so closely tied to our belonging to a place. I created barren, irrational landscapes and cavernous spaces using thin membranes of fiberglass, leading me to learn more about mathematical topology.

Slowly, (and a bit after graduate school) the amorphous lines of natural spaces gave way to a study of more hard-lined theoretical mathematical models, to perfect geometry and Greco-Roman symmetry. I turned my attention to Classical Architecture and the mythological characters they were built to honor. I began melting Corinthian columns, devising mythical musical instruments, and erecting temples as time-travel devices. I was interested in the ways in which histories became layers and complicated, Hellenistic influences in ruins outside of Aleppo, Syria, and the Moorish influence on Spanish Cathedrals.

Without offering too much interpretative analysis of my own work, I will agree that I find the idea of “ruins” interesting, but it’s not exactly accurate to say that it is equal to architecture (or even astrophysics or mythology) as a source of inspiration. But I will admit that as an immigrant to America at a young age, I think I tacitly understood how a person could feel closely identified with and yet remotely nostalgic for a single place- of being simultaneously attached and disconnected. Ancient ruins are culturally nostalgic objects that carry with them a distinct psychological effect—one that seems to attract both descendants of that culture as well as members of distant cultures. Robert Ginsberg writes that “the objects of our nostalgia are anachronistic and incongruous.” This cross-cultural attraction to ruins is itself fascinating.

SM: Have you ever studied engineering? Or archeology?

DAH: No.

SM: Where are your favorite places to travel?

DAH: Caves and outer space. I will almost always go where I haven’t been before, so it’s hard to have a favorite “return” travel place.

SM: Can you talk about Al-Jazari and how you started thinking about his inventions?

DAH: I learned about him when I started reading a bit about the origin of time and the history of time-telling devices, such as those of the Babylonians (I was making work inspired by the Tower of Babel in the previous year). I noticed an Arabic name and learned about Al-Jazari’s “Book of Ingenious devices” (and I ordered a translation), in which he outlined the reconstruction of all of his amazing inventions, one of which was a large “Castle Clock” from around 1206. This was a water-clock ( a clock that tells time using a continuous water source) that was extremely complicated, complete with sculpted automata and mechanical doors, and considered to be the first “programmable analogue computer.” It was interesting to learn that in 799 Harun Al-Rashid sent Charlemagne a sophisticated clock as a gift, a technology so advanced at the time, Charlemagne thought it was a conjuration (because of its ticking). I decided I wanted to make a walk-through water clock of my own (one that didn’t work and for which I didn’t have to follow any instructions).

SM: What kind of research did this project require?

DAH: It required the usual internet stuff, book ordering, image-printing out, and a lot of staring at weird diagrams of clock-construction. Then I just had to make the rest up as I went. Hammer Projects: Diana Al-Hadid. Installation view, 2010 at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photo by Brian Forrest.

SM: Why “Water Thief” as a title?

DAH: The word “clepsydra” is the ancient Greek word for water clock and literally translates as “water thief.” I liked this translation a lot because it suggests a stealthy clock, a clock not to be trusted. I probably subconsciously didn’t want you to trust my clock.

SM: Was Water Thief ever at any stage a “whole” water clock? In other words, did you have a blueprint for a water clock before you took it apart?

DAH: I followed a generic layout of a water-clock that I found and then made each of the distinct elements, always taking as much artistic license as I could. “Water Thief” is not actually something “taken apart”—it is complete with all the parts represented and in approximately the logical location they would be if the thing were to magically be able to work. I make my own blueprints and schematic sketches along the way in order to figure out how to construct it.

SM: What is your construction (art-making) process like? What about your installation process?

DAH: I don’t know how to answer this simply. I mentioned the blueprints, which help. I do a lot of experiments with materials, there’s a lot of adding and subtracting and inching things over to the left then to the right and back to the left again. That’s maybe what the process looks like. I just try to look like I know what I’m doing. By the time of installation, I actually do know what I’m doing and it’s very easy. It’s a giant jigsaw puzzle and it’s just a matter of having all the pieces in order.

SM: Have these processes varied a lot among your different works?

DAH: Yes, but I usually experiment with something new in each piece and often that experiments turns into a bigger commitment in future work. But I usually work with my basic “crayola box” set of sculptural processes (wood working, metal working, carving, casting..) and try to introduce new “crayons” along the way. It depends on the piece, sometimes I only use two crayons (is this analogy going too far?)

SM: Anne Ellegood’s essay on your Hammer Project says that you use “off-the-shelve materials” in your work. Can you explain what this means?

DAH: I think she is referring to the fact that I (I think like many contemporary sculptors) buy a lot of basic construction materials and shop at hardware and lumber stores. I tend to build a lot of things from scratch because sometimes what I need is too specific and often because I find a lot of inspiration from a “raw” material. I gravitate towards materials that allow for the most (mis)interpretive range. I use a lot of cardboard, especially tubes and boxes, and I bring in lots of generic shapes and unnamed things from the streets in Brooklyn. I can’t throw a lot of things away and they eventually get used (overtly or covertly) in my work.

SM: Did anything unusual happen during the creation or installation of Water Thief?

DAH: A lot of unusual things happened. It’s all in there.