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Hammer Projects: Diana Al-Hadid

May 15–Aug 15, 2010 This is a past exhibition

Sculptor Diana Al-Hadid constructs baroque architectural forms such as towers, labyrinths, and pipe organs that appear to be in a state of ruin. Using materials such as cardboard, plywood, plaster, and resin, Al-Hadid's sculptures are informed by an array of influences, both eastern and western—ancient Biblical and mythological narratives, Arabic oral traditions, Gothic architecture, iconic western painting, Islamic ornamentation, and scientific advances in physics and astronomy. For her first solo museum exhibition, Al-Hadid will be making a new piece inspired by the Islamic astronomer and inventor Al-Jazari's famous water clock built in 1206 and early Netherlandish Renaissance paintings.

Organized by Anne Ellegood, Hammer senior curator.


Diana Al-Hadid was born in Aleppo, Syria in 1981 and currently lives in Brooklyn. She received a BFA in sculpture and a BA in Art History from Kent State University (2003), an MFA in sculpture from Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond (2005), and attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Skowhegan, Maine (2007). Al-Hadid’s work has been the subject of one-person exhibitions at Perry Rubenstein Gallery, New York; Vox Populi, Philadelphia, PA; and Visual Arts Gallery, DePauw University, Greencastle, IN. Her work has been included in thematic exhibitions including Unveiled: New Art From the Middle East, The Saatchi Gallery, London; Disorientation II: the Rise and Fall of Arab Cities, Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; New Weather, USF Contemporary Art Museum, Tampa, FL; Next Wave Festival, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY; In the Between, Tabanlioglu Architects, Istanbul, Turkey; the Sharjah Biennial 9, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. Hammer Projects: Diana Al Hadid is her first one-person museum exhibition.


By Anne Ellegood

My work is impure; it is clogged with matter. I’m for a weighty, ponderous art. There is no escape from matter. There is no escape from the physical nor is there any escape from the mind. The two are on a constant collision course. You might say that my work is like an artistic disaster. It is a quiet catastrophe of mind and matter. —Robert Smithson1

Diana Al-Hadid’s sculptures are like Robert Smithson’s “quiet catastrophes,” moments of disaster and decay frozen in time and space. She builds elaborate, intensely physical, large-scale sculptures of what she has called “impossible architecture” in various states of decline. Depicting forms more historical than contemporary—cathedral spires, classical columns, large pipe organs, and Gothic towers, which are often toppled, fractured, or burned—her sculptures suggest ruins from a distant past. And yet Al-Hadid’s interest in science—the big bang theory, speculations about black holes, and the transformation of matter through particle accelerators—and the works’ visual associations with the violent incidents that characterize current wars and political upheavals place these objects firmly in the present. Moreover, her fascination with science fiction and notions of time travel catapult her works into the future. Al-Hadid’s sculptures seem to traverse time, from the ancient to the present, along a long and sweeping trajectory.

For the past several years Al-Hadid has made discrete objects, larger than human scale yet situated in the middle of the gallery so that visitors can easily walk around them. The imposing Spun to the Limits of My Lonely Waltz (2006) is a charred and discolored cathedral turned on its head so that the typically transcendent spires become sharp daggers pushing into the ground. The Tower of Infinite Problems (2008) is in a further state of decomposition, the tower completely felled and broken apart, the crumbling facade revealing only the spiraling labyrinth structure beneath. For her exhibition at the Hammer Museum, Al-Hadid has chosen to create a multifaceted sculptural installation consisting of several interdependent parts, which occupies the entire gallery. Visitors physically enter the work rather than walking around its periphery and, in some sense, observe the work from within. Titled Water Thief, the sculpture is inspired by a water clock built in 1206 by Al-Jazari, a prominent engineer and inventor who lived in northeastern Syria, not far from the city of Aleppo, where Al-Hadid was born and lived until the age of five, when she immigrated to the United States with her family.2 

A consideration of time—particularly a collapsing of geologic and what we might call architectural time—has always been fundamental to Al-Hadid’s practice. During her research on the topic, she came across Al-Jazari’s name, prompting her to take up the subject more literally to explore early mechanisms used to track and tell time. Al-Jazari was the first person to engineer a clock that could adapt to the changing length of the days throughout the year and accurately record the passage of time. One of his water clocks, the Castle Clock, stood at over eleven feet high and was much more than a timekeeper. Among its other artistic, scientific, and mechanical features, this large sculptural object displayed the zodiac and lunar and solar orbits and included five hidden robotic musicians who, controlled by a system of levers attached to a waterwheel, would emerge periodically to play music. The sophisticated clock seemed to encompass everything from the practical to the amusing, accomplished through advanced mechanical engineering and expertise in astronomy.

Narratives—usually folkloric or mythological stories—have helped shape Al-Hadid’s work. Some of her early sculptures, such as Finally, the Emancipation of Scheherazade (2006) and A Measure of Ariadne’s Love (2007), refer directly to stories found in The Thousand and One Nights and Greek mythology. In the case of Water Thief, the artist turns to real life, drawing her inspiration from a specific historical figure. Yet despite his enormous impact on the field of mechanical engineering, Al-Jazari is largely unknown to Western audiences, especially in comparison to the fictive figures who served as fodder for Al-Hadid’s earlier works.

In Water Thief, Al-Hadid does not set out to create a simulacrum of Al-Jazari’s famous clock, with its decorative facade of robotic figures and flanking falcons. Rather, she sticks to the clock’s basic mechanics, constructing each element and the channels that connect them, including a gutter to guide the water from an unseen source, as well as a reservoir, float tank, siphon, waterwheel, gears, drum dial, and pointer. Like something unearthed during an archaeological dig, the water clock is nonfunctioning, and several of its parts have fallen out of place or are cracked and leaking.

The ruinous quality of Al-Hadid’s sculptures underscores the interdependence of creation and destruction. Indeed, whether the forms presented are in the process of being built up or torn down remains uncertain. Her process encompasses both these actions, beginning with the methodical planning and careful articulation of the structure and its component parts and then leading to a more improvisatory stage in which she continues to add layers of material but also subtracts by carving, cutting, and even burning and melting. These intuitive actions often result in a more naturalistic look, countering the structural geometric components. Her use of “off-the-shelf” materials—wood, steel, cardboard, polystyrene, plaster, fiberglass, polymer gypsum, and high-density foam—allows her to experiment, leaving many aspects to chance as she works the materials to build objects that are informed by history but also manifestly otherworldly.

Despite Al-Hadid’s desire to focus on the workings of the water clock rather than to emulate Al-Jazari’s aestheticization of his apparatus, Water Thief is not at all stripped-down or minimal. Quite the contrary: like all her sculptures, it has a baroque sensibility, the hard architectural structures embellished with dense layers of material, akin to both the strata of geologic rock formations and more organic fluid forms. Moreover, she places the clock within a context resembling a columned temple, suggesting an ancient, or perhaps mythological, setting for this abandoned machine. The float tank becomes a small peak, its shape inspired in part by the mountain-like formation that encases the woman in Hans Memling’s strange 1475 painting Allegory of Chastity.

In fact, the ambiguity of scale evident in many Northern Renaissance paintings has been a central characteristic of Al-Hadid’s sculptures. Like time simultaneously reaching backward and forward, volume, density, and scale both expand and contract in her work. Moreover, the coexistence of architecture and landscape in paintings like Allegory of Chastity and Pieter Bruegel’s epic Tower of Babel (ca. 1563) has informed Al-Hadid’s earlier sculptures and perhaps plays an even larger role in Water Thief, as the work has moved from a singularly pronounced architectural construction into multiple ambiguous forms that combine the mechanistic with the natural, the human scale with the cosmos. In some sense, Al-Hadid’s overall structure becomes a kind of landscape, its grotto-like structure a cave into which we enter.

Al-Hadid’s commitment to ornamentation is a deliberate attempt to integrate Eastern culture into the practices of Western sculpture. Twentieth-century art criticism and practice were punctuated by arguments for stripping sculpture of decoration in order to differentiate it from design or craft and allow it to “progress” to its most essential and ideal form—from Adolf Loos’s 1908 manifesto repudiating ornament; to Clement Greenberg’s 1940 essay “Towards a Newer Laocoön,” espousing abstraction; to the minimalists’ reduction of form and their embrace of the consistency of mass production. Yet this seems a particularly Western preoccupation. The ornamentation visible throughout the Middle East—in Egyptian tiles, Arabic calligraphy, and Islamic textile patterns, for example—inspires both the surface treatments in Al-Hadid’s sculptures and the structures themselves. The motifs of the spiral and the labyrinth figure prominently as formal devices in the majority of her works. Several turn, or rotate, around a central stabilizing element, and the pattern of the labyrinthine floor of the cathedral at Chartres, in France, has served as both cultural and structural inspiration.3 Spirals, which are fundamental to several components of Water Thief—particularly the remarkably detailed gears and drum dial—are inspired by both the natural and the cultural, including the shape of some galaxies and the slow rotation of Muslim pilgrims around the Kaaba.

Al-Hadid’s sculptures—the histories and the sites they invoke—are dislocated in time and space. This sense of displacement comes, in part, from her interest in bringing non-Western conceptions of time and space to the history of painting, sculpture, and architecture in Europe and the United States. But it is also, of course, inspired by her personal experiences as a Muslim growing up in the United States, where she lived in two different worlds and learned to bridge her Middle Eastern background with her Western life, rather than considering them wholly distinct. In the end, her sculptures, too, act as bridges, connecting disparate times, places, and people.


1. Robert Smithson, “Fragments from an Interview with P. A. Norvell, April 1969,” in Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, ed. Lucy Lippard (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973), 89.

2. Al-Jazari’s full name was Badi' al-Zaman Abu-'l-'Izz Ibn Isma'il Ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari. He was called Al-Jazari after the place of his birth, Al-Jazira, the area lying between the Tigris and the Euphrates in Mesopotamia. Like his father before him, he served the Artuqid kings of Diyar-Bakir (Turkish rulers who controlled the region at the time) for several decades as a mechanical engineer. In 1206 he published his Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices (1206), a sort of do-it-yourself manual that appears to have been quite popular. In this book he depicted his mechanical inventions in miniature paintings.

3. In a further bridging of East and West, Chartres Cathedral is of interest for its role as a destination for those who wish to make a pilgrimage but are unable to travel to Jerusalem. The cathedral acts as a kind of stand-in for the Holy Land, and a pilgrimage there is regarded as a legitimate holy experience. Pilgrims end their visit by walking to the center of the labyrinth and then retracing their steps back into the outside world.

Hammer Projects is made possible with major gifts from Susan Bay Nimoy and Leonard Nimoy and The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation. 

Additional generous support is provided by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, Good Works Foundation and Laura Donnelley, L A Art House Foundation, the Department of Cultural Affairs, City of Los Angeles, and the David Teiger Curatorial Travel Fund.

Hammer Projects: Diana Al-Hadid has also received support from Joel Portnoy.

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