In the work of Syrian-born, American artist Diana Al-Hadid, how we give vision to time is the driver of her monumental installations. Rather than reproducing the exactitude of clocks, her work denotes how time is measured and felt—as Don DeLillo writes in The Body Artist, time becomes something more like itself, “sheer and bare, empty of shelter” as we experience the traces of the objects, figures, landscapes, and architecture that Al-Hadid imparts.
The designs for a water-clock preserved by the twelfth-century Islamic polymath Ismail Al-Jazari inform the blueprint of Al-Hadid’s sculpture The Time Being (2022), a public commission for the most recent edition of the FRONT Triennial for Contemporary Art in Cleveland. Against the backdrop of a scaled replica of the Palmyra Arch of Triumph within the city’s Syrian Cultural Garden, the installation’s spiralling architecture responds to the conditions of the outdoor site.
Photo by Jerry Birchfield
Photo by Jerry Birchfield
Al-Hadid’s intervention arises from the centerpiece of the garden, an Arabic fountain that is transformed by the addition of a towering armature that ascends from the existing octagonal geometry. Thin veils of material (once wet and pliable, now solid) compose the form, painted to appear as oxidized copper leaf in alternating segments of verdigris and glinting metal. The tiers of the exposed vessel are adorned with pools of ink, hands suspended in gestures of writing and making, in reference to the figurative components of Al-Jazari’s clock—chief among them a statue of a scribe whose pen tracks the minutes as they pass.
While the functional mechanisms of the clock are rendered immobile in Al-Hadid’s rendition, the conventional markers of time are replaced with organic growth. In place of the hour hand, the only visible dial of measure in The Time Being is the growth of jasmine plants, the national flower of Syria, which wrap around the sculpture, supported by the water that springs from the fountain’s basin. Over the course of the exhibition, tendrils of the plant attach to fragments of the piece as they climb, flowering to emit a faint indolic scent that attaches the installation to our senses beyond what is visible. Time is read, but it is also experienced as it is written.
Al-Hadid’s script proposes a clock of memory that extends to the more personal ways we recall time—triggers of sensation, of place, of how the light hits just there, of the softness or rigidity of sand or stone beneath our feet. What remains from Al-Jazari’s engineering is a reliance on water and an attention to how things react to the circumstances of a prescribed environment. Each component of the ‘clock’ is faithful to material; water flows, plants grow, the sun catches on the surface of the open-air form, and gravity holds it in place. Perhaps most fittingly, while most scents are replicated by the combination of other essences, jasmine is the only flower not fugitive in the making of perfume. It performs as itself even when translated to another medium, just as Al-Hadid’s subjects are woven into being.
Photo by Jerry Birchfield
Photo by Jerry Birchfield
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the weaver Arachne is transfigured into a spider after hiding depictions of Zeus’ abuses toward mortal women in her tapestries of maps. The limbs of the wood nymph Daphne, while attempting to escape the pursuit of Apollo, turn into the bark and leaves of the laurel tree. In this history, the species that compose the natural world are ascribed to the faults of women.
The Flemish primitive painter Hans Memling’s Allegory of Chastity (c. 1475) pictures the bodice of a female figure, her head bowed, hands interlaced at the waist, surrounded by the mouth of a volcanic mountain. What remains ambiguous is the action of the scene—a figure in process of emerging from or being entrapped by an enclosure of stone, the pair of lions in the foreground guarding either for protection or imprisonment. Given the reliance of Christian theology on the suppression of women’s desire, we can guess the latter.
Al-Hadid’s first interpretation of the painting culminated in the monumental sculpture Citadel (2017–18), a hollowed silhouette of a woman framed by the base of an embankment whose porous mass extends like a root system toward the ground. Her face is vacant of features, delineated instead by two severe lines like one would find in the initial sketch of a portrait artist, that indicate her gaze remains lowered. Yet in contrast to the demure painting, the massive scale of the work allows for her downcast eyes to stare straight into those of the viewer below.
Photo by Cameron Blaylock
When installed upon the green scape of a lawn, the work appears to swell from the ground like a tangle of vines; when situated within a public fountain, the form is reflected in a black pool of glass in perfect symmetry. In each reprise of the work, which adapts and responds to its context, the conception of virtue in Memling’s portrait is detached and reforged in Al-Hadid’s portrayal—from the feminized guise of purity (as a woman frozen and entrapped by nature) toward a faith in substance (the malleability and mutability of earth’s terrain and our place within it).
In an evolution of the piece, Allegory by a Thread (2020), installed at the Sint-Janshostpitaal in Brugge, home to some of Memling’s most important works, elements of the architecture’s structure and gothic ornamentation infiltrate the setting of Al-Hadid’s commanding figure, positioning her as a type of throned Madonna. Hollowed and hallowed collapse.
A series of filaments loosely tether her torso to a delicately carved surface of an oriental carpet, made of polymer gypsum tinted with black, red, and gold pigments. Colors of the mantle, of different temperatures and fluidities of lava, constitute the pattern of the rug—a form first woven to mimic a garden, a facsimile of nature to view in winter. Here, Al-Hadid weaves a garden for the woman born from the reservoir of fire—a reminder of her origins transformed into a fragment of décor that she witnesses and controls.
Photo by Dominique Provost
Photo by Trond A Isaksen
Volcanos endure as one of the few phenomena where the center of the earth comes out to greet us. At the time of an eruption, the boundary that designates what belongs to the interior versus the surface is momentarily broken (the same can be said of people). In Magmatic (2019), recently on view in Al-Hadid’s solo exhibition Archives of Longing at the Henry Art Gallery, that which is disguised by the mountain in Memling’s painting is made present—a woman’s severed limbs fashioned of bronze, gypsum, fiberglass, and steel.
The patina of the legs, which appear to melt into the support of a white plinth, is corroded—a process that unfolds when water and alloy are exposed to one another and left to develop. Like living photographs, marks of phases are embedded in Al-Hadid’s materials. Her attitude toward form adheres to a logic that exists outside of chronological time, a patriarchal structure derived from lineage, in favor of the cyclical. Across the artist’s sculptural vignettes, the rotating hands of a clock fail to capture how hours pass. They belong to a different language of revolution—one that calculates moments in present culture where our epoch meets those that have come before, and where they will unite again in a yet unknown future.
While pausing writing to read a text by Mona Eltahawy on the revolution unfolding in Iran at present, a quote by Ursula K. Le Guin echoes the sentiments of Al-Hadid’s work, “We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.”
Stephanie Cristello is a contemporary art critic, curator, and author based in Chicago, IL. Her work focuses on artists who critically engage with the image and its role in visual culture. Through the lens of Classics and mythology, her diachronic writing practice concentrates on the intersection of ancient narratives and conceptual practice post-1960.
Her research is specifically motivated by contemporary works that interrogate how language, text, and the use of poetic devices influence and shape the cultural and historical structures that surround us.
She has worked internationally across a variety of platforms, including exhibitions, panels and symposia, editorial and publishing, and has contributed to numerous exhibition catalogues nationally and internationally.
Diana Al-Hadid is known for her practice that examines the historical frameworks and perspectives that continue to shape discourse on culture and materials today.
With a practice spanning sculpture, wall reliefs, and works on paper, Al-Hadid weaves together enigmatic narratives that draw inspiration from both ancient and modern civilizations.
The artist's rich allegorical constructions are born from art historical religious imagery, ancient manuscripts, female archetypes, and folkloric storytelling frameworks.
Al-Hadid's works are included in collections such as the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.