Diana Al-Hadid’s new sculpture, on view at MASS MoCA in the current exhibition “Invisible Cities,” pivots between architectural ruin, figuration and abstraction in a mountain of form. Nolli’s Orders, 2012, is 10 feet high and builds skyward from a sculptural base resembling a colonnade. Al-Hadid’s architecture doesn’t refer to a specific, historic building, but functions as a device to open up the lowest register of the sculpture. “I wanted to do something to make the boxes feel lighter, to let more air pass through, and not be such hulking masses,” the artist wrote in a recent e-mail. Abutting these historic-style buildings and creating stepping stones to the work’s highest sections are white, tiered, minimal boxes. Draped across those steps are life-size, headless humans which linger in the piece’s architecture and hover over a melting cityscape. Al-Hadid’s figures testify to the quandary of how individuals eventually become one with their environment. And throughout the sculpture, horizontal planes simultaneously support the bodies and add a geometric grid. It is a fascinating, messy work where human form, landscape and cityscape meld and mediate between metaphor and narrative.
The visitor who circumnavigates Nolli’s Orders may question whether the piece is in the process of creation or destruction. The work appears at once complete (as figures ascend upward) and wanting (as geometric planes are purposefully unfinished and open). It may be the artist’s choice of some hardware store materials—steel, polymer gypsum, fiberglass, wood, foam, paint—that enables the comparison between completion and neglect. “I try to be mindful of the capacities of each material I use, and maximize them wherever and however I can alongside the ‘pictorial narration’ I’m developing. But it first starts with the material capabilities—how much can I stretch them or redefine them?,” Al-Hadid stated.
Human forms in Nolli’s Orders are inspired by the artist’s longstanding study of Northern Renaissance painting, the relationship between figures in the front of the picture plan and the background scenery, and “how the landscape seemed to have been painting between the architectural components…” Nolli refers to Giambattista Nolli, an 18th century Italian architect and surveyor who was commissioned by the Pope to map out the districts in Rome. Nolli’s map was vanguard for its two-dimensional treatment of three-dimensional mass and void. Al-Hadid felt a kinship with Nolli because of his ability to chart the figure and ground relationship, much like her examination of historic painting.
Al-Hadid—who was born in 1981 in Aleppo, Syria, grew up in Ohio, and maintains a studio in Brooklyn—has created a monument to the concepts Giambattista Nolli first articulated over 250 years ago. She has also made an imposing sculpture that advances and scrutinizes contemporary tensions between figuration and non-representational imagery.
“Invisible Cities” is on view at MASS MoCA in North Adams through February 4. 2013.
Watch a video from Art21’s documentary series NewYorkCloseUp, “Diana Al-Hadid’s Studio Boom”