Exposed to the whims of nature and New York City foot traffic, the six sculptures that make up Syrian-American artist Diana Al-Hadid’s “Delirious Matter” have spent the summer growing into their environment at Madison Square Park. “I’m expecting and, in some ways, encouraging the material to absorb its environment and change a little,” Al-Hadid said during a guided tour of the exhibition, her first major public art project, last month.
Little specks of mud dot the white backs of two large gypsum-dripped panels located in the center of the park’s Oval Lawn. From a distance, the panels, titled “The Grotto” and “Gradiva,” seem to fit into the negatives of each other — where one panel rises from the ground to form a mountainous shape, the other creates a cavernous opening that drips with extensions of material that recall stalagmites. Physically connecting the panels, rows of hedges clasp the walls together to form a “room” or gathering space on the lawn. “This room is sort of a way that the public can be in a space together that feels a little bit more intimate,” said Al-Hadid.
It’s only when park-goers enter the room that the panels start to reveal Al-Hadid’s muted references. “There are two kinds of central female fictional characters in this show. One comes from a small novella by Wilhelm Jensen called ‘Gradiva,’” said Al-Hadid, explaining that the “Gradiva” figure, a woman sprung from the imagination of a lust-hungry archeologist, began surfacing in her work six to eight years ago, finally appearing in her panel as a barely visible figure walking through the wall. “You can kind of see her mid-stride,” said Al-Hadid, motioning toward the panel.
“The other one, which stands opposite her in the room, is of a woman that comes from a Hans Memling painting.” This painting, “Allegory of Chastity,” features a woman sitting in repose at the pinnacle of a mountain with two lions at her feet. “It’s almost like the mountain starts at her waist,” said Al-Hadid. “But when I saw it with contemporary eyes, I saw it as a woman plugging a volcano.” In “Grotto,” Al-Hadid’s version of this woman is stationed at the top of the panel.
Drawing energy toward these panels, three nearly identical reclining figural sculptures, each called “Synonym,” sit near the perimeters of the park and face inward, suggesting that — if they had heads — they might be gazing at the myths contained within Al-Hadid’s “Grotto” and “Gradiva.”
“The ‘Synonym’s might, I think, create a little sense of déjà vu as you walk around the park,” Al-Hadid said of the bodies, made by dripping gypsum over a mold that is later pulled away, giving them the appearance that they are somehow floating in the air. “Their context obviously changes, but if you’re walking around, they give a little indication that there’s something else going on.”
The relaxed figures create a stillness that contrasts with the kinetic vibration found in the northern-most work in the exhibition, “Citadel.” Placed within the park’s reflecting pool, “Citadel” bursts from black water to create a compelling collision of figure and landscape. The resulting mountain, made of steel, gypsum, fiberglass, paint, aluminum and bronze, offers a three-dimensional response to the “Allegory of Chastity” represented on a more two-dimensional plane in “Grotto.”
“Citadel” also refers to Aleppo’s famous Citadel, which sustained significant damage during the devastating Syrian Civil War. “In Aleppo, there’s no water around it, but you can see the huge void where it would fill,” said Al-Hadid, explaining that the water surrounding her “Citadel” echoes the land barrier that encircles the Citadel in Aleppo.
“I feel like this piece was really, really, really important to me. I don’t know a simpler way to put it,” Al-Hadid said when we asked how she felt seeing “Citadel” months after it made the journey from her studio in Brooklyn to be placed within the Manhattan landscape. “It unlocked so much in my head. And it also clarified so much about some of the problems that I’ve been working with for the last 12, 15 years. Like the relationship between a sculptural object and a drawing, and the relationship between a line and a plane; the relationship between painting and sculpture. The relationship between landscape and figuration and architecture,” Al-Hadid explained, continuing, “I’m feeling a little sentimental about that piece, because it also gifted me so many new works that I’m thinking about now.”
“Delirious Matter” is on view through September 3 and runs in conjunction with Al-Hadid’s exhibition, also titled “Delirious Matter,” at the Bronx Museum.
Top Image: © Diana Al-Hadid Courtesy of of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York