Opened in 2016, Phantom Limb marked Diana Al-Hadid’s first solo exhibition in the Arab world, and was among her largest exhibitions to date at the time. Her towering sculptures, spectral wall pieces, and surreal bronzes filled our 7,000 square foot gallery. Visitors could hear the artist discussing her work in a detailed audio guide (linked below). This was exhibition also marked the first commission of an exhibition guide for young people, illustrated by a local artist (also linked below) — this “youth guide” has become a core part of our exhibition offerings.
To accompany the exhibition, NYUAD Art Gallery and Skira-Rizzoli published a scholarly monograph, with texts by curator Sara Raza, and art historians Alistair Rider (University of St. Andrews), and Reindert Falkenburg (NYU Abu Dhabi). It is available for the first time digitally on this page, as a free download. It is a dual English-Arabic publication.
The exhibition takes its title from the central work, Phantom Limb (pictured above). The term refers to the sensations that a missing arm or leg is still present, and able to move. Phantom Limb traveled to Abu Dhabi from its premiere at The Secession in Vienna. The NYU Abu Dhabi publication was paired with the sketchbook catalogue published by The Secession, and is in collaboration with Brown University’s David Winton Bell Gallery, where a different version of this exhibition opened later that year.
Read the essay
Curator’s essay, excerpt:
Diana Al-Hadid’s work is remarkable in the artist’s direct references to Renaissance and Classical art history and architecture. Her sculptures’ physicality and visible worked-ness suggest archeology and cultural historicity, while ultimately engaging – or rather, tangling with – the white cube of contemporary art.
The term “white cube” is often used as shorthand for the galleries that show contemporary art, typically a neutral white gallery, with sleek white plinths or pedestals. In other words: new, the opposite of archeology, decay, and art history. The white cube figures heavily in Al-Hadid’s works. At the intersection of her sculptures’ ghostly, ornate fragments from art history and the crisp cultural edifice of the white cube, the artist locates an almost electric tension between past and present that haunts the contemporary galleries exhibiting her work.
That intersection of art history and the white cube manifests physically in her sculptures and screens. Al-Hadid often starts with the cube of the pedestal or the rectangle of the wall and builds outward from it, hollowing and layering simultaneously, working with and against gravity, with and against history. The human figure often partially disappears, or melds to fabric, and fabric stands in for skin. Figures deform their cubic pedestals, which in turn drift and melt away from the spot where a pedestal might normally be.
In the center of the gallery sits Phantom Limb, the sculpture after which this exhibition is named. The term “phantom limb” refers to a condition when a person continues to feel sensations in a limb that is no longer there. In this artwork, a fragmented sculpture of a body floats atop a cloud-like mountain. Behind it a small white box supports a leg and foot – perhaps the phantom limb in question. Its traditional plinth is remarkable in how solid it appears compared to the other pedestal-like forms in the sculpture.
On one side of the sculpture are stacked a series of cubes. While a pedestal would traditionally hold a sculpture up, here the cubes appear to melt and drift away from under the figure, and evaporate into the air. One might ask: is this sculpture in the process of being unearthed, or disappearing? The notion of “process” is important, both in the sense of the sculpture’s appearance of being in the process of either emerging or disappearing, and also in the sense of the artist’s process of making the work. The marks themselves – the drips and the cracks and the organic forms – become central to how we understand what we are seeing. Each mark carries her gesture, on the one hand, and implies movement, on the other.
To the left and the right of this central sculpture, two white gallery walls also appear to dissolve, and images emerge from their surface in an inset painted screen. For both of these inset screens, the artist drew on specific artworks from history. The Sleepwalker is based on Gradiva, a bas-relief from Ancient Greece, and Still Life With Gold is based on a painting known as the Allegory of Chastity, by Hans Memling, from the Renaissance.
These three works – Phantom Limb, Sleepwalker, and Still Life with Gold – as a group the artist named “the fates” as they represent women in different stages of walking, standing, and sitting. Surrounding the three in the NYUAD Art Gallery space are a series of panels and sculptures that also relate to these central “fates” in some way.
The Sleepwalker inset features a series of block-like forms, almost like stairs. Each block represents a section of the sculpture it is based on, a 4th-century BCE Greek bas-relief of a robed woman walking. It was first named “Gradiva” (“she who walks”) in the 1906 novella by Wilhelm Jensen, “Gradiva: a Pompeiian Fancy.” In it the protagonist, an archeologist, becomes obsessed with the figure, and imagines meeting her as a lost childhood friend, come to life among the ruins of Pompeii. Sigmund Freud later produced an analysis of the novella’s protagonist, in which Pompeii serves as the protagonist’s unconscious and Gradiva unlocks its secrets. While Jensen’s literary invention, “Gradiva” is most associated with Freud, who hung a replica of the bas-relief in his office, to “symbolize the interplay between memory and artifact.”1 It is worth noting that this Gradiva reference appears more than once in Diana Al-Hadid’s art, particularly when one considers that interplay between memory and object in her work as well.
The artist decided to section the figure’s body into four quadrants, staggering it so that, as the artist describes it, “she kind of leaves part of her body behind as she progresses through space” and the sectioning also echoes the formal elements of the “pedestals and some of the other squares and rectangles and sharp edges that I used in Phantom Limb.”
In Still Life With Gold one can make out a rendering of the Renaissance painting by Hans Memling, Allegory of Chastity. The artist notes that she’s been very interested in that painting for years, and particularly how fixed the figure of the woman is in the mountain. In this wall inset, Al-Hadid has made a painting that further merges the woman and the mountain, such that the folds of her dress and the crevices of the rocky peaks might appear to be one piece. The artist notes the contrast between this inset, with a woman who’s immobile in the landscape, and the Sleepwalker inset, depicting a woman who is constantly moving. As she puts it, “they’re both characters that are sort of out of our reach, and really play with a sense of scale.” Of this group of “fates,” one is still, the other is moving, and the third, Phantom Limb, might be read as a mid-point, emerging from a melting rocky mountain, or perhaps submerging into it.
Below are the audio guides to the artworks in the exhibition.
Diana Al-Hadid (b. 1981) is a Syrian-American artist who lives and works in New York, whose works of ephemeral materiality have gained international acclaim.Read more
At once enigmatic and monumental, her unconventional use of materials such as polymer gypsum, wax and gold leaf are fused with filtered references of visual histories, ranging from Hellenistic sculpture and Greek and Arab mythology, to Northern Renaissance painting. Intensely detailed structures are discovered across her paintings and room-sized installations, which seem to drip and float to offer compelling experiences of a world turned on its head, challenging our perceptions of gravity and volume. Al-Hadid’s signature techniques have formed a body of works that, although they evoke centuries past, are unique in their expressive reflections of the human condition and the fragility of current civilization.
Diana Al-Hadid received a BFA from Kent State University, MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University, and attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Recent solo exhibitions include the Henry Art Gallery, The University of Washington, Seattle, WA (2021, forthcoming); Galerie Isa, Ballard Estate, Mumbai, India (2021, forthcoming); The Welch Gallery, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA (2021, forthcoming); Galleri Brandstrup, Oslo, Norway (2019); Frist Art Museum and Cheekwood Estate and Gardens, Nashville, TN (2019); Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco, CA (2019); Williams College, Williamstown, MA (2018-2019); Madison Square Park Conservancy, New York, NY (2018); Secession, Vienna, Austria (2014); Weatherspoon Art Museum, Greensboro, NC (2013); Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond (2012); the University of Texas Art Center, Austin (2012); La Conservera, Murcia, Spain (2011); and Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2010). Her work has been included in numerous international group exhibitions, including the Lahore Biennale, Lahore, Pakistan (2020); Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, NY (2020); University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum, Tampa, FL (2020); Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges, Belgium (2020); San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, CA (2020); Rabat Biennale, Rabat, Morocco (2019); Arsenal Contemporary, New York, NY (2018); Glasstress 2015: GOTIKA, an official collateral event of the 56th International Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy (2015); NOWism: Abstraction Today, Pizzuti Collection, Columbus, OH (2014); Invisible Cities, Mass MoCA, North Adams (2012); Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East, The Saatchi Gallery, London (2009), and the 9th Sharjah Biennial, UAE (2009).
In 2019, Al-Hadid was commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Arts & Design to create a permanent installation consisting of two long murals, titled The Arches of Old Penn Station.
She has been the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Grant, as well as Joan Mitchell Foundation, Tiffany Foundation and Pollock-Krasner Foundation awards.
Her works have been acquired by a number of institutions and public collections, including San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, CA; The Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH; DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, Lincoln, MA; The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX and Weatherspoon Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.