One of the most audaciously experimental sculptors working today, Diana Al-Hadid melds figurative and architectural elements into objects that seem to dissolve into thin air. Made of materials like gypsum and fiberglass, her apparitions also appear as if they draw upon the ancient past. “History is everything in my work,” says the artist, who was born in Aleppo, Syria, before emigrating to Ohio. Her latest exhibition, “Delirious Matter,” represents her first public art project and comprises four sculptures installed around Madison Square Park. On a recent outing there, Diana Al-Hadid discussed her installation and what it took to transform the public space into a phantom zone.
Why did you title your show “Delirious Matter”?
Delirious is a reference to the way I play with illusion, instead of being true to my materials. Matter represents the show’s narrative framework, which in this case was inspired by an early-20th-century novel called Gradiva, by the German writer Wilhelm Jensen. I titled one piece after it. The story is about an archaeologist who becomes obsessed with a woman depicted in a Roman bas-relief. The book later became the subject of a psychoanalytic study by Sigmund Freud.
Does that have something to do with why the sculptures depict female figures?
To a certain extent. Gradiva is a woman on whom Jensen’s protagonist makes all of these projections. You could say the same for art itself, which has often focused on the female figure. It’s also a subject I’m comfortable with. I feel like I have a title to it.
Could you talk about the piece for the park’s fountain?
It’s called Citadel and comes from Hans Memling’s painting, Allegory of Chastity, from 1475. Memling depicts a virgin encased by the peak of a mountain. I think of Citadel as sort of the opposite to Gradiva—a stable figure, whereas Gradiva seems fleeting.
Some have described your work as resembling ruins. Do you think of it that way?
I’ve heard my sculptures portrayed that way, yes, but their appearance is more the result of my process than some point I’m trying to illustrate. I’m pretty rough with my materials, but my approach is additive, rather than subtractive in the way ruins are.
What about something else that has been said of your work—that it’s apocalyptic in tone?
I don’t think so, though I guess I understand people seeing it that way. Personally, I don’t think we’re living through some kind of end times or anything. I mean, I have a sense of humor. But, on the other hand, I do work the way I do.
It seems as if there’s another dimension to your work that is equal parts sci-fi and spiritual. Is that more of what you’re trying to convey?
I love sci-fi, and I’m fascinated by religion. I grew up a Muslim, and a lot of art history encompasses religion. I’m also totally fascinated by things that can’t be explained. I’m drawn to the unknown, to the mysterious and esoteric. I’m more interested in what we don’t know than what we do know.
How do you think visitors will react?
Not everyone is going to like the work, of course, and that’s okay. It’s okay for them, and it’s okay for me. But they’ll discover that it’s considered art, and even if they don’t agree, they’ll know that it’s something that can go in a park.
Diana Al-Hadid’s “Delirious Matter” is at Madison Square Park through Sept 3 (madisonsquarepark.org).