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Tristan Al-Haddad blurs math and art at MODA

Emerging Voices 11 features work by two young Atlanta-based architects

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When Tristan Al-Haddad ambles out onto the loading dock of Georgia Tech's fabrication laboratory on Marietta Street, his heather gray T-shirt is covered in tiny white shavings. The warehouse-size building is packed with bulky, whirring boxes: a rapid prototyping machine, a heat lamp oven, electric sanders attached to long, bright cords. A wooden frame lies around in pieces, and white shavings of Corian have collected in snowdrift piles. Two of Al-Haddad's assistants stand amid the scene pondering the next step. The plotter, a giant printer as wide a person's arm span, won't work for some mysterious reason. The warehouse looks like a place where you could build almost anything, a boat or an airplane or a coffee table, because, with the assembled materials and tools, you probably could. Al-Haddad, looking pleased, smiles and says, "We're making it snow," while gesturing to the growing piles of white shavings. It's January in Georgia and nearly 65 degrees outside, so "somebody has to make it snow," he says.

In actuality, Al-Haddad is preparing for Emerging Voices 11, an architecture exhibition showcasing the city's younger talent at the Museum of Design Atlanta. The show includes work by Al-Haddad and Ryan Gravel, the original architect behind the Atlanta Beltline. Al-Haddad is something of an anomaly when it comes to his field. When he decided to study architecture as an undergrad, he says, "There was no 'I want to build skyscrapers.' I have an indescribable passion for making and designing at every scale: from the scale of small objects to the scale of the city, to the scale of the planet." Al-Haddad, 33, has been a practicing artist as long as he's been studying architecture and he makes little distinction in conversation between his work as a fine artist and that as a professor in the School of Architecture at Georgia Tech.

That line is just as blurry in the two projects he's working on for Emerging Voices 11. Working with a large supply of Corian, a marble-like building material that becomes pliable when heated, Al-Haddad's current body of work at first glance looks unmistakably like sculpture. "Pucker Up," a series of wall-hanging panels, creates a precisely shifting pattern of squares with wavering edges. The play of light and shadow creates a tableau not unlike M.C. Escher's black and white transformations.

Al-Haddad gets noticeably more excited when he talks about the second project for the exhibition, a 4,000-pound Möbius sculpture balanced on one end. It's a shape whose history is more grounded in mathematics than visual arts, discovered by the German mathematicians August Ferdinand Möbius and Johann Benedict Listing in the 19th century. For those of us who haven't spent years studying geometry, the easiest way to describe it might be to say that it is a shape that should be impossible but isn't. It has two sides, like a strip of paper, but one could travel the distance of both sides without ever having crossed an edge. The clean white surface of Corian that Al-Haddad and his assistants have been molding to a wooden frame gives the object the feel of a marble sculpture in a style that's recognizably digital and mathematical.

The sheer scale of the sculpture is bewildering. When finished, which it won't be for the MODA exhibition, "Möbius I" will be large enough for anyone to walk through, as if it were an archway. That experiential quality, the fact that a person could be inside of or part of the sculpture itself is what Al-Haddad emphasizes. He talks at length about "the idea of an object that one looks at and has a distance between the person and object versus the idea of something in which you cannot distinguish between the two" when discussing his work.

"When people say art, they immediately think about museums or galleries or books," he says. "I see art as Baton Bob or a bouquet of flowers properly arranged and composed or a chalk drawing on a sidewalk or even things like chili cook-offs. Is a chili cook-off art? I think it is."

This is a curious statement from an artist who's currently preparing for a museum show, but Al-Haddad adds, "I'm still interested in the high arts, obviously. I have an active practice, but I feel like we distinguish too much between those two. At the end of the day, I'm interested in how art in every flavor and spectrum influences life whether it is high intellectual life or experience or whatever."

The longer one lingers on Al-Haddad's projects, the more this blurring quality makes itself apparent. "Möbius I" seems at first to be just sculpture until you realize that he has also made it an archway, one of architecture's most traditional forms. The Möbius subject might seem purely mathematical, divorced from the ideas that ground art history, until you remember that geometry was one of art's earliest subjects. From the Golden Ratio that compelled ancient Greeks to the geometric patterns of early Islamic art to Da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man," our visions of artistic beauty have often been tied up in mathematics. The line between the two in Al-Haddad's work is never clear, and that seems to please the artist.

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