The Art of Research

Art speaks for itself. But often when it does, it forgets to communicate the amount of effort and the rigorous research behind its creation.

By Naser Al Wasmi, NYU Abu Dhabi Public Affairs

Even if art shows some traits of the painstaking process used to make it, the research needed to create a body of work is often masked in the final product. Unlike engineering or the sciences, art has no list of annotations or footnotes. Instead, it’s finished and ready for us to experience. Often the pieces NYU Abu Dhabi faculty create are years, if not an entire lifetime, in the making.


As an avid field notetaker, Jill Magi doesn’t go anywhere without the notebook she uses to record all that comes to make her work. Magi took neighborhood walks while working on the book-length poem that eventually became SPEECH. The project took the American five years to write and poses the question: “What does freedom mean when I came from a place where I was told I could say anything I wanted but I couldn’t afford to live and be an artist?” 

In this project, Magi discovers the relationship the UAE has with poetry. She ends up painting and casting bronze likenesses of small bits of her environment that she picks up along the way: feathers, pavers, palm fronds, twigs. The verbal and the visual, walking and weaving, create the landscape of SPEECH.

A visual representation from SPEECH forged in bronze for an exhibition at Grey Noise Gallery, Dubai.

“A lot of artists’ research is about reading, thinking, looking, and making a plan. But the process also requires being open to abandoning the plan. Because you have to trust that sometimes your subconscious self knows more or has better ideas than your conscious self.


Jill Magi, associate arts professor

PETERS: CityCenter/Nomadic Monads

With a question at the heart of her research, Sandra Peters focuses on the reciprocal relationships and influences that exist between people and architecture. She explores the possibilities for creating spaces that stimulate reflection on the cultural structures within which we move.

Having lived in several major cities, Peters is currently asking the question: “How does a city shape its identity and what makes a city center?” Her answer lies within CityCenter/Nomadic Monads, a temporary outdoor sculptural installation that addresses the relationship between architecture and public space in the UAE. Five tall columns based on various geometric layouts, each made of two-way mirrored glass, allow viewers to not only see reflections of themselves and their surroundings, but also mediate between bodies and sightlines, and the natural and urban landscape, folding one onto the other, and each into itself. 

An artist’s rendering of Peters's upcoming project at the Sharjah Art Foundation.

“The first step is to see, to observe, and to question. I take photos. I read, write, and draw. I realize models and think in space, scale, material, and time. Having a site in mind where to present the work, I develop the specifics to complete the idea.”

Sandra Peters, assistant arts professor of arts practice

SETTLE: Sky on Swings: A World Premiere Opera

Joanna Settle’s latest directing project is an opera about Alzheimer’s disease. The commission sits nicely in her long-term research investigating existential concerns: the nature of being a person. Her research for Sky on Swings seeks to encounter the terms of the disease (that she describes as “ultimately only going in one direction”) from a position not only of loss, but of potential. 

“When the architecture of how you know who you are falls away — memory, favorite color, location — what might you discover?” She, along with composer Lembit Beecher and librettist Hannah Moscovitch rented an Airbnb in Canada. For five days they lived, researched, and ate together developing the foundation for the opera that has been met with critical acclaim. Settle, originally from New York, reflected that Abu Dhabi’s desert has had a strong influence on her aesthetic, both in the vast expanse and sense of pace the environment engenders.

A photo from Sky on Swings at Opera Philadelphia.

“Public presentation is the moment of publication for my research, when my discoveries, having been refined through collaboration, experimentation, and revision, meet both peer review and the general public.”

Joanna Settle, associate arts professor of theater