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Mona Hatoum is a potentially paradoxical example of the contemporary artist working on the international scene today: On the one hand, she embraces various media and aesthetics in a pared-down, Duchampian approach to material and conceptual-based practices. On the other hand, she is a Palestinian woman who was forced into exile in London due to civil unrest in the Middle East in the 1970s, and thus an artist whose life experience is anything but clean and neat. It might be easy to presume, then, that Hatoum’s artistic agenda is strongly political, and yet her art almost uniformly (and cleverly) toys with the dialectical nature of humor and seriousness that the readymade itself invokes. Hatoum engages her viewers through photography and works on paper, large and small-scale sculptures, and multimedia, multi-sensorial, and site-specific installations, all of which confront the cross-national dialogues that shape her individual multiculturalism and gender politics. A case in point is Over My Dead Body (1988/2002), a black-and-white photograph of the artist’s profile with a plastic toy solider placed on her nose, pointing his rifle at her temple while she scowls back at him. The work’s title is reproduced in block letters on the opposite side. The work at once reminds the viewer that the artist was forced to flee her homeland due to war while sardonically suggesting that she, as a woman and an Arab, will not so easily be uprooted from her cultural or artistic identities.
Mona Hatoum, a retrospective exhibition organized by the Centre Pompidou, in collaboration with Tate Modern and the Finnish National Gallery/Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Helsinki, accordingly highlights her multifaceted approach to art making and the questions her work intentionally provokes. The richly illustrated, full-color catalogue, with essays by Christine Van Assche, Clarrie Wallis, Guy Brett, Patricia Falguières, Edward W. Said, Marja Sakari, Christine Ross, and Bertrand Westphal, provides a balance between biographical information—important for readers not readily familiar with Hatoum or her background—and theoretical analyses of her complex art. The Tate Modern is an ideal second venue for the exhibition, as Hatoum’s various works are well suited for the stark, industrial space of the museum.
The entirety of the Tate press materials, including the catalogue, exhibition leaflet, and opening wall text, reiterate to audiences that Hatoum is a Lebanese-born Palestinian artist living and working in London. The artworks on display call forth a cosmopolitanism that embodies Michel Foucault’s notion of heterotopias—that is, as counter-sites or places without a place. In this regard, Hatoum’s art invokes a sense of “no place” or “any place” as a metaphor for humanity’s isolated or collective and interconnected experiences. A prime example is Socle du Monde (1992–93), a sculptural cube selected as the first work gallery-goers encounter by curators Clarrie Wallis and Katy Wan from the Tate and Tate Modern, and Christine Van Assche from the Centre Pompidou. The sculpture is fascinating to behold, its shape and monochromatic color evoking a Donald Judd Minimalist cube, yet conversely giving the impression that it is an organic structure covered by, or even growing, hair or fur. As such, it simultaneously looks soft and hard, organic and inorganic. The initial concept behind Socle du Monde (translated as “plinth of the world”) was to create an artistic dialogue with Piero Manzoni’s metal sculpture Base of the World, Homage to Galileo (1961). Hatoum doubled the size of Manzoni’s original cube, which he designed to suggest that the world could be viewed as a work of art displayed on a plinth. Unlike Manzoni’s smooth-sided sculpture, Hatoum’s is covered with iron fillings held in place by magnets, creating an object that is not nearly as static as his. It is equally significant that Hatoum’s sculpture is the height of an average adult, possibly implying that we—humans—are collectively the world. Finally, the shape and color of the block interestingly (and perhaps tellingly) recalls the Kaaba (“Cube” in Arabic), or the structure at the center of the Great Mosque in Mecca.
The movement of the museum visitor around, and sometimes even through, Hatoum’s installations and sculptural work is further implicated by the immersive video Corps étranger (Foreign Body; 1994), erected in the second gallery. To view this piece, one must enter through one of two narrow doorways set in the side of a tall, white cylindrical chamber. Inside the room, a color video showing the artist’s internal cavities via a microscopic medical camera is projected onto the circular floor. When the footage is combined with the claustrophobic space of the chamber, the viewer is left with the uncomfortable impression that she or he has invaded Hatoum’s most personal areas. By extension, the work seems to question humanity’s tendency to aggressively probe the privacy of others without their consent or knowledge, suggesting that we are all both victims and perpetrators. The second gallery contains a number of additional, strong sculptural works, including Grater Divide (2002) and Daybed (2008). Aesthetically the pieces reference giant kitchen graters, and thus recall life-sized versions of Duchampian readymades. Here, Hatoum also demonstrates her penchant for macabre humor. Grater Divide reimagines a cheese grater as a three-paneled portable room divider or Asian screen, whereas Daybed proposes that a human-sized grater has become a painful and dangerous bed lacking a mattress. The works implicate the domesticity of furniture and utensils, but equally question the comfort of home life and the possibility that a home may not automatically serve as a safe or secure environment.
Another particularly strong work is an installation titled Light Sentence (1992), which occupies the entire third gallery. The room is relatively dark, save for a single light bulb suspended from the ceiling in the center of the room. A U-shaped architectural structure comprised of stacked, cage-like boxes made from mesh wire surrounds the dangling bulb, which slowly and methodically moves up and down on a black cord before reaching the gallery floor, only to ascend again. When the light passes through the mesh boxes, kinetic patterns and gridded shadows are cast on the white walls. Though the room itself is not claustrophobic, as in Corps étranger, the small lockers recall the cages that hold animals in meat-processing plants or kill shelters. The content and title of the work suggest a prison, as confirmed in the exhibition catalogue, and the moving bulb, recalling a prison spotlight, seems to function as a symbol of an endless cycle of torture, violence, or incarceration.
Like many contemporary artists, in Hatoum’s work ideas frequently take precedence over sustained explorations of form and medium. But this is not to say that her use of media is secondary to her conceptualism. On the contrary, she is equally a master of design and technique. The remaining galleries demonstrate this dexterity, displaying a mixture of installations, large- and small-scale sculptures, works on paper, and mixed media pieces. These works include Present Tense (1996), a large cartographic sculpture. Carving into bars of olive oil soap that fit together like a giant jigsaw puzzle on the floor of the gallery, Hatoum here creates an outline of the Palestinian territories as dictated by the 1993 Oslo I Accord. The piece not only demonstrates the alarming rate of geopolitical change that has transpired in this particular part of the world, especially in terms of contested borders, but equally hints at the fact that Palestinians (like the bars of soap) have been carved away from their homelands.
Hatoum’s iconic Hot Spot (2013)—which fills one-half of the room, casting its “hot” light around the gallery—is similarly a commentary on geopolitical unrest. The work is a sizeable sculpture that takes the shape of a three-dimensional replica of the globe, with longitudinal and latitudinal lines made from its crisscrossing wire frame, with red neon tubes delineating the outlines of the continents. The artist meant for the sculpture to remind viewers that the world, as a “hot spot,” is a place of civil or military unrest, continually caught in conflict. At the same time, it is a see-through sculpture, so the outlines of the continents visually overlap and blend together, thereby suggesting that the earth’s lands (and peoples and cultures) are interconnected entities that are forced to interact with one another in order to coexist.
Themes of exile and displacement are continued in the final piece of the exhibition, a sculptural installation titled Undercurrent (red) (2008), which consists of interwoven red electrical cables that form a square mat, or quilt, on the concrete floor of the gallery. The piece, which visually references homespun textiles, eventually unravels at the edges, forming a mass of tangled red cords tipped by fifteen-watt, white light bulbs. Undercurrent (red) recalls light-bulb installations by Félix González-Torres, particularly his Untitled (Lovers—Paris) of 1993, yet Hatoum’s piece also alludes to the cultural fabric of humanity as a complex and well-knit community, but one that is unraveling at the seams. In this sense, the artworks in Mona Hatoum persist as appropriate mirrors to the multivalent complexities of contemporary society, and reciprocally speak to the incredibly rich diversity of ideas that inform the practice of this multicultural artist.
Nathan J. Timpano
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Miami
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