In 1985 Mona Hatoum walked through Brixton in bare feet for almost an hour, dragging behind her as she did the pair of Dr Martens boots that were tied to her ankles (Roadworks). This was Mona Hatoum in the beginning of her work: the body is the locus of all connections between a human and the surrounding space, objects, other humans, society, politics.
Her work creates a challenging vision of our world, exposing its contradictions and complexities, often making the familiar uncanny. Through the juxtaposition of opposites such as beauty and horror, she engages us in conflicting emotions of desire and revulsion, fear and fascination.
Mona Hatoum was born in Beirut to a Palestinian family and during a visit to London in 1975, civil war broke out in Lebanon and Hatoum was forced into exile. She stayed in London, training at both the Byam Shaw School of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art (University College, London) between the years 1975 and 1981. She now lives and works in Berlin and London and has participated in numerous important group exhibitions including The Turner Prize (1995), Venice Biennale (1995 and 2005), Documenta XI, Kassel (2002), Biennale of Sydney (2006), The Istanbul Biennal (1995 and 2011) and the Fifth Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art (2013).
I believe it is important to start any description of Hatoum’s work with the above information as this was the platform that allowed the world to be witness to her continuous inspiration. Exile must have been her curse and blessing.
‘It was nice to be in a place where everyone spoke with a Palestinian accent, which was my parents’ accent – though in Beirut, people used to hide it so they would fit in. But it was very overwhelming, very sad. You feel angry all the time – though I had to keep myself together so I could make the work, and it was inevitable, then, that the work would be about the situation.” She says about the time when she was invited to Jerusalem, in 1996.
Solo exhibitions include Centre Pompidou, Paris (1994), Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (1997), The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York (1998), Castello di Rivoli, Turin (1999), Tate Britain, London (2000), Hamburger Kunsthalle, Kunstmuseum Bonn, Magasin 3, Stockholm (2004) and Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney (2005). Recent exhibitions include Measures of Entanglement, UCCA, Beijing (2009), Interior Landscape, Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Venice (2009), Witness, Beirut Art Center, Beirut (2010), Le Grand Monde, Fundaciòn Marcelino Botìn, Santander (2010) and as the winner of the 2011 Joan Miró Prize, she held a solo exhibition at Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona in 2012. In 2013-2014 she was the subject of a solo exhibition at the Kunstmuseum St Gallen and the largest survey of her work to be shown in the Arab world is currently held at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha.
Coming back to the Tate Modern exhibition, it is absolutely overwhelming to be in the presence of this artist’s lifetime work… The energy seems to have attached to the walls of each room and stories are leaking from every corner, entering the open pores of the spectator’s skin. The body reacts to Hatoum’s body works as they should.
My first thought as I entered the first room of the exhibition was that art is an endless row of assumptions about life as we perceive it and as we are taught to perceive it. Mona Hatoum is unbuttoning the jeans of the old and young generations of art seekers. Her works undress you of the daily routine and her black and white interference between routine and search for absolute is a terrifying blessing.
‘Stills of sequence of live images seens on large monitor facing the audience” 12th of June, 1980 is an artistic scan of the spectator and as he is acknowledging the introspection, the scan penetrates deeper, beneath the skin, into the psychic.
“Light Sentence” 1992 was one of my favorite installations showcased in the exhibition. This prison of shapes that might open the door to freedom of understanding in silence. Mona Hatoum never felt confident enough to speak in her art and the silence translated by some of her works is absolutely overwhelming. In “Light Sentence” there is a perfect harmony between light and darkness and movement does not kill this harmony… Only voices could. Metal, light bulbs, white walls, shadows and movement suddenly become an escape or imprisonment.
Mona Hatoum’s work can be interpreted as a description of the body and its impact on other people and the surrounding objects, as a commentary on politics, and on gender difference as she explores the dangers and confines of the domestic world. Her work can also be interpreted through the concept of space as her sculpture and installation work depend on the viewer to inhabit the surrounding space to complete the effect. There are always multiple readings to her work. The physical responses that Hatoum desired in order to provoke psychological and emotional responses ensures unique and individual reactions from different viewers. (WIKIPEDIA)
In “Jardin Public”(1993), the artist depicts a classic French garden chair that sports pubic hair which seems to grow from the holes in the seat. The title hints at the link between ‘public’ and ‘pubic’, both connected to the Latin work for ‘adult’. The human bodies leave prints on the places that they touch, creating an uninterrupted connection between people and places and their objects.
In her singular sculptures, Hatoum has transformed familiar, every-day, domestic objects such as chairs, cots and kitchen utensils into things foreign, threatening and dangerous. In Homebound (2000) Hatoum uses an assemblage of household furniture wired up with an audibly active electric current – combine a sense of threat with a surrealist sense of humour to create a work that draws the viewer in, on both an emotive and intellectual level.
I spent roughly 10 minutes on the room that hosts the installation “Impenetrable” 2009 and thought about the infinity of hope. Looking through the corridors rods of barbed wire, space that you hope you can penetrate and eventually escape the three metre cube maze. Hatoum makes reference to the Venezuelan artist Jesus Rafael Soto’s series of Penetrables, hanging cubes made from colourful rubber tubes.
“Cellules” 2012 suggests confinement, isolation and biology. It suggests the struggle to escpae the imprisonment of our own biology.
Then “Quarters”1996 suggests official, institutional lodgings, while the implicit idea of layered bodies links this work to urban architecture in which people live above one another. Its layout echoes the Panopticon, a prison design in which inmates are always subject to surveillance from a central viewing position by an unseen guard, which philosopher Michael Foucault used as a metaphor for a disciplinary society.
Imprisoned by society, imprisoned by biology, imprisoned by politics. Everything is under the formula of chaos: always close and black – “Turbulence” 2014.
“Hot Spot” 2006, a steel globe with the continents outlined in neon, casting an orange glow and sending buzzes of electricity throughout the room is the piece that completely separates your from the reality that envelopes outside the doors of Tate.
“Interior/Exterior Landscape” 2010 is a room size installation that contains altered household furniture including a bed frame threaded with hair, a hair embroidered pillow that depicts flight routes between the artist;s most visited cities, a conjoined table and chair and a bird cage housing a single ball of hair. Hanging from a metal coat rack are two circular wire hangers that frame wall drawings of the Eastern and Western hemispheres and a market bag constructed frn a cut-out print of a world map.
“Twelve Windows” made by Mona Hatoum with Inaash, 2012-2013 are twelve pieces of embroidery, the work of Inaash, The Association for the Development of Palestinian Camps. Each ‘window’ represents a different region of through its motifs, stitches, colours and patterns, meticulously embroidered by Inaash’s experienced craftswomen. The aim of the project was to preserve a traditional skill, at risk of extinction because of the dispersal of Palestinians across the region. Hatoum created an installation in which the ‘windows’ are displayed in a space criss-crossed by steel cables, making a visual metaphor for this divided territory.
The last room of the exhibition showcases “Undercurrent (red)” 2008 which explores again the interest of the artist in craft and textiles. This piece is realised dramatically in a combination of traditional technique with materials such as a square mat, woven from red electrical cable, a long fringe snake and 15 watts light bulbs that brighten and dim at what Hatoum describes as a “breathing pace”.
The entire exhibition is a public survey of the artist’s perception of this world that held her tight into a tense creative process, after spitting her away from her biological crib. An exploration of an immigrant soul who saw through the reality of a migrant crowd of souls all travelling from one understanding to another, one reality to another to the point of escape from the imprisonment.
Mona Hatoum exhibition (4th of May – 21st of August) is curated by Clarrie Wallis, Curator of Modern and Contemporary British Art, Tate and Christine Van Assche, Honorary Curator, Centre Pompidou, Paris, with Katy Wan, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern and Capucine Perrot, former Assistant Curator, Tate Modern.