Mona Hatoum

Mona Hatoum’s context is well known: she grew up in Beirut in a Palestinian family who had fled Haifa in the face of Israeli intimidation. In 1975 she visited London, found she could not return to Lebanon due to the outbreak of civil war and has remained in Britain since. Her well-established artistic language isn’t straightforwardly autobiographical but—consistent with that background—the homely becomes horrifying. As Edward Said says in “Reflections on Exile,” a text that Hatoum has linked to her practice, “exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience”—yet does make possible an original vision through seeing “the entire world as a foreign land.” Hatoum’s early performances and subsequent video, sculpture and installations have tackled confrontational themes— violence, war, oppression—with frequent reference to both the body and geometry, so infecting potentially impersonal forms with the resonances of displacement. Among the works that gained Hatoum her reputation could be cited The Light at the End, 1989, in which what might have been a Flavinstyle light sculpture proves, when approached across a theatrically managed dark space, to be a barrier of intense heat; Corps Etranger, 1994, an endoscopic projection of a journey through the interior of the artist’s body; Light Sentence, 1992, featuring a slow-moving motorized light, which casts shadow through a room crowded with wire mesh lockers; and Home, 1999, in which a crackling wire conducts the electricity to illuminate the bulbs under a table of domestic utensils.

Mona Hatoum, installation views, “Remains to be Seen,” 2019, White Cube Bermondsey, London, UK. © Mona Hatoum. © White Cube (Ollie Hammick). All images courtesy White Cube Bermondsey, London, UK.

Two overlapping new shows in September–November 2019— drawn from a consistent body of work—provided a substantial opportunity to review Hatoum’s recent practice, with 30 works in London and 20 in Paris (a dozen appeared in both venues). Some re-presented or developed previous work with the potential for fresh relevance, given the changed circumstances of reception; others were new streams.

Quarters, first made in 1996, is a dense array of steel bunks. It suggests oppositional architectural and institutional structures: the bed does not prove a place of comfort. It reminds us how the geometry of the grid has evolved into a reference to confinement in Hatoum’s work but doesn’t strike me as having changed in its psychological impact. On the other hand, Hot Spot (stand), a new version in both shows of a work first created in 2006, reads differently today. It’s a globe with red neon, which buzzes menacingly, delineating the continents. Hatoum says she “wanted to suggest that hot spots, or spots of conflict, are not only restricted to certain regions. The whole world is caught up in conflicts and unrest.” At the same time, the term “hot spot” can now be read more readily as a reference to climate change. The related ceiling hung work Map (mobile), 2019, fills a whole room in London, a shattered map of floating continents, which implies that the geology of continental drift has a modern geopolitical equivalent in the form of shifting boundaries. Another prominently revived language is that of Dark Matter, 2019, which reprises the use of iron filings, steel and magnets first seen on Socle du monde 1992–93, to make a darkly seething surface reminiscent of the meanderings of the digestive system. Its spherical form picks up in turn on Corps Etranger’s dismantling of conventional innerouter boundaries.

Mona Hatoum, installation views, “Remains to be Seen,” 2019, White Cube Bermondsey, London, UK. © Mona Hatoum. © White Cube (Ollie Hammick). All images courtesy White Cube Bermondsey, London, UK.

Several works use materials from the construction—or, perhaps, destruction—industry. Both venues include A Pile of Bricks, 2019, a teasing reference to Carl Andre, which looks like a section from a collapsed building. In Orbital I (London) and Orbital II (Paris), 2019, curved rebar forms a far from- green globe punctuated by chunks of concrete, which suggest orbiting planets. Is the world, indeed the solar system, in a permanent state of destruction? That depends on the direction of time: perhaps these are the materials with which to build afresh. Remains to be Seen, the title work in London, applies this language to a cubic form that Hatoum sees as looking “like the skeleton of a destroyed multi-story building that has been left hanging by a thread. If you were to walk inside the cube, in between the hanging columns of concrete and rebar, it would feel quite threatening.” The title carries an echo of the ongoing sagas of whether/when/ how Britain should leave or remain in the European Union—as well as the less directly topical meanings of displaying the remnants of a structure for inspection, or waiting to discover what will happen. That last suggests, Hatoum says, “a precarious situation, like the conditions of vulnerability, insecurity, and uncertainty that we are experiencing now.”

A further series, “Remains”— mostly in London—came out of a commission to make work in Hiroshima in 2015. Hatoum covered a set of domestic furniture with wire mesh and burnt each piece to end up with ghost-like charred remains, barely held together by the mesh. She has extended that innovation beyond its initial context of the atomic bomb, including, as she said, by making “a piece that would be taller than a human, something aspiring to architecture.… It was a challenge to destroy Remains (cabinet) but still have it stand up.” This tall cabinet has particular resonance in London, as it resembles the burned-out form of Grenfell Tower, in which 72 people died in a tragic fire in 2017.

This group of works circling around the almost-destroyed represents the most significant new turn in Hatoum’s work. Where her use of heat, currents and constraining structures had tended to foreground present danger and future threat, these works are in a present state of precariousness that results from the threat’s having been already enacted. It isn’t that “bad things may happen” but that bad things have happened—and matters are likely to get worse. Whether that is framed politically or environmentally, it makes contemporary sense.

Such prominent works are well complemented by less assertive pieces. Hatoum has previously worked with her hair as a means of evoking the body: Hair Mesh, 2013, in the exhibition at White Cube, combines the strand with the grid; Silver Ball, 2019, in the exhibition at Chantal Crousel, rolls hair into a ball placed atop a pedestal to indicate its precious nature; Composition with Circles, 2017 (both shows) uses hair and handmade paper. Hatoum also employs the other part of the body known for growing after death, the fingernails: Nail Necklace (both shows) uses the crescents cut from the artist’s own impressively regular set to make a necklace, displayed on a wooden jeweller’s-style bust. Untitled (bed springs) (both shows) are lithographs that pick up the bed theme with great subtlety, removing the springs from the frame to apply them directly to the stone to yield a distorted grid. Chantal Crousel also shows a set of drawings, photographs and other objects collected during Hatoum’s residency in Sao Paulo in 2014: preparatory work that takes us behind the scenes of how localized materials and experiences feed into her practice.

These two effectively marshalled shows indicate that Mona Hatoum has continued to move forward since the 100-work retrospective that toured London, Paris and Helsinki in 2015–16. They contain persuasive new works but also clearly show how established forms are repurposed for changed times; and how major installations suggestive of collective trauma are complemented by more intimate works with a personal note. ❚

“Mona Hatoum: Remains to be Seen” was exhibited at White Cube Bermondsey, London, from September 12 to November 3, 2019; and “Mona Hatoum” was exhibited at Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris, from October 12 to December 21, 2019.

Paul Carey-Kent is a freelance art critic in Southampton, England, whose writings can be found at www.pauls artworld.blogspot.com.

Volume 39, Number 1

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #153, published March 2020.

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