The Centre Pompidou in Paris launches a major survey of Mona Hatoum’s 30-plus year-career.
Spanning 31 pivotal artworks from her influential career, the historic retrospective provides an insight into the multidisciplinary world of Mona Hatoum and her explorations into an unstable universe.
In 1994, the Centre Pompidou in Paris organised Mona Hatoum’s first solo exhibition in a museum. The Centre’s commitment to the artist’s work is now being renewed 21 years later with “Mona Hatoum” (24 June – 28 September 2015), a major exhibition of the Lebanese-Palestinian artist’s oeuvre spanning her career from the 1970s to the present. Curator Christine Van Assche has selected 31 seminal works, including performances and videos from the 1980s, as well as sculptures, works on paper, installations, photographic works and altered objects produced between 1977 and 2015.
The show charts Mona Hatoum’s re-creation of a world where familiar sights become disturbing realities and memories of a blurred past – symptomatic of dislocation and migration. Art and politics are deeply intertwined; experiences of exile, uprooting and estrangement become apparent in Hatoum’s eerie and uncanny visions that confront hostile geopolitical situations.
Hatoum was born to Palestinian parents in Beirut, Lebanon in 1952. She was forced into exile during a visit to London in 1975 as the civil war simultaneously broke out at home. She stayed in the United Kingdom, where she attended London’s Byam Shaw School of Art and Slade School of Fine Art, and is now a British citizen. Her practice can be seen as part of an international group of artists who have experienced exile rather than being associated with the Lebanese art scene.
A menacing domesticity
Hatoum renders familiar, domestic spaces and objects into threatening and menacing entities. Still recognisable in their essential aspects and appearance, they are nevertheless stripped of any elements of comfort or warmth, while added details transform them into inhospitable territories.
In his essay The Art of Displacement: Mona Hatoum’s Logic of Irreconcilables (1999) republished in the exhibition catalogue, the seminal Palestinian American literary theorist Edward W. Said writes:
An abiding locale is no longer possible in the world of Mona Hatoum’s art which, like the strangely awry rooms she introduces us into, articulates so fundamental a dislocation as to assault not only one’s memory of what once was, but how logical and possible, how close and yet so distant from the original abode, this new elaboration of familiar space and objects really is. Familiarity and strangeness are locked together in the oddest way, adjacent and irreconcilable at the same time.
In another installation entitled Home (1999), Hatoum places everyday kitchen utensils – colanders, large metal spoons, grinders, sifters, squeezers and egg beaters – on a table and connects them with an electric wire running to light bulbs hidden behind the objects. The electric current hums, crackles and buzzes, bringing about an eerie life to the arrangement. Objects that previously would have induced warm memories of home life now become disturbing, dangerous and utterly foreign.
As Said writes about Hatoum’s work:
All this is designed to recall and disturb at the same time. Whatever else this room may be, it is certainly not meant to be lived in, although it seems deliberately, and perhaps even perversely to insist that it once was intended for that purpose: a home, or a place where one might have felt in place, at ease and at rest, surrounded by the ordinary objects which together constitute the feeling, if not the actual state, of being at home. […] Domesticity is thus transformed into a series of menacing and radically inhospitable objects whose new and presumably non-domestic use is waiting to be defined.
Memories of exile
In an early video work, Measures of Distance (1988), Hatoum combines grainy stills of extreme close-ups of her own mother in the shower of her family home in Beirut. A mesh of Arabic writing overlays the images like a veil, representing the letters sent by her mother to Hatoum in London. The soundtrack includes a conversation between the artist and her mother, with Hatoum’s superimposed voice reading an English translation of her mother’s letters.
The cage-like structure of Light Sentence (1992) – in which wire mesh enclosures illuminated by a swaying hanging bulb cast moving shadows on the wall – is revisited in Impenetrable (2009), a more recent example of Hatoum’s work referencing ideas of displacement and exile. A large hanging cube, made of razor sharp metal rods and barbed wire, ‘levitates’ about ten centimetres off the floor. It is a minimalist, precise form, light and airy and seemingly an ethereal being floating in mid-air. But upon closer inspection the cube recalls the structure of prisons, cells and fences. Intense emotions of oppression, fear and claustrophobia seep through the work, heightened by the contrast between its austerity and lightness.
In Cellules (2012-2013), Hatoum again uses the steel cage structure, but encloses deep red, hand blown glass shapes within them. The ambiguous, organ-like creatures appear to ooze or try to escape the precariously unstable cells.
As Said writes about Hatoum’s references to exile and notions of homeland:
Thus is exile figured and plotted in the objects she creates. […] No one has put the Palestinian experience in visual terms so austerely and yet so playfully, so compellingly and at the same moment so allusively. […] Hatoum’s art is hard to bear (like the refugee’s world, which is full of grotesque structures that bespeak excess as well as paucity), yet very necessary to see as an art that travesties the idea of a single homeland.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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