Mona Hatoum’s Tate Modern retrospective charts a brilliant and ever-evolving oeuvre.
Moving from performance to installation, the Beirut-born artist explores the power of form against content, and material against conceptual associations.
“Mona Hatoum”, the artist’s eponymous solo retrospective at Tate Modern, has earned mostly positive reviews. The exhibition delves into the past 35 years of the artist’s career, documenting works from her early performance and video pieces to her sculptures and large-scale installations.
Co-organised by the Centre Pompidou, the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, the Tate Modern and the Finnish National Gallery / the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Helsinki, “Mona Hatoum” runs until 21 August 2016.
Mona Hatoum (b. 1952, Beirut, Lebanon) started out as a performance artist in the 1980s. In 1982, Hatoum staged a seven-hour performance piece at Portsmouth’s Aspex Gallery which featured her trapped and struggling within a mud-smeared transparent container. Entitled Under Siege, and performed against the background of Arabic revolutionary songs, the piece was a dramatic, overtly political response to the plight of Palestine and Lebanon. The artist comments on her early performance works in an interview with BOMB Magazine:
Going to University […] was my first encounter with a large bureaucratic institution. […] I became involved in analyzing power structures, first in relation to feminism, and then in wider terms as in the relationship between the Third World and the West. This led me to making confrontational, issue-based performance works which were fuelled by anger and a sense of urgency.
The emotional potency of these early performances are documented by surviving photographs. Other seminal pieces include Negotiating Table (1983), in which the artist laid motionless for hours “wrapped in plastic and gauze, her mummified frame heaped with raw kidneys”; and Roadworks (1985), in which the artist walked barefoot through Brixton with a pair of Dr Martens boots tied to her ankles. As The Guardian summarises, Hatoum’s 1980s performances “spoke of torture, separation, the disenfranchised, the besieged”. In Hatoum’s own words, quoted by the same article:
I felt like I had nothing to lose. I was venting my anger, without caring what people thought. I was very restless. I couldn’t sit with something for too long, so performance gave me the possibility of work that was immediate, unpremeditated. It was improvised. I didn’t rehearse; I would just turn up with my props.
The turn inwards
In 1989 Hatoum turned away from performance towards video and installations. Speaking to The Guardian, Hatoum recalls her change in focus: “I was a little disillusioned with performance by then, and so I started to work with materials again.” The move proved to be career-making: Hatoum’s first solo exhibition at the Pompidou took place in 1994 and in 1995 she was shortlisted for the prestigious Turner Prize for her by-now canonical piece Corps étranger (1994). A disturbing yet highly engrossing endoscopy of the artist’s own innards, Corps étranger opens the exhibition at the current Tate retrospective. As The Telegraph describes it:
The camera’s journey through Hatoum’s glistening internal passages and foaming bodily fluids makes for an extraordinary visceral self-portrait, while the throbbing, roaring soundtrack, created by the movement of the camera, compounds the claustrophobic sense of the body as a confining, even imprisoning organism.
A sense of entrapment and tension pervades her works, even as (and especially when) she employs domestic motifs. In Incommunicado (1993), Hatoum reconstructed a child’s hospital cot and replaced the mattress and base with sharp metal wires. In Doormat (1996), the word “welcome” is spelled out in pins, and Home (1999) features a kitchen table overlaid with shiny steel utensils that occasionally light up, emitting ominous crackling sounds. The works are at once more subtle and more powerful, drawing out violent discrepancies between “the ideal of home and its reality in times of trouble”, as Artnet writes. Says the artist herself, quoted by Artnet:
I’ve continued to work with many of the same issues as in the earlier work […] but less personally and in a much more subtle way. The delivery is less direct.
The menace of the grid
As The Guardian observes, “cages and crates are a recurrent image in [Hatoum’s] work.” Featuring bare, rationalist architectural forms imbued with rich personal and political content, the artist’s characteristically minimalist aesthetic serves both abstract and figurative purposes. She says in the BOMB interview:
When I got into the area of installation and object making, I wouldn’t say I went back to a minimal aesthetic as such, it was more a kind of reductive approach, if you like, where the forms can be seen as abstract aesthetic structures, but can also be recognised as cages, lockers, chairs, beds… The work therefore becomes full of associations and meaning—a reflection on the social environment we inhabit. Unlike minimal objects, they are not self-referential.
In Light Sentence (1992), one of Hatoum’s earliest immersive installations and one of the most stunning highlights of the retrospective, a single lightbulb sways precariously amidst two rows of wire-mesh lockers. The menace of Hatoum’s austere grids is immediate and visceral. As the Brooklyn Rail writes, all of Hatoum’s materials “simulate her own containment: cribs, colanders, graters, and bedsprings. […] A constant sizzle and hum emanates from the space, underlining the duality of imprisonment: those within cannot leave and those that wish to return cannot enter.” The New York Times quotes the artist:
The basis of it is a feeling of wanting to be free of all those restrictions, whether it’s social or political, that are always put on people.
Beautiful and terrifying
“At once prison cell, interrogation chamber and battery cage”, writes The Financial Times, the work Light Sentence is “also astoundingly, autonomously beautiful”. Quoted by Artnet, Hatoum says that “People always say that beauty and politics can’t work together, and I think that’s rubbish. I feel that form and content are part and parcel of the same thing.” The artist articulates her mature artistic philosophy to The Guardian, explaining the tension between form and content and her attempts to manoeuvre the balance between the two:
In [my] mature work, I’m thinking about form most of all. I am focusing on the materials, on the aesthetic. In fact, I sometimes spend time trying to remove the content, the better to arrive at abstraction. The tension is between the work’s reduced form and the intensity of the possible associations.
The approach is further elaborated in the BOMB interview:
In [my] early performance work I was in a sense demonstrating or delivering a message to the viewer. With [my] installation work, I wanted to implicate the viewer in a phenomenological situation where the experience is more physical and direct. I wanted the visual aspect of the work to engage the viewer in a physical, sensual, maybe even emotional way; the associations and search for meaning come after that.
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