Mona Hatoum

Exhibition Review

Kiasma

Helsinki

07.10.2016 – 26.02.2017

It is not often that we might wish an artist’s work to have become less significant. Sadly, however, the contemporary horrors of the world stage continue to resonate deeply in the work of Mona Hatoum. Following its display in the Centre Pompidou, Paris, and Tate, London, the exhibition of Hatoum’s work – the first solo show to be held in Finland – opens today in Kiasma, Helsinki. While not exactly billed as a retrospective, the exhibition stages a stunning account of the range, depth, and longevity of Hatoum’s artistic engagement in some of the most distressing socio-political issues of the last forty years. Hatoum’s visceral early performances of the 1980s, in which she explored the experience of conflict-driven diaspora, take on a renewed significance in this current climate of forced migration from the Middle East.

Hatoum’s background is full of the complexity that defines her artistic exploration of identity. She was born in Beirut in 1952 to Palestinian parents from Haifa and travelled to Britain in 1975, shortly before the onset of civil war in Lebanon, which separated her from her family. Between 1979 and 1981 she studied at the Slade School of Art in London, the city where she still resides, and yet has made much of her work in residencies across the globe, often utilising local traditional craft methods in situ. Mobilised by intense cultural dislocation, and the aggressive socio-political meltdown taking place in late-70s Britain, Hatoum began to work with performance and video, taking advantage of the directness of the media to engage her audience and to articulate a profound sense of personal, social and cultural anxiety. She rose to prominence in the 1990s with works that were both formally and physically impressive as well as politically incisive, drawing on personal experience to address problems of migration, displacement, racism, and the oppression of women. This exhibition shows the extent to which, twenty years on, Hatoum’s critique is still razor sharp, her conceptual poignancy and material dexterity appearing stronger than ever.

The contemporary backdrop of forced migration and war in the Middle East inevitably presents a vivifying stage for Hatoum’s œuvre. Numerous early works on display in Kiasma, in which Hatoum conveys experiences of separation and loss, the violence of war and the traumatic, desultory effects of diaspora, alert us to the extent of the devastating protraction of misery in this conflict-ridden zone. Hatoum’s works, however, also have a universal tenor. Hot Spot (2006/2013), for example, presents the entire world as a danger zone. A large, steel-framed globe perches precariously on a plinth, its landmass delineated by highly-charged, violently crackling orange neon tubes, referring to both the current climate of border rage and global warming. The work is characteristic of the aesthetically accomplished and yet threatening physical presence of so many of Hatoum’s objects. An initially incomprehensible and yet immensely alluring pieces is Socle du monde (Base of the World, 1992-3), a massive black, textured block standing two metres high in the centre of the upper floor of Kiasma. What appears on approach like a block draped in sumptuous quilted fabric, on closer inspection begins to defy recognition. We encounter a moment of optical and tactile confusion that is both tantalising and unnervingly uncanny. Is it silk? Is it dirt? Is it charred wood? The work in fact is made from large blocks of magnets which the artists has coated with swirling patterns of thickly applied iron filings. A video screened around the corner records how Hatoum ‘paints’ clumps of the dark matter onto the magnets with a brush-like instrument, conveying a further sense of the sensuous and tangibly pleasurable process employed in the object’s construction. Such a work is exemplary of Hatoum’s highly effective control of paradox. Playing on an iconic 1961 work of the same title by Pierro Manzoni (a sleight of hand in which a metal plinth for a sculpture is turned upside down, implicitly making the entire world its object), Hatoum appropriates the Italian’s Duchampian wise-crack and takes it in another, perhaps more female, direction, disarming the rationalising eye with sensory confusion and thereby compelling us to a (denied) reliance on touch in our attempt to understand what is actually before us. Feathery yet sharp, soft yet metal, even ambiguously animate or inanimate, the magnetised Socle du monde simultaneously attracts and repels us.

On the matter of repulsion, the exhibition at Kiasma contains one of the most iconic art works of the 1990s, Hatoum’s Corps étranger (Foreign Body, 1994), an installation consisting of a tall cylindrical structure of three metre diameter, onto the floor of which a film spliced from endoscopy and colonoscopy videos of the artist’s various orifices is projected in a large circular format. The work lures the viewer into the darkened space with flickering, ambiguous images, accompanied by amplified bodily sounds. On entering we are physically cramped and sensorially overwhelmed by the vertiginous descent into the bodily cavities over which we precariously stand and stare. In 1994, pre-internet, this work physically immersed us in an experience of live, visceral, clinical porn. It was an event that no gallery-goer from that period has forgotten and it is undiminished in its nauseating power of engagement.

An adjacent video of an early performance work titled Don’t smile, you’re on camera! (1980), in which Hatoum discomforts her audience by filming its members up close, draws our attention not only to the continuity of the artist’s confrontational relation with her audience but also to her interest in surveillance, having been alarmed on her arrival in London by the ominous presence of CCTV cameras everywhere. By exposing an area of the body presumed entirely unseen, Corps étranger reveals Hatoum’s prescience of our current age of saturated intrusion.

While the theme of surveillance ensures the ongoing effectiveness of this work on its twenty-first century audience, it is also paradigmatic of a strong feature of Hatoum’s œuvre that draws its force from a very primal dynamic. In the 1990s Hatoum’s work was much analysed in terms of the binary of attraction-repulsion, leading to extensive theoretical exegesis via Julia Kristeva’s writings on abjection, such as her publication The Powers of Horror (1980). Drawing on the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan, Kristeva defined the child’s abjection of (revulsion at) the mother’s body as a necessary stage in the development of the individual subject, as well as the stage by which the child enters the Symbolic order, or the realm of language. With reference to anthropological analyses, Kristeva’s key point was that this process of separation is never fully complete, and that the integrity of the subject is forever threatened by the lurking presence of the abject (represented in faeces, bodily fluids menstrual blood, fallen hair, and other such unspeakables of uncertain form), from which as civilised beings we constantly attempt (hygienically, ritually) and fail to remove ourselves.

The troublesome matter of the abject is literally woven into Hatoum’s œuvre through her continuous use of her own hair, perhaps most potently in this exhibition in the work Keffieh (1993-9). The well-known black and white woven head-dress of Palestinian resistance, the keffieh is a particularly male accessory to conflict, and yet Hatoum reinscribes it with distinctly female overtones by weaving the intricate black grid pattern out of her own hair (the date suggests six years of hair weaving). Typical of Hatoum’s disruption of expectations, it is also characteristic of the polysemic dimension of her work; the hair-woven scarf blurring the boundaries between male and female, passive and active, domestic and military.

Boundaries, therefore, and their uncertainties, are essential tropes within Hatoum’s work, be they those which delineate the individual body from its waste or which demarcate geographical borders, and by extension, race, gender, nationality and identity. What Hatoum’s work emphasises, however, is that such boundaries are never exactly clear, but are blurred and muddied, they slip and disintegrate within the daily processes of our lives (eating, sex, toiletries, etc.) and the global movements and interactions of people, colonialism, war, migration, etc. Attempts, therefore, to identify (self or other) by exactly separating and distinguishing are revealed as ultimately impossible, desperate and fearful of a threat to what is really an illusion of coherency. The spectre of primal abjection so troubles every attempt at absolute distinction that such efforts embodied, rationalized and taken to extremes begin to emerge as pathologies (hygiene compulsions/racism).

Hatoum thus refers much in her work to a fundamentally associated chain of signifiers – child-mother/individual-homeland – having in her early performances of the 1980s physically enacted the dissolution of bodily/psychological integrity as a migrant in London severed from family and home. In the video installation Measures of Distance (1988), Hatoum reads excerpts from her mother’s letters sent from Beirut, which tell of the constant shelling that disrupts daily patterns of life and family visits, and which express the pain of a mother’s separation from her daughter. The adjacent work, a monochrome short film titled Changing Parts (1984), allegorizes the trauma of physical and geographical dislocation. Again beauty and horror combine in a work which begins with a serene and intimate mood, constructed with long, slow shots of a homely tiled bathroom interior – mother’s hair brush, father’s shaving brush – to the harmonious accompaniment of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suit No. 4.

Gradually, however, familial harmony disintegrates; the restful bathroom is substituted by the movements of an indistinct, wavering body, floundering in some dark matter (clay) which is smeared across a transparent screen; Bach breaks up, drowned out by vague military-sounding North American-voiced radio waves. Ever relevant, Hatoum’s latest exhibition comes at a time of heightened tension in Europe, not least in Finland itself, which is undergoing an ugly internal conflict over the issue of racial/national borders. With its paradoxical encounter of aesthetic pleasure and sensory, physical disturbance, Hatoum’s work conveys a vital expression of the subjectivity of those who are displaced, dislocated, and severed from the comfort zones of identity, family, homeland.

While this may sound unremittingly dismal, there is also great wit and humour in Hatoum’s work. This is frequently conveyed through knowingly surrealistic references, particularly associated with the neo-dada legacy of Marcel Duchamp’s subversive objects. A concisely curated corner of the exhibition displays numerous objects in glass vitrines. One, titled Natura morta (medical cabinet), from 2012, consists of a glass-fronted metal cabinet containing twelve richly-coloured, beautifully crafted, mirrored Murano glass baubles. Again, Hatoum’s arresting combination of beauty and horror is immediately effected by the hand-grenade shaped form of the objects and the wry, morbid implication of the title. The cultural signification of these objects is carried further, however, through how the French word grenade refers both to an explosive device and a pomegranate fruit, a rich cultural symbol of the Mediterranean Middle East from where Hatoum originates.

Other objects moulded by a blackly surrealist humour are a viciously spiked colander that recalls Man Ray’s 1921 object Gift – a regular flat iron affixed underneath with menacing row of nails. Another typically surrealist abrasion between object and title is presented in the works titled Eyecatchers (1997), three delicately constructed spectacle-like objects in which lenses have been substituted for trap-like cylindrical protrusions. The eye recoils squeamishly at the direct physical affect of the cage-like shapes. Hatoum says that the idea came to her in Japan, from a dynamic between sexual allure and constraint of looking, and then took the form of traditional bamboo fishing nets, the local makers of which she asked to construct the objects. Next to it is T42, two conjoined white tea cups and saucers that recalls Meret Oppenheim’s droll surrealist intervention in household objects from the 1930s, and yet its title both refers to a classification of amputee disability and a military tank. Associations abound in Hatoum’s work, animating her objects through cultural and historical oscillation.

Maintaining the distinctly feminist legacy of Cahun and Oppeheim’s surrealism (and of course Louise Bourgeois’ powerful sense of the domestic uncanny), Hatoum’s political charging of household objects is actualized in the installation Home (1999). A collection of shiny steel domestic appliances has been wired-up in an electric circuit on top of a table (ambiguously wooden-topped but the metal frame and wheels suggestive of a sinister medical context). A fence of taught steel cables protects viewers from this death-trap table, that surges with illumination and buzzes violently as the amplified electric current charges through the normally homely utensils. Hatoum evokes here the rallying cry of vanguard surrealist Claude Cahun, who addressed the 1936 Exhibition of Surrealist Objects in Paris with a text titled “Beware of Household Objects”, as well as Martha Rosler’s classic feminist performance Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), in which the demurely aproned artist enacted violent gestures with kitchen utensils. The return of a female repressed is an undercurrent to Hatoum’s work that is as equally charged as this perilous table top.

The word play relating domestic objects to violence and division is perhaps a little strained in the work Grater Divide (2002), a two-metre high cheese grater hinged in the manner of a domestic screen. Nonetheless, the section of the exhibition represents Hatoum’s concerns with torture and incarceration (having domestic as well as martial implications). There is a brutal minimalism to these works, formally resonant in the horizontality of pieces like Daybed (2008), a broad black steel ‘bed’, its surface punctured violently outwards to resemble the narrow side of a cheese grater. This allusion to minimalism in Hatoum’s work is significant in that it situates her work historically in relation to a crucial shift in the late 1960s away from the minimalists’ insistence upon the formal autonomy of the work of art to the more content-driven character of what became known as post-minimalism.

Hatoum’s work corresponds to this movement in that it sought to retain much of the material presence, the physical affectivity of mass and large spatial dimensions achieved by minimalism, while at the same time negating formal autonomy by inscribing works with socio-political semantics. Much influenced by the work of Eva Hesse (1936-70), Hatoum has developed her own carefully balanced, bold and yet nuanced dynamic between the formal attributes and the semantic and tactile resonance of her works. Quarters (1996) or Impenetrable (2009) represent the stripped down aesthetic of this dynamic; the former consisting of an imposing arrangement of what appears to be steel-framed shelf-like bunk beds, precariously five beds high, and the latter consisting of hundreds of rows of barbed steel wire, suspended from the ceiling by invisible fishing thread so that the finished form floats in space like a transparent cube. The defining tension of the piece arises from the binary of aesthetically satisfying, minimal, kinetic form and the menacing mass of sharp-edged steel.

The extent to which Hatoum submerges the viewer in a paradoxical appreciation of minimalist aesthetics and overwhelms them with unnerving spatial and sensory experience is apparent in the well-curated intersection of the rooms containing the electrically charged Home and the installation Light Sentence (1992). The latter merges references to minimalist and kinetic art with an oppressive physical sense of constraint, as the viewer stands in a restricted room before a corridor of wire mesh lockers. In between the lockers, a single bare light bulb is suspended on a motorised cable, which very slowly lowers the single light source down to the floor and back up again. The slight movement of the bulb casts undulating, intricately gridded shadows across the white walls, leaving the viewer destabilised and slightly giddy with a nauseating sensation of both movement and constriction. The viewer is enveloped in physical associations to all manner of social and political horrors, made even more uncomfortably acute by the deadly buzzing sound of electricity from the adjacent room, the noise palpably rattling through the wire cages.

Hatoum has an immense skill at drawing us physically into proximity with the experience of fear, threat, severance, and disquieting ambiguity. Experiencing the extraordinary and long developed range and depth of her work impresses upon us the political and human necessity of empathy. After all, are our lives so unquestionably and deservingly stable that the troubles of conflict, incarceration, migration and oppression are those of an indistinct, unwelcome Other? In the large-scale floor piece, Map (1999), Hatoum represents global instability in the form of a world map made up of thousands of clear glass marbles, some of which have rolled away, no longer demarcating borders but slipping off into the oceans, their frontiers undone by gravity, motion or, implicitly, political absent-mindedness and the errant recklessness of the child’s game.

Hatoum’s Helsinki exhibition opened on the same day on which National Poetry Day was celebrated in the UK, a day on which Michael Rosen and Annemarie Young launched a book of poetry aimed at children, titled Who Are Refugees and Migrants? What Makes People Leave Their Homes? And Other Big Questions, which addresses identities of the same and the other on a basic humanising level. Herein, the British-Jamaican poet Benjamin Zephaniah writes: “We can all be refugees / Sometimes it only takes a day / Sometimes it only takes a handshake / Or a paper that is signed.” Mona Hatoum at Kiasma not only reflects the remarkable career of one of the most significant global artists of the last fifty years, but also reaches out with a call for empathy and engagement with the struggles of those who are only ‘other’ by the grace of God.