On ViewThe Tate Modern
May 4 – August 21, 2016
The Tate Modern’s retrospective of Mona Hatoum presents the melancholy autobiography of an exile, and it is not a pretty picture. Filled with sharp edges, electrified fences, and cages, it is overall a portrait of discomfort, and of the ever-present disappointment of a life circumscribed by the perceived denial of a real origin. Born in Lebanon to Palestinian parents, Hatoum found herself shut out of her birth nation when war broke out in 1972 and took up residence in London. In Hatoum’s work, whether there is a place she belongs or whether her home is where she lives is immaterial: the longing is there—it infiltrates every installation, video, document, and work on paper as a sometimes subtle, sometimes glaring inconsistency in otherwise banal and workaday objects and situations.
Interior/Exterior Landscape (2010) is the tenth room in this enfilade of objects, experiences and installations: it stands as a microcosm of the artist’s world. It is sparsely furnished; what furniture there is is largely useless or pain-inducing: a bedspring with no mattress, a chair embedded and trapped in a desk, and a pair of circular coat hangers. The bed and pillow are interwoven with hair, indicating both usage and the residual filth of a prisoner’s cell. Hanging on the wall, like a miniature of the room itself, is an empty birdcage, with a single ball of hair as it’s silent occupant. Hatoum can perhaps be criticized for freighting her objects with heavy-handed significance—the round coat hangers frame a map of the world; everywhere there is one object standing in for another, or an idea—but she crafts her installations in carefully coded phrases that reference the genre of artistic political protest. Iranian-born artist Siah Armajani has long used cage/vitrine-based claustrophobic rooms as a metaphor for exile, as in Glass Room for an Exile (2001 – 02) and Ai Weiwei’s carpentry follies of chairs and tables rendered useless are also immediately called to mind. Hatoum’s spaces are encyclopedic in their description of herself—a well traveled intellectual who finds her voice stifled and her movements restricted.
Though Hatoum moves deftly between installations based in reality and those that embrace a dystopian abstraction through bigness and alternative materiality, her household environments are the most effective. This is due to the factor of accessibility that comes with the portrayal of a profoundly familiar space, like a bedroom or kitchen, and to the fact that she aims to produce a very human empathy.
Homebound (2000) is a landscape of fear, a world in which every object relates back to the trauma of exile. Hatoum has gone out of her way to discover household articles—all metal—that simulate her own containment: cribs, colanders, graters, and bedsprings. The objects are connected by wires and electrified, some lit from below as well to emphasize the mesh-like silhouettes they cast. 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. This metal cage metaphor is amplified in the installations Light Sentence (1992), an immersive piece composed of Boltanski-esque cubbyholes the viewer can circumambulate; and Quarters (1996), a series of metal bunk-bed frames stacked one atop the other that erase the distinctions between shelving and bed and reduce the occupant to a quantifiable object. It is only in Cellules (2012 – 13), a series of gridded rectangular cubes of rebar that the viewer is offered a palpable object to be contained and briefly inoculated against the bleak emptiness of the previous installations—each of the eight boxes holds a juicy and formless red-glass figure, an organ, even a heart.
The human touch is a condition that Hatoum returns to again and again, she has a tendency to render traditional Palestinian craft items with a coldness and distance that presents them as threatening or dangerous, such as in the floor piece Undercurrent (red) (2008), a cloth woven from electrical wiring with a fringe of lightbulbs. Undercurrent has the beauty of a Man o’ War jellyfish: it is alluring even as its defensive measures incite discomfort. Keffieh (1993 – 99) similarly employs this jarring transmogrification of material by using human hair as a primary component, raising an unsettling sense of disgust that comes with processing parts of the human body for industry.
Throughout the exhibition, documentation of Hatoum’s early performance work is presented, along with several videos. The now-canonical work Corps étranger (1994)—a camera voyage through the artist’s gut projected onto the floor so that it resembles a magical well—presented when the artist was a candidate for the Turner Prize in 1995, is still engrossing and stunning, as is Don’t Smile, You’re on Camera! (1980) and Measures of Distance (1988).
Hatoum’s practice spans a spectrum of conceptual gestures: reinterpreting everyday objects through the use of varying scale and materiality and discovering, in their symbolic content, their inner violence, danger and loss. While large works, like Impenetrable (2009), a room-sized cube generated from hanging bars of barbed wire that offers an initially aggressive reading but follows through with an ultimately liberating interpretation when the bars line up and almost disappear, presenting a view through to a freer space beyond; the grand gestures are not as powerful as her smaller, humbler pieces. Hatoum’s use of woven fabric, and of hairs woven and embedded in fabric and paper, or her small drawings composed of pin-pricks, or the impressions of graters and colanders on Japanese wax paper, such as Untitled Petite (passoire à queue) (1999) display Hatoum’s gift and obsession for unearthing signs and symbols in the everyday. Luckily, this gentle touch is not lost in all the larger pieces: the little wooden birdcage in Interior/Exterior Landscape is a sublime detail that serves as an axis around which all of her objects, large and small, revolve.