Mona Hatoum: all of a quiver
all of a quiver
September 18, 2022–May 29, 2023
You have to enter at the right moment: the rhythm of the piece might be thrown off if you come too early or too late. You can’t time it exactly—you can see through the tall windows of the Kesselhaus at the Berlin KINDL – Centre for Contemporary Art, but before you enter and linger a while it will be unclear what it is you’re seeing. Enter the towering historic boiler house and you will come upon a metal grid structure—three squares by four squares on its sides, nine levels high—held up by a pulley system suspended from the ceiling. This is Mona Hatoum’s all of a quiver, a site-specific piece made for her three-museum survey in Berlin, and the last part of the sprawling retrospective still on view.
Timing: if you enter, as I did, at the right moment, the structure will be upright and still, appearing as the bones of a building waiting to be built. But wait a little bit, and the pulleys begin to move, lowering the structure level by level. As the pulleys do their work they create a tonality, creaking like a violin’s upper register—the eerie music of collapse. Each new movement reveals a new geometry, the grid combining to make zig-zags or rhombuses depending upon the angle from which one views the work. Similarly, different angles create different senses of drama, as depending on your vantage the structure either collapses towards you or away from you. Once the structure is collapsed to a certain level, the pulley rapidly begins to re-erect it. As the work again begins upright, it quivers briefly (hence the title) before returning to stillness. But, having seen the performance, the stillness and the solidity found in one’s initial encounter with the work never quite return.
Now you notice the slight bend in the beams; you notice the way in which the structure is not at all solid but is rather, by its very form, meant to collapse, the pulley being the only stopgap. You notice that the square grid mimics the windows of the Kesselhaus itself, giving the impression that the piece is a rehearsal for the building’s own collapse. As the building relaxes into relative stillness, a white noise can be heard like the end of a record repeating endlessly—the sound that is both the precursor and the afterlife of music. The tension awaiting the next collapse becomes incredible, the false stillness further disrupted by the suspense.
The work is a distillation of a number of Hatoum’s favorite themes and forms—displacement, destruction, conflict, metal grids and cages—all inextricable from her Palestinian background. Born in Lebanon in 1952, her parents were refugees freshly displaced by the Nakba in 1948. As she states in a 1998 interview in BOMB, they “were never able to obtain Lebanese identity cards. It was one way of discouraging them from integrating into the Lebanese situation.” In 1975, she left Lebanon for the UK, but what was intended as a brief visit became an exile due to the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher would begin her pillage of the English state, and Hatoum’s performance work became increasingly visceral throughout the eighties as she dealt with the worsening political situations in Palestine, Lebanon, and England alike. Roadworks (1985) is her most enduring work from the Thatcher period, and the performance, in which Hatoum walked barefoot through the streets of Brixton with a pair of black boots trailing her, tied around her ankles, was recently revived in Iran as a protest against the brutality of the ruling regime.
Hatoum, then, was born into displacement, and collapse has followed her always. It is reflected everywhere in her work, from the charred, post-apocalyptic domestic detritus of Remains of the Day (2016−18) to Mobile Home (2005), in which travelers’ objects hanging on metal wires bounce or slowly glide across the floor, giving the appearance of ship’s rocking hold, the wires supported between two metal barricades that allude unmistakably to migration and border violence.
In all of a quiver, Hatoum’s preoccupations are given monumental form, moving from the domestic signifiers of flight to the architectural collapse that motivates it. The work recalls the bones of buildings in Gaza and Lebanon, destroyed and hollowed out by bombs and missiles (and in Lebanon, more recently, municipal corruption and negligence), only to be erected again, and again destroyed. In Hatoum’s visual world, the grid is often also a cage, and in this sense all of a quiver references not just collapsing structures, but also the cages used to hold the refugees such collapses create.
And yet, despite these allusions, all of a quiver remains an ambivalent piece. The collapse suggests destruction, yes, but the re-erection of the structure offers a vague sense of hope, a paean to the ultimate indomitability of the dominated. At the same time, the structure most resembles a cage when upright, and thus here it is the structure's collapse that is emancipatory. There is also, as is often the case in Hatoum’s work, a suggestion of the body, the creaks and groans of the collapse mirroring the creaking of aging bones, the curving and shortening of the spine. Similarly, the re-erection alludes to the birth of the next generation, destined, inevitably, to decay in turn. The quiver, as the title suggests, is essential—nothing is solid, everything is prone to collapse and decay, to rebirth and rebuilding; it is that slight quiver whenever the structure is re-erected, and not the structure itself, that is the essential condition, the glue that holds the piece and its multifarious allusions together. Glory, Hatoum tells us, is fleeting. But so is defeat.
In its ambivalence and its grandeur, then, all of a quiver takes on a cosmic tone—the infinite cycle of birth-death-birth, the suffering and triumph of human existence playing out within the walls of the Kesselhaus, the tension of a life, of a city, of a people, of an epoch, condensed into 3 by 4 by 9.