Every so often an artist crosses all borders and becomes a citizen of the global art world. One such figure is Mona Hatoum, recipient of many accolades and awards, and soon to become the recipient of the coveted Hiroshima Art Prize.
Though her art is always culturally informed and aware, it seems almost a footnote that she was born to a Palestinian family in Beirut, so universal and significant are her themes. Their specificities seem merely to be vehicles for transporting her message. As one of the most important artists of her generation, she is currently being showcased at the Tate Modern (and the other locations of this travelling exhibition) through a major survey of her work. Drawing on an expansive career, this survey reflects 35 years of poetic and radical thinking exposed through a diverse range of media. It presents around one hundred works from the 1980’s to the present day, from early performances and video, to sculpture, installation, photography and works on paper.
Hatoum is best known for some of her early performance pieces which rapidly established her as an important artistic voice when she finished her training in London after settling in the city in 1975 following the war in Lebanon. Her large-scale installations and sculptures challenge the formal languages of minimalism and surrealism to expose a world characterised by conflicts and contradictions.
MONA HATOUM, LIGHT SENTENCE, 1992. PHOTO: PHILIPPE MIGEAT. © MONA HATOUM.
The body has always been a central preoccupation for Hatoum, and she is known for referencing its vulnerability and resilience. Some consider Corps Etranger to be her masterpiece; a pulsating, sometimes repulsive endoscopic journey through the exterior and interior landscape of the artist’s own body. Her installations also situate the body as subject to power or incarceration, as seen in Impenetrable 2009, a suspended square formed of hundreds of delicate rods of suspended barbed wire which at once create an indelible visual impression coupled with a sense of threat and injury. In Light Sentence 1992, walls of industrial wire mesh lockers and a single moving lightbulb create dramatic shadows that transform the gallery space into a disorienting and unstable space. The viewer is once again challenged through this tension of something shifting, eerie, and yet quite familiar.
Similar treatment is given to furniture and other familiar objects which feature prominently throughout the show, often modified and scaled up to explore the fine line between the familiar and the unsettling. As much as there may be some limitations to the Marcel Duchampesque/Magritte-style conceptual statements of which we have now seen plenty, Hatoum still manages to provoke a startled reaction or even the occasional moment of discovery through poignant, fearless statements that take on the delicate balance between all-encompassing societal concerns against the highly personal and intimate.
MONA HATOUM, HOMEBOUND, 2000. COURTESY RENNIE COLLECTION, VANCOUVER. © MONA HATOUM.
Various critiques of the show praise its exploration of socialist beliefs, counter-cultural politics and the addressing of discourse around gender and race, as well as the artist’s disturbingly ‘up close and personal’. For me however, as powerful as I found her statements on the condition of displacement, the real discovery lay in finding a wry wit and irony in the very Duchampesque juxtapositions that could otherwise be glossed over.
The impact of such major installations as Homebound 2000 with its audible electric current through an assemblage of kitchen utensils and household furniture notwithstanding, it is the simplicity and irony of the cot, the threads of hair sewn through fabric, the stark re-purposed grater that create the greatest closeness to the artist’s thought-process.
MONA HATOUM, HOT SPOT III, 2009. PHOTO: AGOSTINO OSIO, COURTESY FONDAZIONE QUERINI STAMPALIA ONLUS, VENICE.
Perhaps best known for such iconic works as Hot Spot III 2009, Mona Hatoum, like other significant artists of our time, does not abuse the shock factor. Instead, she prefers to prod and provoke, asking us to reconsider the familiar and the complacent for the fine reward of discovering yet another perspective in a world where increasingly we are confronted with a fourth dimension. At the Tate Modern till late August, this is a show which has rich offerings.
Mona Hatoum at Tate Modern, 4 May–21 August 2016