Mona Hatoum, Carcasses (Baalbeck), 1998,
c-type print, 30.5x21 cm
Credit: the artist. Courtesy Jay Jopling/White Cub (London)

Mona Hatoum | Work of Body/The Artist of Body
By Eugen Radescu

Mona Hatoum: "No artwork has a single meaning, so I leave the interpretation open"

Life on the move, away from her home country, has made Mona Hatoum sensitive to matters pertaining to power relationships and questions of identity. She was born in Lebanon in 1952, the daughter of Palestinian parents and has been living in London since 1975. In her sculpture, installation and video work, she repeatedly addresses the vulnerability of the individual in relation to the violence inherent in institutional power structures. Her primary point of reference is the human body, sometimes using her own body - not only in her performances, but also in her video works and installations.

Hatoum's works are analogous to human existence itself - vividly formulated but at the same time complex and mysterious. Her works are inspired by personal exile and debate issues of gender and race. They have a political message, as well as a personal one. Far from being didactical, the artist invites her public to practice sincerity. The public has to see the world through her eyes and trust their own reactions about what they see. She does not impose anything. It is the public who decides.

Hatoum's works combine her interest in aesthetics with questions of a political and social nature. Her art deals with cultural and sexual identity and affinity. She works with familiar materials and objects which in her works are imbued with new meanings. Many of her works draw an analogous aesthetic and formal inspiration from 1960s minimalism whose plain forms encourage the onlooker to relate to the work in a concrete and bodily manner.

Mona Hatoum utilizes the physical space around her work in a way that prevents us from only relating intellectually to the art. Working initially with performance and video, and from the late 1980s with sculpture and installation, Hatoum's work deals with issues of identity, dislocation and constraint, and contradictory ideas of attraction and repulsion. She has for many years worked with domestic objects as a starting point for sculpture and by manipulating the context and scale, and in her choice of materials, the original use of items of furniture and various kitchen utensils is subverted and rendered hostile and menacing.

Containment/restraint has been a consistent theme in her work. Light Sentence, a 1992 installation, comprised wire mesh lockers among which a single light bulb oscillated, creating a shadow, penumbral prison. It's about to draw upon her hybrid cultural backgrounds and experiences of multiple displacement in ways that transcend ideological limitations, addressing broader global concerns including oppression, nationalism, subjugation, torture, history, identity, memory, mysticism, the blurry line between construction and destruction.

Light Sentence has a mystical beauty. A fear of proximity that the viewer feels. It is a trap of constraint. A play of lights. A play of shadows which generates fear. In the center of the installation is a light bulb. The viewer undergoes these games and participates without vicariousness to the feeling of restraint and submissiveness. As the light fluctuates and the shadows change, their sculptural shapes change, and they entice the viewer in their strange play.

Another work of Mona Hatoum, very expressive and metaphorical, is Traffic (2002). It is a work which discusses the experience of travel and the traveler, the feeling of "belonging" to a place, about becoming, leaving, memory, the places and people; about the encounter of various opinions on sexuality, identity, estrangement, politics, cultural practice which unite us and separate us simultaneously. This is Traffic: two suitcases with hair spilling out of their sides suggesting human traffic and trafficking.
What is Traffic discussing? The movement of life from an unknown moment, birth, towards another unknown moment, death. About a physical, geographical movement. Traffic is a metaphor of falling (which cannot be reduced to a plain physical movement) and presupposes a permanent return to the familiar things, a kind of self-investing towards what is certain and refreshing.

Carcasses is a series of photographs taken of animals around the world, many of which present motifs and patterns similar to those she has explored sculpturally. The images brutally show animal carcasses in a sculptural presentation, somehow mean, empty, nauseating, incomplete/ unfinished. A purely aesthetic attitude.

In Over My Dead Body, her own body is used in an act of defiance, with the artist staring down the forces of oppression in the form of a toy soldier. Is an image steeped in contradictions, expressing both a towering strength of conviction and an ironic vulnerability in relations between men and women, civilian and soldier. There is a political message here. The condition of exile/ of the exiled is turned around in a way to look at the human body. Over My Dead Body discusses especially about the human body, than about violence and/or war. Beyond aestheticizing a political message, Mona Hatoum attempts to interpose her own body as a metaphor for the condition of people who suffered because of war. But if the viewer invited to see the artwork wants to understand the oppression of war, he or she can only do it by looking at the artist' body. It is the only solution. She interposes, by means of her own body, between a world dominated by war, more likely a war of toys, and one dominated by "bodies". The inspiration comes from the realm of politics, but the artist chose a more indirect, implicit way of expressing it. Having started at the end of the 1980s, Mona Hatoum always preferred the simple, apparent rigid objects and home appliances. These objects induce a state of comfort and familiarity. But their meaning in the artist's work is a brutal one. She stated: "I see kitchen utensils as exotic objects, and I often don't know what their proper use is. I respond to them as beautiful objects. Being raised in a culture where women have to be taught the art of cooking as part of the process of being primed for marriage, I had an antagonistic attitude toward all of that. Spending any time in the kitchen is something I completely resisted."

Untitled (Wheelchair) is one of a series of works Hatoum has made by adapting the forms of furniture and household objects. Her adaptations generally replace parts conferring comfort and support with elements of potential torture. A central point in the work of Mona Hatoum, a leitmotif, is the human body. In Untitled (Wheelchair), she talks about the potential connection between an object meant of offer comfort/ support to the human body. Far from providing something like that, the proposed installation looks like a torture device. The chair becomes an element hostile to the human body, and thus is devoid of all its attributes. She has replaced the handles of a wheelchair with knife blades. Here the wheelchair itself provides a harsh alternative to its normal counterpart, since it is entirely made of polished metal, replacing surfaces which are normally padded and soft with chill steel. The knife blades transform it into a vehicle of perverse torture which will lacerate the hands of anyone foolish enough to take a hold of it. The potential relationship of love and support, for which the wheelchair is a metaphor, has become one of abuse in which both parties are the victims. Wheelchair II suggests frank violence. Slightly miniaturized and canted forward, it promises discomfort to any sitter, while the pusher is invited to use handlebar grips sharpened to serrated blades. Untitled (Wheelchair) is not a simple denial of objects we regard as functional, it is a denial of what we look at as good, familiar, cute; familiar objects can all of a sudden become hostile.

One of the most important works of Mona Hatoum is Performance-Still (1985-1995). This piece was produced on the streets of Brixton, a predominantly black working class neighborhood, located in the outskirts of London. Hatoum is portrayed in the photograph barefoot and strolling along the neighborhood streets with a pair of heavy Doc Marten's boots tied to her ankles. Her feet appear naked and vulnerable compared to the sturdy boots traditionally worn by the police or by skinheads.
The artist presents herself as an impoverished person who questions the system, trying to make manifest its structural mechanism through an action in which even the basic act of walking becomes difficult. Here it is about metaphor: the metaphor of the vulnerability of bare feet dragging combat boots was meant to evoke the universal conditions of physical oppression and resistance. The universe of exile, of the human body, of objects, of states, of feelings, is the main theme approached by Mona Hatoum. Most of its artworks utilize simple, comfortable, intimate.

The most important thing for the artist is that the viewers/ spectators follow their own reactions, to trust them; that is the only way they can get to understand the message of her works. All of her works can be read as formulas for human existence-expressed in a penetrating visual language that is both complex and puzzling. As the artist herself points out, "One's first experience of a work of art is physical. I appreciate works that have sensual as well as intellectual impact. Meanings, connotations, and associations begin to emerge only after the initial physical experience, when the imagination, the intellect, and the psyche are ignited by what one has seen."

Text first published in artphoto no. 6-7/2005

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