agostino osio

Mona Hatoum: Familiarly unfamiliar, powerfully playful

Mona Hatoum @ Tate Modern until 21 August 2016

Hatoum views and reviews the world, our world. Humanity, fragility, vulnerability, utility, existentiality. Hatoum’s world is reductive, unstable, simultaneously occupying and preoccupied by, liminal spaces. Trust nothing and no one; do not trust the feeling of distrust… “the feeling of not being able to take anything for granted, even doubting the solidarity of the ground you walk on.” As Hatoum describes in an interview in 1997.

Mona Hatoum Socle Du Monde, 1992-1993 © Mona Hatoum. Courtesy White Cube Gallery

 Opening with Hatoum’s furry mammoth sculpture Socle Du Monde, 1992-3, we are already confronted by the vulnerability, untouchability, unmoveability of her work, especially the sculptural pieces. These works which exist on a knife edge, steel shavings cling tightly to the surface of a cube, they form uncontrollable, beautiful patterns which weave like inside out intestines, choking the form they are attracted to by a magnet. This work summarises Hatoum’s marrying of the visual languages of both surrealism and minimalism (for which one imagines a cube as the pin up!).

What is immediately striking, on entry to the exhibition, is the persistent buzz. In volume it varies, but it’s presence is undeniable, unignorable, unnerving. But nothing can be taken for granted, appearances are deceptive, Hatoum has built a practice from surrealist principle, double entendre, suggestion and smoke and mirrors all play their part. I’m thinking Meret Oppenheim’s Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure) or, in the common tongue, ‘Fur Cup’, conjured perhaps due the pelagic connotations of Socle Du Monde or her use of real hair, albeit human as opposed to animal. I might further categorize Hatoum as a surrealist for like Oppenheim she combines certain eroticism with domesticity, a visual pun is implied, and the incongruity and impracticability of elements is highlighted.

Typically I am drawn to the bodily performances. As well represented as they are, I still yearn for their reenaction within this white cube space. The documentation, as interesting as it is, is cold and inscrutable. Considering this artist has objectified her audience for years I leave feeling unobjectified, and this, for once is a disappointment! The art work demands involvement from the viewer; physical and emotional. Frustratingly we are offered a kind of faux accessibility. We are offered the idea and the concept but it seems impotent in this cathedral of art.

Mona Hatoum Look No Body!
 Performance duration: 40 minutes

Live action with video monitor, sound tape, water hose and a stack of plastic cups 
Performed at The Basement Gallery. Courtesy White Cube

Hatoum seems quite preoccupied visions and notions of inside and out. In 1981’s  Look No Body Hatoum plays with notions of intimacy and privacy, preoccupied with bodily boundaries:          “…it’s just that often I wonder where my body ends… I mean what my boundaries are… whether it’s the skin… what’s about things like hair and nails, and you know, things that come out of the body in the form of urine, faeces, blood…where does it actually end?”   For the artist, the body is not only a fascinating subject, but a resource to be mined for materials (hair, bodily fluids), exposing it’s vulnerability and resilience.

There are difficulties in presenting art work of a performance genre, however these challenges aren’t apparent here. Performative works are represented by photographic or video documentation, detailed textual descriptions and accompanying diagrams (more formalized, considered and methodical than mere sketches). A truly formal, multi media presentation, varied and exciting despite it’s achromicity, save the occasional splashes of red. Red the colour of artists’. The colour of Anish Kapoor. The colour of Louise Bourgeois. The colour of Mona Hatoum.

Under Siege 1983, Hatoum enacts a ritual sculptural undoing. “A human figure reduced to a form covered in clay, trapped, confined within a small structure, struggling to stand up again and again … slipping and falling again and again…” the artist battling, struggling to survive, watched by voyeurs in the gallery who stand beyond the plastic sheet cubicle erected around her, a curtain, boundary, physical and psychological.

Mona Hatoum Under Siege, 1983.

By far my favorite work is Corps etranger. I like the concept, the execution, the presentation. We observe and are observed, the projection is an eye. It is fantastical, navigation through imagination, penetration. The viewer enters the womb, or cocoon, through a small gap, the video, installed within the floor, is sucking us inside. Its dark and we are in another world, we are inside, and in this place I do not feel claustrophobic, but comforted. And I am close to another human, so close I can see inside them. It is so intimate, I am seeing their unseen, their internal is external. It is so personal yet so universal, familiar, I could be seeing inside myself, Corps etranger is a mirror. After an initial sweeping survey of the body’s exterior, the skin is penetrated and we follow the camera probing through various orifices, objectified, invaded. I feel myself mesmerized, constantly ‘waiting for the drop’. Although violently invasive it is also gloriously calming, the seas of liquid washing the over camera, exposing new vistas of bodily matter, “You feel like you are on the edge of an abyss that can swallow you up, the devouring womb, the vagina dentate, castration anxiety…”  

Mona Hatoum Corps étranger
 (350 x 300 x 300 cm)
Video installation with cylindrical wooden structure, video projector, video player, amplifier and four speakers
Photo: Philippe Migeat. Courtesy White Cube Gallery

Hatoum assumes a literal closeness and implied distance from her audience, especially in her performative works. Video/Performance 1980 is highly confrontation and reminiscent of Vallie EXPORT’s Touch Cinema. The artist faces away from her audience and points a camera at herself, employing the method of synchronized camera and projection, a monitor shows her body as if it were unclothed. Using this forced voyeurism

Untitled – Drawing materials, made from Hatoum’s own body, using her skin, her hair, her nails, mixed with pulp. Human imperfections are elevated to masterpiece status, bodily detritus, usually discarded thoughtlessly is collected, revered and reinvented, creating a beautiful monument to the artist, subtle unconscious marks made by the body, embedded in new skins.

Mona Hatoum Untitled, drawing materials 

And finally I’m upon Homebound and the source of the threatening buzz is revealed as a disappointment. I notice the noise has not been continuous but ebbing and edging up to the point of orgasm, before it peters out, unsatisfied, spent. But the tension is built and thus the impuissance of the installation is rendered immaterial. I don’t hear it beyond this point in the exhibition. An apparition materialized and vanquished.

The Murano glass grenades (Natura Morta, 2012) are of course abhorrently beautiful, glittering like Christmas ornaments, so desirable, so antithetical, a guilty pleasure. Lots of the objects appear to quite ‘Freudian’, in that they wouldn’t be out of place on the psychoanalyst’s desk. Hatoum poses notions of the familiar against the uncanny. There is horror in beauty and beauty in horror. I am overcome with conflicting emotions of desire and revulsion, fear and fascination. And I know I am playing into her hands.

Mona Hatoum, Natura Morta, 2012, Murano glass and medical cabinet. Courtesy GALLERIA CONTINUA.

The refusal to display the works chronologically results in a more unified presentation of Hatoum’s whole practice. The works are not allowed to cluster by genre and as a result they are afforded space. Within these spaces meaning is allowed to develop, and their resilient, unrelenting nature causes them to restrict the viewer, oppressing them and instigating anxiety nightmares or suggesting sinister happenings.

Hot Spot, is the showpiece it promises to be, I pace, trying to resist it, while I try (unsuccessfully) to look at the other pieces in the room, the beguiling abaca Projection, 2006, for instance. I then circle it’s orange glow, attracted like a bug to an ultraviolet fly trap. I stare at it and away and everything else in the room appears in a haze of blue. The hot orange ‘vibrates’, as I am simultaneously attracted and repelled. I admit I leave satisfied, as Hatoum has directed an unmitigated episode, involving body, senses, mind, emotions and imagination. But ultimately, as in Hot Spot, the world is a cage.

Mona Hatoum Hot Spot III 2009 © Mona Hatoum. Photo: Agostino Osio Courtesy Fondazione Querini Onlus, Venice

Review by Alison Humphrey