Mona Hatoum

Written by  Lola G. Bonora

A lucid view of contemporary society deriving from a rigorous aesthetic research

Selecting an artist for the XIII edition of the Biennale Donna is an important and prestigious task. In choosing Mona Hatoum, one is presenting an artist whose work complements and completes the artistic and cultural themes of the previous two editions.

The choice of Mona Hatoum shows itself to be perfectly in line to bring to a close, without assuming to have done so exhaustively, such an interesting and revealing thematic quest. If one of the most examined aspects is nomadism and therefore cultural identity, then Hatoum is an excellent representative. There is no doubt that the cruel circumstances resulting from the outbreak of civil war in her native Lebanon prevented her from returning home; thereby strongly affecting her choices, but at the same time enriching and widening her artistic training and her socio-political development.

Like all exiles, she was able to look back objectively at her roots, but more importantly, this distance also made her look forward towards a different future. It may be that this loss of her past and her future is the origin of the redeeming “cynicism” that causes her to focus on the foibles of a contemporary society that is constantly floundering between scientific pragmatism and the iniquity of war. Between 1975 and 1981, Mona Hatoum lived in London where she attended first the Byam Shaw School of Art and then the Slade School of Art. She now divides her time betweenLondon and Berlin.

Mona Hatoum’s work shows obvious ties with minimalism and conceptual art, but exclusively as cultural background, while her style, language, and themes are absolutely her own, personal and strongly enthralling. Many of her works have an undercurrent that is insidiously hostile, provoking profound anguished reflection in the viewer. We soon realize that what we are seeing has differing values, varying significances, multiple interpretations. The Light at the End (1989) brings this home to us.

In a semi-dark corner are six incandescent metal bars, positioned vertically, perhaps the bars of a prison, or perhaps just an impenetrable area. The artist makes ambiguity her “weapon” of choice and uses it to catch you unaware, to strip away certainty, to derail, to cause unease. Her works certainly don’t want to be consolatory, in spite of the materials, shapes and colours that she uses to create her installations, sculptures and large scale objects. The objects that make up her works, stripped of their normal functions, resonate strongly with a formal elegance derived from a conscious aesthetic quest that is both sophisticated and piercing, fascinating and seductive, yet disconcerting and disorientating. In some of her larger works one perceives the intention to transmit the uncertainty coming from an emotional experience dominated by a fear as intense as the existential condition. In today’s world, we all have to live with this fear.

In the Eighties, Hatoum’s work focussed on performance and video pieces that sharply highlight the centrality and significance of the body. In 1985, she carried out a performance, Roadworks, in which she walked barefoot through the London neighbourhood of Brixton in bare feet dragging a pair of boots tied to her ankles with the effect of the awkward gait of a prisoner with chained feet. Much later I learnt that the performance wasn’t referring to prisoners, but rather to the Brixton Race Riots of 1981, highlighting the insecurity and the vulnerability that ordinary people faced during the conflict. Being able to read each artistic action, each work, not in an unequivocal way in which a definitive interpretation is pinned down, but in a more interactive way that results in multiplicity of readings and impressions is what gives Mona Hatoum’s work its appeal. Mona Hatoum used video surveillance cameras to film her first videos, possibly drawn by the ambiguous meaning of the word “surveillance.” In fact, in Italian, the dictionary defines it thus: Sorveglianza [Surveillance]: close direct observation with the aim of protecting or keeping and safeguarding, whereas the term Sorvegliato [Under observation] has a variety of meanings including “a person subjected to special measures of control by the police;” once again emphasizing the ambiguity implicit in the language which society and institutional power use to guard us.

In 1994, Mona Hatoum made a video, which is certainly disturbing, but revealing. With an endoscopic camera, a medical device, she decided to explore-survey the insides of her own body. The title of the video is Corps étranger. The fact that we are seeing her own body makes us uneasy, but then comes the spontaneous thought that none of us is familiar with the insides of our own bodies and this disquieting thought catches us by surprise. In some way, our own bodies are also foreign. The internal organs of one human body are not distinguishable on a formal aesthetic plane, in fact, the success of organ transplants is dependent upon genetic compatibility which has nothing to do with race, culture, religion, ideology, or membership in a clan or tribe. This lack of distinction of our entrails, foreign yet familiar territory, as Mona Hatoum calls it, made me think of the dramatic pictures of the black market for organs, which hurts the poorest populations most. Hatoum made another video of a completely different kind, but it equally moved me, called Measures of Distances (1988).

Here, we can glimpse the naked body of the artist’s mother as she is taking a shower, talking all the while. Across the screen, the Arabic script of her letters to her daughter fade in and out. As we watch, we hear the artist’s voice read these letters aloud in English, emphasizing the intimate, almost mystical, atmosphere, yet provoking a feeling that is mostly embarrassment, as though we have intruded. A new work, Nature morte aux grenades, is on show in this exhibition for the first time. This work is part of an ongoing aesthetic quest in which the functional use of daily objects is purposefully distorted. Objects that when deliberately enlarged lose their usual familiarity and assume a role that is sometimes stupefying, but also aggressive, hostile, tense, probably as much as to intimidate you into thinking again about their form and function. Nothing, or nearly nothing, is really as we would like it to be or as it should be ethically. Manipulation is always possible and most of the time dangerous. Be warned!