Summary of Mona Hatoum
Hatoum weaves together a minimalist vision with actual bodily material. As such, although her work often appears to be anonymous and well-contained upon first glance, after detailed inspection we realise that it is in fact resolutely individual and scattered in pieces. There is an edge of tension at the core of this artist's practice, as she regularly unites themes of the personal and the political, the public and the private, and of pain and pleasure. She sees her role as an artist to pose questions rather than to answer them and as a Palestinian woman who has lived the majority of her life in London, the question of what is and where is 'home' constantly penetrates her work. So too does an exploration of shifting borders (both physical and emotional) and the remains of things, be it the shedding of own bodies or the debris created after an event.
Hatoum's interest in what remains can be as historical and universal as her recent Hiroshima works, or as mundane and particular as the stains on a takeaway carton. The point being that apparently incidental oil stains on throwaway food plates, can, with the right eye, and a big imagination, become wondrous world maps that make profound statements on humanity and life lived in a global landscape. Despite Hatoum's obvious personal political struggles, her work speaks of something wider-reaching, more ambiguous, and slippery in intent and meaning. Like the Surrealists before her, Hatoum sees things differently - think of René Magritte's Personal Values (1952) and Meret Oppenheim's Fur Teacup (1936) - and encourages her audience to do the same, to explore multiple readings of her work and to start by putting a mirror up to themselves.
- The artist often uses threat and the suggestion of violence to make the familiar feel dangerous. For example, domestic objects such as kitchen utensils have been both enlarged and electrified to inherit sinister rather than comforting characteristics. Such inclination to re-visit familiar objects and to make them appear foreign and strange is a tendency that Hatoum shares with Louise Bourgeois. Both artists interestingly and successfully explore Sigmund Freud's concept of The Uncanny and express the notion that home is not always as it seems.
- Hatoum typically infuses her work with humor. She plays with titles, for example The Grater Divide and Light Sentence, making witty references to the way that we use language. This element of her work is very important, for however serious the subject she may be investigating - this could be war or gender relations - there is always a balancing aspect that smart humor offers. In the end, it is this embedded lightness that gives the viewer the necessary means to understand an important, weighty, and deeply serious message.
- The work of Hatoum investigates the concept of the 'abject' introduced by the cultural theorist, Julia Kristeva. Hatoum is attracted to a 'corporeal reality', to a breakdown between the self and other, and to facing and exploring inevitable death and decay. She explores this notion through the regular use of her own body as art material including nails, skin, and hair.
- Hatoum expresses a recurring visual interest in prison, cage, or mesh-like structures. This repeated exploration of a grid motif, be it tiny or vast in scale, further reveals the artist's long-standing interest in tension and paradox. Her overlapping and interwoven lines stand as much for notions of strength and connectivity as they do for vulnerability and restriction. As such, Hatoum asserts a crucial and inherent interest in the combination of opposites and in the exploration of the illuminating tension that is created when conflicting ideas meet.
The Life of Mona Hatoum
Hatoum puts her heart and soul into her work, admitting that she has been “terrified” before performances, and sometimes sleeping only four hours a night ahead of shows. Speaking about the emotional toll the work would take in 2016, she said: “I used to think, why am I putting myself through this? There’s enough tension and anxiety in my life already.”
Important Art by Mona Hatoum
Hatoum's Road Works performance first took place in 1985 in Brixton, London, after a series of race riots. The protests had been spurred on by the then Prime Minister - Margaret Thatcher's newly-introduced police enforced stop-and-search laws that unfairly targeted the low-income Afro-Caribbean communities living in the area. During her performance, Hatoum walked barefoot through the streets for an hour, dragging behind Doc Marten boots, which she had attached to her ankles by their laces. These boots were in fact the footwear worn at the time by both the Metropolitan Police and by the gangs of skinheads also involved in the riots, therefore representing both parties. Having completed the performance, Hatoum's ankles were sore from the heavy weight of the shoes, and her feet scuffed and scratched from the unforgiving concrete. What were once the light-stepping feet of a Surrealist flâneur (Hatoum, in the same way as a man who saunters around observing society, often walks the streets of London looking for inspiration) are here transformed into heavy-laden dragging boots - a sort of ball and chain. The artist therefore subverts traditional patriarchal art movements and shows us what happens when a woman decides to investigate the world.
During her performance, passers-by in the street made various observations - interestingly, some made comments about an "invisible man" and asked if "she knew she was being followed". In an interview with John Tusa on the BBC Hatoum explained that such moments of audience participation brought humor to the performance, and as such made the otherwise difficult and painful experience easier to bear.
Artist and academic, Emma Robertson discusses the coexistence of humor and darkness in Hatoum's works further, saying, "There are often two sides to each piece, not just one meaning. Duality and contradictions exist in most of the work: darkness and light, heaviness and humor, beauty and danger". Indeed, interaction with the public in this politically-charged performance encapsulates notions of such duality and in turn bears testament to both the struggle and strength displayed by the various individuals caught up in the UK riots at this time.
Photographic documentation - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Measures of Distance
Measures of Distance collates cross-country phone calls between Hatoum and her mother. It is an uncharacteristically autobiographical work for Hatoum and one that she was inspired to make not long after her forced exile to London. The film speaks of her feelings of displacement, disorientation, and of the loss and separation from her family. Throughout the piece she overlays still footage of her mother in the shower with Arabic script taken from letters passed between mother and daughter, which Hatoum then reads aloud in both Arabic and English, the voices can be muffled and difficult to hear and the imagery can be difficult to see because of the text. The script is devised from six years of correspondence and speaks of how difficult it is to be apart, how her family is managing in war-torn Lebanon, as well as other various anecdotes shared between a mother and daughter catching up on lost time.
Art reviewer Bella Gladman comments that in this work, "Hatoum illuminates the reality of lives like hers - the tension, the pain, the loss and the fear - and makes the daily suffering of other people on the horizons of our world suddenly extremely relevant". The work reaches out as a direct connection between Hatoum, her family and war - themes she later approached more broadly. The author Edward Said wrote about the work stating that, "no one has put the Palestinian experience in visual terms so austerely and yet so playfully, so compellingly and at the same moment so allusively." He noted the way that Measures of Distance has the ability to "recall and disturb" at the same time. In these terms, the work not only encapsulates Hatoum's personal experience of having to flee war-torn land, but also the universal plight of all refugees forced from their homes to build new lives and integrate with a different society elsewhere.
Video Performance - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Light Sentence is comprised of large wire mesh cages accompanied by a single light bulb that dangles, slowly circling in the centre of the installation. The light source dynamically and poetically casts shadows; these simultaneously grow and reduce on the walls around the room. The shadows in turn create more and even bigger cage-like structures, which effectively entrap the viewer in an ephemeral, and ever-changing cast of beams as the viewer moves and navigates around the space. The work implies themes of confinement, disorientation, and exile, but equally, creates a poignant and beautiful visual experience.
At the time it was first exhibited, viewers of the work commented that they read it as relating primarily to Palestinian refugee camps. Hatoum found this a very troublesome and likely a misguided view, commenting that "they [the viewers] tend to over-interpret the work in relation to my background". Hatoum's interest in entrapment goes deeper and spreads more universally, leaving room for positive and more purely aesthetic interpretations.
Indeed, it is within this grey zone of interpretation where Hatoum's work speaks widely across cultures and generations. Martha Barratt writing for Apollo Magazine acknowledges that while Hatoum's work is often framed in relation to her own experience of exile, this is misguided, because the work in fact "largely layers metaphor and allusion rather than overtly referencing world events, or constituting an easily recognisable political stance". The work certainly does not (nor does it intend to) give easy answers to what war or what conflict is and how we should feel about such happenings. Light Sentence does something altogether more poetic and ambiguous, making the audience consider what it means to be trapped, but this may be the experience of being restricted by a domestic setting or by a bad relationship, just as much as it could refer to the experience of being imprisoned by actual war.
Mesh cages and light - Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
Van Gogh's Back
There is a deeply poetic romanticism to Hatoum's photograph Van Gogh's Back, in which a man's back hair has been lovingly transformed and elegantly caressed into a swirling pattern that closely resembles the dreamy landscapes painted by Vincent van Gogh. Furthermore, the photograph reveals Hatoum's resolute seriousness about her art. She understands - as is revealed in the title - that she works alongside other great artistic forebears. The work is also special because it quite explicitly shows the artist's touch. It confirms that even when apparently more minimalist and elaborate in construction, these art works begin at the outset with the hand of Mona Hatoum.
Hair remains a repeated motif throughout Hatoum's career to date. She has made a series of small hair grids (using simple 'Weave-It' kits that she herself used as a child and strands of her own hair), and also many different versions of 'hairballs' each rolled by hand. Beginning as personal moulting, these repetitive hairball sculptures become miniature universes. They have on occasion been scattered upon gallery floors, accompanied by strains of the same material hanging from the ceiling. The balls have also been made into necklaces, adding a deeply symbolic sobriety to what would usually only be a trivial and decorative adornment. Hatoum also made Keffieh between 1993-1999. This appears to be a traditional Arab headscarf but the liner pattern is in fact embroidered with long, waving strands of women's hair. The hair escapes the weave as a message that it is somehow unruly and not able to be controlled. This is a strong message as the keffieh is typically worn by men and as such holds within an inherent masculinity. Such is subverted as the viewer reflects instead upon the identity of the woman likely to have made the scarf in the first place.
Photograph - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Hatoum writes that she finds kitchen utensils beautiful and often doesn't know what the proper use for them is. Similar to René Magritte's oversized painted objects, Grater Divide is a large steel sculpture in the shape of an unfolded domestic box grater morphed also into a room-dividing screen. The work is both comical and sinister. On the one hand it seems like a light-hearted novelty to see a small domestic object so dramatically enlarged, whilst on the other hand, the sharp metal holes and protrusions become threatening and potentially harmful. Grater Divide is deprived of its original function and viewers are encouraged to see beyond reality and to look within their own imagination. The title too is a play on this, referencing not only the object itself, but also implying that there may be unseen conflicts at home, and that the safety, comfort, and union implied by domesticity is not in fact always the case.
Hatoum comments that by manipulating these objects, "They make us question the environment around us, they make us question what lies behind the surface of things around us". By drawing connotations between the commonplace and the dangerous, the object personifies an awareness of looming disaster, an understanding that balance and security is always precarious and very easily altered. Indeed, Hatoum made the work Home (1999) a few years before Grater Divide, whereby many household objects are connected on a table by a live current of electricity. In an interview in ArtNews conducted in 2015 Grater Divide is compared with earlier works and Hatoum states, "In the West, people kept talking about maintaining peace; the peace movement assumed that the world was at peace and we should keep it that way. I had been aware of the war since the day I was born." Grater Divide clearly shows that conflict is a far greater force than one restricted to war; it is ubiquitous.
Mild Steel - Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
This work illustrates Hatoum's love of grids as a way to explore the related (and opposite) notions of restriction and connectivity. The work consists of multiple cords, grid-like at the centre, which then flow outwards, culminating in a lit light bulb at the end of each strand. Although minimal upon first glance, the work is very bodily. It is as though the strands have a pulse. Indeed, as the energy moves through looped and draped cords, the work could be the nervous system, or any other effective system within. The art historian Tamar Garb has commented in her chapter on Mona Hatoum in the book Women Artists at the Millennium that philosopher and writer Walter Benjamin made the brilliant assertion that the electric cord is the modern equivalent of Art Nouveau's curvilinear dynamism, a reference that seems entirely appropriate for this work.
With no obvious origin of nationality, Hatoum asks her viewers to go to a deeper and more abstract place and to consider our beginnings. Likely inspired by her small woven nets made of cooked pasta, in this work, a tangle of electrical cables become a placenta, designed to support and sustain life via a multitude of connections made through an infinite web of bodily vessels. There is a parallel here with other placental sculptures and paintings made by the German born American artist, Eva Hesse.
As another comparable work, Hatoum's sand installation, + and -, which mechanically and repeatedly creates circular trace lines only then to immediately erase these marks, recalls other heroic female artists; Louise Bourgeois, for example, as she states "I do, I undo and I redo" and Ana Mendieta when she ventured into a Cuban cave and made spiral womb engravings on the walls. The repetition of things circular, spherical and in the round expose Hatoum's need and respect for the natural, supportive and never ending cycle of life.
Cord, electricity, light bulbs
Hot Spot III
Hot Spot is a large globe with continents drawn in lines of glowing red neon. The neon, a very fragile material, immediately gives off a sense of danger due to the low hum of electricity that it emits, as well as the aggressive color. In this world, all political borders are on red alert and everyone has hit the panic button; this is how Hatoum felt when she conceived this piece. She comments in an interview with the Tate, "in 2006... it felt to me like the whole world was up in arms and that conflict was no longer isolated to certain borders in the Middle East. It was affecting the whole world". This work encapsulates the increasing tension that builds during a time of war and conflict, and illustrates how no one goes unaffected during that time.
Mark Hudson, an art critic writing for The Telegraph comments that years after it was made, during her 2016 exhibition at the Tate, Hot Spot continues to connect with current issues. He comments that "with the threat of Islamist attacks apparently imminent and the tragi-comedy of the Labour anti-Semitism row still unfolding, Tate could hardly have chosen a more challenging-yet-apposite moment to open a show by an artist whose work has touched consistently on the Middle East conflict for more than 35 years". Hatoum's work continues to stir unease and inspire consideration of conflict. Hot Spot effectively shows that conflict is inherent in the human condition and as such there will be no part of the earth thus untainted.
Neon and steel sculpture - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Remains (chair) is part of a larger series of works that Hatoum made for the 10th Hiroshima Art Prize awarded by the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art. A wooden chair has been wrapped in chicken wire and then set alight, thus leaving partial remains and a skeleton-like structure. These burnt husks act as ghosts of the aftermath of war, conflict, or natural disaster. In the context of Hiroshima, it reminds us of the charred and desperate scene left in the aftermath of the nuclear attack on the city. In these works, danger isn't looming as in the kitchen utensil pieces, and instead, very sadly, the damage has already been done. During an interview with the White Cube focusing on the Remains of the Day exhibition, Hatoum comments that she became struck by the "suddenness of disaster" whilst visiting Hiroshima. She made this work in homage to that feeling and to expose the experience of loss.
In another review of Remains of the Day, art writer Aaina Bhargava in COBO Social comments that "the safe and intimate concept of home has been aesthetically challenged by a dark and catastrophic makeover, conjuring images and feelings associated with the destructive consequences of warfare". Hatoum has perfected her language relating traces, the aftermath of events, and what remains even after so much has been taken away. In this sense, her work makes reference and shares the sense of sending an echo and an ephemeral message, similar to that embedded in the work of fellow British artist, Rachel Whiteread.
Chicken wire and burnt wood - White Cube Collection
Biography of Mona Hatoum
Mona Hatoum was born in 1952 in Beirut, Lebanon to Palestinian parents. She is the youngest of three siblings. Her parents had previously left their home in Haifa due to political unrest in 1948, and come to Beirut to start a new life. The couple's children were not however eligible for Lebanese identification cards at birth, due to a political decision to isolate Palestinian families exiled in Lebanon and in turn to prevent their integration within Lebanese society. As a result, Hatoum identifies herself as Palestinian and not as Lebanese. Due to the Arab-Israeli war, her father found a job at the British Embassy in Beirut and as a matter of precaution and clever forward-thinking, obtained British passports for himself, his wife and his three daughters.
In general, Hatoum's parents were not supportive of her early love of art and desire to make a career as an artist. Despite this, Hatoum would continue to draw and doodle in her schoolbooks. There were no art classes available as such so Hatoum spent lots of time studying European paintings from books independently. She enrolled to study graphic design at Beirut University College in Lebanon and continued with the course for two years before starting work at an advertising agency. Hatoum was very disheartened and unsatisfied by the work that she was producing in this role and in order to re-think and change direction, she took a trip to London in 1975. Coincidently, during her trip civil war broke out in Lebanon and she was forced into immediate exile.
Education and Early Training
Hatoum stayed in London and embraced the opportunity to study and pursue her art. Between 1975 - 1981, she studied at both the Byam Shaw School of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art. Work made whilst at The Slade was fuelled by the predominant discourses surrounding race and gender. Hatoum joined feminist groups and gained a taste for political debate amongst her peers.
Her work during the university years was also praised and linked to Conceptual Art and Minimalism, but early ideas of running actual electrical currents through her pieces proved problematic. Hatoum commented at the time that the "Slade said my conceptual stuff was too dangerous" (literally we assume, although likely also in meaning), and with that she moved towards experiments in performance only to return to electrified conceptual sculptures later in her career. Performance provided Hatoum with a sense of exuberance and liberty, having felt generally confined by the strict rules of British art schools; she was always bursting to rebel and re-align boundaries. During this time, Hatoum was renting a studio in Shoreditch, and as well as creating performance pieces, she was making lots of expressive and gestural drawings that she would complete and then immediately give away. After finishing her education at the Slade, the young artist considered moving to the US, however her sister convinced her otherwise and she remained in London and supported herself financially by teaching part-time at Central Saint Martins College.
In 1984, Hatoum was awarded a residency in Vancouver, British Colombia where her work caught the eye of Ms. Van Assche, the curator at the Pompidou Centre. The meeting between Hatoum and Van Assche led to another residency, this time in Seattle where the artist focused on sculpture and installation. Her first Pompidou-supported show was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. This show featured large arrangements of steel bunk beds and large cubes covered in iron filings (Socle du Monde (Base of the World) (1992-93)). Hatoum commented on her own show, that visitors were relating her work to Palestinian refugee camps, "they come with this preconceived idea of where I come from and therefore what I'm putting in my work. They tend to over-interpret the work in relation to my background". However, typically there was no intended direct relationship between her work and the conflict in Palestine. Her aims, as always, were more ambiguous and she felt very misunderstood and pigeonholed.
Following this intense period of exhibitions and residencies, Hatoum accepted a job as a Senior Fellow at Cardiff Institute of Higher Education, and remained working there from 1989 to 1992. For this time, she was able to live more comfortably on a salary and spend all of her free time art making. In 1995, Hatoum was shortlisted for the Turner Prize for the piece Corps Estranger, whereby she recorded and displayed the endoscopic journey of her own innards. After the nomination, Hatoum was labelled as a Young British Artist (YBA) along with a generation of others (including Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin). She felt however that this title was misplaced, for whilst the YBAs were revolutionizing the British art scene, Hatoum was in Canada on her residency. Not long after, she exhibited in the XLVI Venice Biennale and had her first solo show - Rites of Passage: Art for the End of the Century - held at the Tate Gallery. In 1996, the Anadiel Gallery invited her to Jerusalem. As she commented, "That was my first trip to the whole area. I was there for a month. I travelled around and saw some members of my family I'd never met before. It was a very emotional time. In Nazareth - my father was a Joseph of Nazareth - there was a first cousin. He took me to where my parents used to live".
Hatoum made a piece specifically to show at The Anadiel Gallery called Present Tense (1996), which also tellingly reveals her stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Gallery is situated in East Jerusalem, an area taken over by Israel after the 1967 war. She made the work by pressing small red beads that mark out a map into 2400 pieces of Nablus soap, a traditional Palestinian product made of olive oil. The lines can appear abstract at first, but they in fact depict parts of occupied Palestinian territory that Palestinians believe Israel should have handed back to the Palestinian Authority. Hatoum chooses to omit Israel from the map and to only feature the occupied territories.
Hatoum bought an apartment in Berlin and now divides her time between this residence and her home in London. She married Gerry Collins in 2012. In 2016 the Tate held a large retrospective looking back over the 35 years of her work. Following this large exhibition she was awarded the 10th Hiroshima Art Prize by the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art. This accolade culminated in Hatoum's first exhibition at the White Cube Gallery in Hong Kong. In 2018, she was awarded the fifth annual Art Icon Award from The Whitechapel Gallery.
The Legacy of Mona Hatoum
Hatoum is part of a generation of artists who started to work more commonly across different media in order to best present their intended message. As such, her body of work is usefully considered alongside the likes of Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Ana Mendieta, and Rachel Whiteread, all of who exhibit an understated, and yet very powerful, understanding of the female body and the role that it plays within society. There is a sense in work by these artists that it is by looking to the stereotypical realms of the female, for example to the home, and to a domestic setting, where complex global issues may be reduced to a manageable size and as result better understood. Coming from a lineage of powerful matriarchal art figures, Hatoum's work provides invaluable reference and inspiration for the next and new generation of female artists.
According to her own personal story, her exile, and her direct experience of international conflict, the work of Hatoum is also influential for artists who explore political themes more directly. Indeed, her work has been an inspiration for Bob and Roberta Smith, Yannis Behrakis, and even the infamous Street Artist, Banksy. Born of the same generation, Ai Weiwei too reflects on his experience of conflict, exile, and of corrupt political agendas. Both Hatoum and Ai inform the public that political art continues to play a crucial role in society and that messages gleaned from art works do genuinely have the power to resolve conflict and thus move humanity forward.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Mona Hatoum
- Mona Hatoum - Revised and Expanded EditionOur PickBy N. Spector, G. Brett, M. Archer (2016)
- Mona Hatoum: Terra InfirmaBy M. White, A. Chave, A. Shibli, R. Solnit (2018)
- Mona Hatoum: The Entire World as a Foreign Land (2000)Our PickBy Sheena Wagstaff and Edward W. Said