Progression of Art
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 flaneur (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 - Tate Collection
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 - 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 - Tate Collection
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 - Tate Collection
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 - Tate Collection
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 - Tate Collection
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