A Playdate with Mona Hatoum

I’m going to be honest with you, I nearly missed this wonderful exhibition and part of the reason was reading a couple of average reviews, in a newspaper I trust. There is always so much to see in London and so little time to fit it all in and this retrospective always seemed to be sitting second or third on the list of things to see throughout the summer. Thankfully the other half of modern eccentrics reminded me that there were only a few days left to see Mona Hatoum – Poetic & Political Installations. And to be honest thank god! I would have missed a political and playful retrospective from an modern artist who works with installations and concepts, and yet remains resolutely grounded. She is so far from the stereotype of the ego driven artist, so full of their own self importance that they disappear up their own arse. Ironic considering one of the works she is possibly best known for, ‘Corps étranger’ takes us on a journey across the surface of the artist in extreme detail and then deep inside her, taking us on an endoscopic journey to within…

I first discovered Mona Hatoum‘s work at the Turner Prize exhibition in 1995. While the winner became THE celebrity artist for the 21st century (and has poisoned museum guards across the globe with his leaky formaldehyde tanks for good measure), it was two of the other artists that grabbed my attention. Callum Innes’ beautiful quiet meditations and explorations on the medium of paint, and Mona Haltom’s haunting and thought provoking installations. Neither artist has achieved Hirst’s global reach (or thankfully his subsequent critical devaluation), but TATE Modern’s new Mona Hatoum retrospective should bring her the wider exposure her work deserves.

Her early works in this show can only be described, or viewed in photographs as Hatoum started in the 80s working with her body as a performance artist. Like all site specific performances, one can only imagine the impact of a masked completely featureless black body, slowly dragging herself across the floor of a packed restaurant terrace, to eventually burn a newspaper wall to reveal offensive and racist slogans. Throughout the decade these performances seem to question the concepts of freedom, entrapment in our own skins, torture and isolation – perhaps a response to the political unrest and civil war in her family’s homeland of Palestine and the Lebanon where she grew up. And yet we can now only experience them in the descriptions, preparatory notes and images, ghosts and shadows of the original events but still enough to give us a flavour of the trauma and torment she put herself through. Thankfully, as her stature and reputation grew, and the poverty of the struggling artist receded, her work moved from performance to installation, and the works that form the majority of this retrospective.

I am not going to describe the specific works here in much detail (there is a brief description of some of the pieces in my earlier post). The materials she works with range from by-products of her own body (especially hair, which we find woven, knitted and drawn throughout the works on show) to glass, light and electricity. Cages are revisited again and again, like younger cousins of the disturbing structures of Louise Bourgeois. The themes of otherness, estrangement, persecution are returned to, but there is also a playfulness and lightness of touch. There is is a deadpan humour to some of the works with pieces like Jardin Public being the missing link between Rene Magritte and Sarah Lucas. Some have thought that this somehow devalues her art, with titles that play with multiple meanings and puns, but I couldn’t disagree more. Surrealism is something that we are reminded of again with her use of domestic objects – playing with scale, exploring their strangeness, electrifying crackles and heat distancing us from familiar utensils or distorting their usefulness and practicality with screws, bolts and knives. The horror and unease of her early performance pieces is ever present alongside this dry humour, a mix we may be more familiar with in mediums like film, and the work of David Lynch. It is much more difficult to pull this off in the gallery, I think. I love these juxtapositions and contradictions, like the dichotomy of the materials the artist uses, such as glass marbles, electric coils or barbed rods, with their seductive visual qualities compared to the potential danger that lurks within them.

All creative work draws on our own experiences, and on some level must come from within, and so political upheaval, geographic dislocation and persecution sit alongside the exploration of self, identity and the philosophical questions of who we are and how what we experience shapes us. The strangeness draws me in and the intellectual games appeal to me, but the real reason I love Hatoum’s work is how it makes me feel – the emotional and visceral reaction it provokes in me. And that is what makes her one of my favourite artists. 

Mona Hatoum – Poetic & Political Installations finishes this weekend at Tate Modern, and I cannot recommend this show enough. You can see my full set of images here, and if you can get there before 6pm on Sunday afternoon GO!

All text and photos © Jonathan Dredge

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