Born in 1952 to a Palestinian family in Beirut, Mona Hatoum first visited London in 1975. Little did she know at the time that Britain was to become her new home after civil war broke out in the artist’s homeland. Hatoum is known throughout the art world for her beautifully poetic, large-scale installations and radical sculptures, which often challenge the visual language of minimalism and surrealism and set out to expose the hostile, conflicted and contradictory modern world we live in.
A central theme to her work is an invasive study of the human body in all its vulnerable and functional sensibilities. Intelligent, provocative and radical, Hatoum studied at the Slade School of Art between 1979 and 1981. During this time, the budding artist developed some of her most intriguing ideas regarding gender, identity and race, and also explored the relationship between politics and the body through intense video performances. The intimate Corps étranger, a video the artist made in which she used a probe to explore her internal body, is a stellar example and is displayed in a giant funnel at the Tate retrospective.The works on show at this exhibition feature a range of sculptures, video archive material, sketches and some rather nauseating but fascinating installations that often make reference to the Middle East’s political systems, documenting several modes of social and physical control over the human body. As you walk from room to room, you’ll experience a mix of conflicting emotions from absolute disgust to delightful admiration. Mona’s works are intense, brilliantly electric, confrontational and violent.
These themes are present throughout and are echoed by the exhibition’s chaotic and non-chronological presentation of Hatoum’s artistic project. Present Tense, 1996, is a great example of the artist’s political approach. She uses hundreds of blocks of olive soap, a traditional Palestinian product from Nabulus, as the foundation for her map of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accord. There’s also Impenetrable, 2009, a lethal hanging three-metre cube built from thin strands of nylon made to look like threatening loops of barbed wire. It’s unnerving and overflows with connotations of conflict and exclusion: as you walk around it, it is difficult to look at.
One of the most striking and confrontational pieces from the exhibition is in room three. Light Sentence, 1992, is made up of wire mesh lockers, stacked on top of each other to create a daunting, three-sided, prison-like enclosure. As you walk around the lockers, which are made to look like animal cages, a single light bulb in the middle of the structure bobs slowly up and down, casting a stirring shadow that, as you circle the structure, gives the impression that the room moves with you. It’s hypnotic, albeit nauseating, and screams with ideas of containment and oppression.
And of course, there is Hot Spot III, the defining image of this exhibition. Standing motionless, the electrifying red globe plays on the term for a location of political and civil unrest – a place so dangerous and unstable it begs the question, ‘are any of us safe at all?’ Not one area is isolated on this map. For Hatoum, the entire planet is a hotspot of fear and violence. It fizzles with anger, political turmoil and symbolically, the artwork’s exhilarating, neon bright red aptly represents the blood of a thousand wars.
The further you delve into this exhibition, the more Hatoum’s fierce explorations of female gender politics become apparent. Room six houses the unsettling Homebound, 2000, a dismal realisation of an impoverished and haunting domestic scene – in essence the woman’s home environment, in which she is trapped and unable to escape. Several kitchen utensils and household furniture items are connected to each other with electric wire, through which runs a screaming and at times incredibly unsettling, live electric current that, if touched, is powerful enough to kill you. It’s a piece of resounding threat, emphasized by the crackling and fluctuating hum and hiss of the beating current.
Similarly, Jardin Public, a wrought iron French garden chair sports a triangle of pubic hair. Whilst humorous and light-hearted in appearance, it’s combination of useable everyday objects and the female body casts a foreboding shadow between public and private ideals of femininity. A short distance away, you’ll find another piece of furniture, the Grater Divide, 2008. Based on a foldout Victorian-style cheese grater, it aggressively challenges domestic notions of discomfort and pain, things that in Hatoum’s mind are all too familiar within the everyday.
With the current political climate, the Tate could not have chosen a more apt and challenging time to showcase an artist whose work has consistently commented on the Middle East conflict for 35 years. Her political dimension doesn’t feel academic nor tacked on. It’s real and unleashes a resolute power that not only touches on the political and social dimensions of the Middle East but also effortlessly illustrates what it’s like to be a human in the world today, which in essence, really is rather bleak.Mona Hatoum is a fabulous show that forces you to react with a wealth of thoughts: disgust, humour, and adoration to name a few. It challenges our view of society, of politics, of the world, and of the female body in a merciless and often unparalleled display of everyday objects that, at first sight, unknowingly constitute the world of contemporary art itself. In retrospect, it’s a show that ruthlessly leaves its mark.
Mona Hatoum is on display at the Tate Modern until 21 August, 2016.
By Luke Abrahams