“No one has put the Palestinian experience in visual term so austerely and yet so playfully, so compellingly and at the same time so allusively” – Edward Said
In 2016 I was introduced to the work of Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum, when I attended an exhibition of her work at Tate Modern in London.
Hatoum was born in Lebanon to Palestinian parents in 1952 (and does not have Lebanese citizenship). She found herself stranded in the UK in 1975, during what was intended as a visit to the country, when conflict broke out in Lebanon. She subsequently went to art school in the UK, and has since then been based between London and Berlin.
“I grew up in Beirut in a family that had suffered a tremendous loss and existed with a sense of dislocation.“
Influenced by surrealism and minimalism, and encompassing conceptual art and performance art, Hatoum, perhaps inevitably, makes work which explores displacement, conflict and contradiction.
Her early work was often performance art. This explored the relationship between politics and the individual, but, equally, the resilience and vulnerability of the body. Most famous, perhaps, is her 1980s street performance in Brixton (London), set against a background of race riots.
In contrast, in the late 1970s Hatoum ran 240 volts through a suspended collection of metal household objects (such as scissors, strainers, rulers and corkscrews) to light a bulb at the bottom: such relatively dangerous installations were displayed in short sessions to an invited audience.
In the late 1980s her work increasingly began to focus on large-scale installations and sculpture, again often using repurposed or unusual materials. For example, Recollection (1995) made use of her own hair, collected over years, and arranged in rolled balls on the floor or hung in strands from the ceiling. Another work is a necklace constructed from fingernail clippings. Art resulting from activities that in the typical life would make you seem at best odd always makes me muse on the thin line that separates identification as genius with a surfeit of creative talent from, instead, being labelled a tragic misfit.
Meanwhile, Hot Spot (2006), is a sculpture representing the world, by means of a stainless steel, cage-like globe, with the continents outlined in red neon tubing, representing flash points and the constant threat of conflict that encircles the planet. The whole thing buzzes with unsettling energy.
Hatoum has also made installations and sculptures inspired by homewares or domestic interiors, which seem to suggest political surveillance and state oppression, while challenging and foregrounding assumptions about femininity and adding an element of threat to the everyday.
It all sounds quite heavy, but kinetic sculptures, such as + and – (1994-2004), which mechanically combs sands into a zen garden with one side of a rotating metal arc, then smoothes it flat with another – or household objects taken totally out of context, scaled up or changed to make them familiar but uncanny, meant that the exhibition was accessible to my young children (at the time aged 7, 9 and 12), who came along too.
Hatoum’s work is not without elements of humour, either. She noted on arriving in the UK that “people were quite divorced from their bodies and very caught up in their heads, like disembodied intellects“. This bodily disconnect is challenged by Don’t smile you’re on camera! (1980), which embraces the voyeuristic appeal of video. A camera was pointed at the audience, and panned up and down slowly. On a monitor facing the audience, a shirt would fade away and, disconcertingly, “a ghost image of bare breasts appears behind, creating the illusion that the camera can see through people’s clothes“. Hidden assistants would film their own half-naked bodies and mix those images in with the film of the audience, to challenge the audience’s perceptions in this way.