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by Keith Miller

HOME AND AWAY

The Strange Surrealism of Mona Hatoum

by Alix Ohlin

There's no place like home, the saying goes, and the art of Mona Hatoum sets out to prove this point in a distinctly unsettling fashion. Home in her work is a mythical location: a place charged with loss and violence, from which we are permanently exiled, yet to which we are always drawn. In her spare, minimalist installations, objects we may think we recognize-a colander from the kitchen or soap from the shower-glow and buzz with menacing electrical current, or loom ominously over our heads, many times the size they ought to be. Known quantities, thus altered, turn foreign. This familiarity breeds not contempt but a shared sense of dislocation; viewers of Hatoum's work step into her world as strangers in a strange land.

Foreignness has many associations, and Hatoum, whose style is edgily surreal, highly controlled, and bold, adeptly exploits them all. In her hands foreignness unfolds to reveal a tangled web of implications: the feminist, the political, the Kafka-esque existential. Though she first made her name with pieces focusing on the body, Hatoum has lately moved towards less narrative, and consequently more elusive, work. Yet this shift has not robbed her art of its impact. In fact, her recent work gathers its force from the indirect, mysterious ways in which it probes the fractured dream of home.

Hatoum was born in Lebanon of Palestinian parents who, due to the reluctance of Lebanese authorities, were never able to obtain Lebanese identity cards, and became naturalized British citizens instead. As a result, the feeling of not quite belonging to the society in which she lived ingrained itself into her existence early. Later political events increased this sense of alienation: in her mid-twenties, Hatoum traveled to London for what was intended to be a brief visit. Then civil war broke out in Lebanon, and she was not able to return home. Stranded in London, she attended art school, studying at both The Byam Shaw School of Art and The Slade School of Art and absorbing in her training the disjunctive humor of surrealism as well as the streamlined composure of minimalism. That break in her twenties turned out to be fateful; Hatoum has lived in the West ever since.

Still based in London, Hatoum now spends a great deal of her time traveling, and she has created much of her recent work during stays at artists' residencies. This nomadic lifestyle-as well as her bifurcated personal history in both the Middle East and the West-informs her work with a uniquely global perspective.

Perhaps understandably, Hatoum has rebelled against being overidentified with her biography. "I'm often asked the same question," she told the artist Janine Antoni in a 1998 interview. "What in your work comes from your own culture? As if I have a recipe and I can actually isolate the Arab ingredient, the woman ingredient, the Palestinian ingredient. People often expect tidy definitions of otherness, as if identity is something fixed and easily definable."1 But to take her background into consideration when thinking about her art is not the same thing as reducing it to the sum of its geographical parts. And, indeed, her work courts a certain amount of biographical interpretation; it walks a fine line between invoking specific conflicts and referring more abstractly to human violence and cruelty. Without communicating direct political messages, most pieces ring with political echoes.

No Way II, 1996, steel, enamel, edition of six, 11 x 9 x 5 inches (photo courtesy Alexander and Bonin).

In her sculptures No Way and No Way II (1996), for example, she plugged the holes of a strainer and a colander with metal bolts, so that these objects take on the appearance of weapons (a mace and a land mine). According to Hatoum, the inspiration for these works came to her from roads obstructed by military police in the Middle East. But the connotations evoked by these pieces do not end there. Because they are made from kitchen objects most frequently used by women, No Way and No Way II seem to express a sense of claustrophobia and blockage, even deep rage, experienced by women alone.
 
Hatoum's feminist concerns date back to the early stages of her career, when she first garnered critical attention for sculpture and video focusing on the body. One such early work, Measures of Distance (1988), shows video footage of her mother in the shower, while Arabic text scrolls across the image of her naked body. Like a veil or a fence made of barbed wire, language cuts across her body but does not disguise it, leaving its essential outlines and the fact of its nudity plain. The sound of the letters between Hatoum and her mother being read out loud accompanies the scenes, recording a dialogue between mother and daughter across a geographical expanse, as well as across the gap between generations.

More recently, her art has migrated away from this type of narrative element, while maintaining its feminist consciousness. Instead of showcasing the physical presence of the body, the work tends to present household objects, such as furniture and kitchen implements, whose relationship to human beings is implied rather than shown. Often there are cages and barriers containing these objects, isolating them from the viewer, as if in a prison cell. The resulting installations, deserted by people yet haunted by their presence, create a malevolent atmosphere that suggests the aftermath of violent events. Situated with obvious care within the hallowed space of a museum, they could be the preserved artifacts of some deeply disturbed, but possibly fictional, culture-remnants by which its character may be judged.

In Homebound (2000), part of Hatoum's Tate Britain exhibit "The Entire World as a Foreign Land," the contents of a kitchen and bedroom stand in an empty space, behind a wire fence. Though removed from the building that once housed them, these objects are nonetheless situated as they would be inside: the chairs, for example, are grouped around a table as they would be in a kitchen. Scattered on top of the table lie various utensils: a cheese grater, a sieve, a colander. Lights strung within these utensils brighten and dim. Also furnishing the scene are a cot, a lamp, a birdcage, and a sofa stripped down to its metal frame; no fabric or mattress appears anywhere to soften the harsh edges of these skeletal objects.

Where are the people who once lived in this strange, uncomfortable home? They have either escaped its confines or been evicted from it; the wire fence exists either to protect the viewer on the outside or to hold in the family. A sense of unknown catastrophe emanates from the place. Presumably the scene contains clues to some mysterious past events, if we only knew how to decipher them.


The noted Palestinian scholar Edward Said has written of Hatoum's installations that "in the age of migrants, curfews, identity cards, refugees, exiles, massacres, camps and fleeing civilians...they are the uncooptable mundane instruments of a defiant memory facing itself and its pursuing and oppressing others."2 But Hatoum doesn't wield these instruments of memory, as Said calls them, with blunt force. Questions linger: did the family leave for good? Were they killed? Would they even want to return to such a frightening, potentially harmful place? There's a lot of ambiguity to this work, and that may be the point. Lacking a definitive frame of reference, Homebound refuses to moralize about a particular culture or to name the names of either the oppressor or the oppressed.

Said's work famously has sought to address how cultural products, including literature and visual arts, have been used to grant authority to political coercion. At the same time, he has documented the complex interreactions, even mutual influence, between East and West. "To ignore or otherwise discount the overlapping experience of Westerns and Orientals," he has written, "the interdependence of cultural terrains in which colonizer and colonized co-existed and battled each other through projections, as well as rival geographies, narratives, and histories, is to miss what is essential about the world in the last century."3

It is exactly this overlapping experience-one that obfuscates the "tidy definitions of otherness" she mentioned to Janine Antoni-that Hatoum's work is uniquely situated to express. This art doesn't bridge cultures; it doesn't bring disparate people together and unify them in sentiment or spirit. Rather, her ghostly installations boil these rival geographies and histories down to a minimalist essence, leaving only the barest furnishings behind. As a result, all cultures-and all viewers-are implicated in the punishing scenarios her installations put on display.

Home, 1999, wood, galvanized steel, stainless steel, electric wire, computerized dimmer switch, amplifier, speakers, steel cables, 30 x 78 x 29 inches (photo courtesy Alexander and Bonin).


Another recent work, Home (1999), consists of a rectangular table behind a wire fence, cluttered by the same kind of mechanical kitchen implements (colanders, graters, a whisk, a ladle, a grinder) made of gleaming stainless steel. Arrayed on the table, these tools glow with light and buzz with an audible electrical current. They could be a nightmare version of a child's fantasy-that his toys come to life at night, when he is not present to witness their behavior-or they could be weapons, though it is left to the viewer to imagine how they would be deployed. Home is frightening in the same way that darkness and music are the scariest part of horror movies: a sense of danger infuses the atmosphere, but the exact nature of the threat remains unclear. Regardless, the danger zone of Home is clearly a domestic area, and therefore one that is feminine. Electrified and behind wire, Home suggests that gender itself may be a dangerous territory, as well as a form of exile.

This sense of gender and territory entwined together harks back to Corps Etranger, Hatoum's well-known 1994 video installation. The title of this installation, which translates as "Foreign Body," refers to the body of a individual foreigner-Hatoum herself-but also to the multiple degrees of intrusion involved in its execution and viewing. To make the video, Hatoum had a doctor insert a tiny endoscopic camera (itself a foreign body) inside her. The resulting film draws a highly magnified map of the human form: traveling from her eye to the inside of her flesh, over the geography of her skin. As the camera moves across living tissue and trails along her skin, it shows the body in amazing detail: in shades of red and brown and white, wet and dry, highly visceral, and pulsating with life. The images play on a circular screen set into the floor, while the screen itself is placed inside a wooden cylinder-like a large circular voting or telephone booth-which the viewer must enter.

Corps Etranger
(installation view at Centre Georges Pompidou), 1994 (photo courtesy Alexander and Bonin).


Corps Etranger turns a woman's body inside out and puts that interior on display. By closing in on that territory, it forces us to look at the body in an unusual way. As a result, its images cleverly overturn the objectification of the woman's body pervasive in Western society: you may see every part of a woman in a men's magazine, but you surely won't see her capillaries or organs or the inner cavities of her body.

The installation can also be interpreted as a commentary on the veiling of the female body prevalent in many Eastern societies. Feminists such as Fatima Mernissi have argued that sexual inequality in Islamic societies is based on a view of the female body as the source of some threatening power, a danger that has to be contained. To neutralize this threat, women must be covered-which is to say dressed, veiled, and secluded. Certainly for many Arab women of Hatoum's generation, who came of age in the tumultuous 1970s, the question of dress has been paramount. Some women have thrown off traditional dress as a gesture towards increased freedom, accompanying greater literacy and new work opportunities for women. Other women, for example members of the Islamic revolution in Iran, have adopted traditional dress as a political act of rebellion against the symbols and values of Western capitalist imperialism. In Corps Etranger, the ultimate private space becomes public, and the largeness of the images of the female body lends them a frightening, even consuming power. Yet it would be wrong to say that there is no veil or seclusion here. The cylinder that encloses the film adds a layer of confinement that the viewer is forced to share; in order to see these images, you must step inside and join the body in its secretive place. You must look down on the images too, since the film, set in the floor, plays at your feet. So the viewer's position in relation to the work is conspicuously complicated by its formal elements: you have to examine where you stand.

Like Franz Kafka, another artist who felt perpetually alienated from the society in which he lived, Hatoum seems to thrive on delving into these intricate divisions between insider and outsider. Kafka, a German Jew who lived in Czech-speaking Prague, threaded the feeling of dislocation through the fabric of his work, and Hatoum-fluent in Arabic, French, and English, born in one country, with allegiance to a second and a life lived in a third-does the same. What rises from this outsider's sensibility is a parallel universe worthy of science fiction: their work inhabits an alternate reality where regular lives assume dream-like forms.

In Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," for instance, Gregor Samsa wakes up to find himself transformed into a bug. His horrified family keeps him in a dark room. Whenever his sister comes in to clean the room, Gregor considerately hides under the couch and veils himself with a sheet. As time goes on, the family more or less forgets about him, piling the room with unwanted furniture, so that the territory that Gregor once occupied as his own becomes the repository for the unwanted detritus of the family's domestic life. In the end, effectively evicted from his family's memory, he dies alone. In Corps Etranger, the body undergoes a similar metamorphosis. Enlarged and onscreen, it turns into a bug under a microscope. Once an easily accepted fact of life, a regular human body, it grows uncomfortably, massively different, tempting the viewer to reject it just as Gregor's family rejected him.

In much the same way, La Grande Broyeuse (Mouli-Julienne X 17) (1999) plays with scale to create an alternate reality where the familiar grows strange. A mouli-julienne, a kind of grinder for meat or vegetables, is magnified into an enormous structure that towers over the heads of its human audience. Standing tall on four legs, with its erect handle, it looks more like a sensate animal than a simple tool. At its center, where the food to be milled would be placed, is a giant cavity, a devouring space that is easy to see as a vagina dentata writ humorously large. Yet there are more meanings at play in La Grande Broyeuse than just this psycho-sexual one; as in Hatoum's other work, the feminine is inextricably connected to other forms of strangeness.

La Grande Broyeuse
(Mouli-Julienne x17), 1999, 135 x 226 x 103 inches; each disc 2 inches x 67 inches, edition of 2 (photo courtesy Alexander and Bonin).

Hatoum herself has referred to Kafka as a source of inspiration for her work, specifically connecting his story "In The Penal Colony" to La Grande Broyeuse. "In the Penal Colony" tells the tale of a traveler visiting an unnamed colony in a foreign land-a distinctly non-European locale characterized as a sandy valley with barren slopes and an oppressively hot climate. In this place he encounters an officer who is about to execute a condemned man for disobeying his superiors. The officer and the traveler speak French while the condemned man does not, a linguistic gap that supports the colonial framework of the story.

The device used for the execution is both laborious and sadistic. It involves a set of needles that will inscribe a lesson (in this case, "Honor Thy Superiors") on the condemned man's body. This monstrous tattoo will slowly pierce his body through, putting him to an agonizing death. As in Hatoum's video Measures of Distance, words are overlaid upon the body; but in Kafka's literally harrowing tale, language functions not just as image but as murder weapon.

Deeply enamored of this machine, the officer hopes the traveler will condone its use, but he is horrified instead. At the story's climax, understanding that the machine's days of use are coming to an end, the officer pardons the condemned man and takes his place, ordering the machine to write the words "Be Just" on his own body. When it goes into action the machine self-destructs, though not before killing the officer. As it falls apart, numerous gears shaped like immense round cog-wheels rise up from it and spill to the ground.

Next to the grinder of La Grande Broyeuse three large disks lie on the ground, as if they too have spilled from the machine. In light of Kafka's story, La Grande Broyeuse seems to occupy a specific moment: after the machine has begun to self-destruct, yet before it falls apart completely. Broken but standing, the machine seems ready for re-use. So too with the power relationships the work evokes, from colonial politics written on the body to the danger zones of womanhood; they haunt us still.

What does it mean to say that Hatoum's work is Kafka-esque? The link between them is important not just because of the surrealism that suffuses their work, but because that surrealism serves to draw attention, again and again, to the possibility that things can vanish: a body, a room, a home. At the conclusion of "In The Penal Colony" the traveler flees the colony, but the story doesn't say where he's going, and it seems unlikely that he'll be able to forget what he has just seen even if he eventually does get home. As Said has pointed out, the impact of colonialism continues to reverberate throughout the modern world, in the globalized lives we lead, and the intersecting power structures that affect us all. The work of Mona Hatoum plots the outlines of these shifting reverberations. If the entire world is a foreign land, then her work draws a chilling map of the terrain.

NOTES 1. Bomb, number 63, Spring 1998. 2. Edward Said, "The Art of Displacement: Mona Hatoum's Logic of Irreconcilables," in The Entire World as a Foreign Land, London: Tate Gallery, 2000. 3. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

 

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