(Yes, twice in a row! Reviews of art exhibitions which are still on!)
”I want the work to have a strong formal presence, and through the physical experience to activate a psychological and emotional response.”
- Mona Hatoum
The Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum is effectively a double exile. Her family had been forced to flee Palestine for Lebanon before her birth. Then, visiting London in 1975, an outbreak of civil war effectively cut her off from home. Such themes, it's generally held, pervade her work.
Which they do. But rather than the polemical artist this might suggest, her work is actually strongly influenced by Surrealism. Of all Modernist art movements, Surrealism may be the one of which people have the most skewed impression. As it's most successful self-publicist Dali came to characterise it after himself, portraying the idea that it's something frenzied and shrieking. Yet Hatoum has none of this in-your-face shock but is instead quietly disturbing, to the point it's sometimes hard to work out how her works have their effect. For example her frequent use of domestic objects, in the show's words, “find the unsettling within the everyday... making the familiar uncanny”.
And at the same time as it unsettles Surrealism can be genuinely funny. It is to society what the Joker is to Gotham city, looking at a mad world and deciding the best response is to laugh. Her performance pieces do sometimes seem set to shock. Her notes for 'Live Work for the Black Room' (1981) even promise “DEATH, DISASTER, DOOM & GLOOM”. But many works have the Surrealists' impish humour, for example with titles which echo their love of wordplay.
'Grater Divide' (2002, above) for example is a food grater blown up to the size of a room divide. While 'No Way' and 'No Way II' (1996) are respectively a colander and sieve with the holes uselessly plugged, form's link to function broken. Both are reminiscent of, for example, Man Ray or Meret Oppenheim. While a chair conjoined with a desk, part of the installation 'Interior/ Exterior Landscape' (2010), recalls Magritte.
Put together these two influences and what results is art which has a political impetus without being politically assertive. It may be relevant that the scale of her work can vary, from large-scale room-sizes installations which can look like grand public statements to very small pieces which we more associate with personalisation.
Hatom herself has said “I’m never trying to make a direct political statement. There are issues in my head, but they’re in the background; they’re not foregrounded in the work, and they’re not specific to my own history... The tension is between the work’s reduced form and the intensity of the possible associations.”
Or “each person is free to understand what I do in the light of who they are and where they stand... I don’t want to pin a single meaning on each one.... I want to make use of... contradictions, play on ambiguity, never take anything for what it appears to be.” And to be political without polemical is in itself a hallmark of Surrealism, as in for example their response to the Spanish revolution.
In the early performance piece 'The Negotiating Table', (1983, a still above) she lies prone and plastic-wrapped on a table, surrounded by empty chairs. It's akin to Gilroy's classic cartoon 'The Plum-Pudding In Danger' but here the artist has substituted her own body as the prize to be carved. Her becoming Palestine (and by implication all occupied territories) makes the point in a visceral way – for many, this is a flesh-and-blood issue. It's common for Hatoum to place her self physically in her work in this way. Even in her more conventional artworks, where she's not personally present, she'll use her hair and nails as materials.
But the chairs being empty, that's as significant as the table being full. The politicians and diplomats who decide our fate don't occupy the same space as us, they are absent from our lives the same time as they devour us. The chairs become totems of power, magnifying it through absence, like the master’s boots in Strindberg's ‘Miss Julie’.
And in general in Hatoum's work, the absence of the human body can be as significant as its presence. Take for example, 'Homebound' (2000, above). It's a domestic situation, kitchen utensils scattered on the table, children's toys on the floor. But nobody's home. Even the clothes rail is bare of clothes. With the empty hangers and mattressless wire-frame bed, it looks like some kind of bare skeleton of a dwelling. This is perhaps the closest to her signature work, the domestic situation shot through with something defamilarising until the scene becomes menacing. And in this case, it's literally true. An electric current runs through the scene at intervals; it's hum rising to almost a shriek, the lights building to a glare them dimming away again. You hear that hum before you encounter the scene, like the thunder of an oncoming storm.
The show states “the title plays on ideas of domestic confinement or house arrest”. And perhaps the bare bed does suggest torture by electrocution. While a small cage, for a pet mouse or gerbil, is recursively placed within the scene. (And watch out for that cage motif.) But overall I think the opposite. Literally, our perspective is outside, looking in. Of course we can't enter the scene, at least not without getting ourselves fried. But the bars between us and it seem less required health-and-safety initiative than part of the work. Many Palestinians have been driven out of their homes in precisely this way. In some cases it has been forced on them so suddenly they have had to leave almost all their belongings behind, creating a scene not unlike this one.
The video work 'Measures of Distance' (1988, still above) explores similar themes. In the soundtrack, Hatoum reads out correspondence between herself and her mother. Voices in Arabic can be heard beneath, apparently a conversation between the two. The video images are of her mother, but they're indistinct, not the equivalent of the neat and arranged family snapshots you'd stuff in with a letter. (Her mother's actually in the shower, but you only know that once told it.) And, much as the soundtrack is layered, they are then placed behind a screen of Arabic writing.
The screen becomes not a portal but a membrane, likened by the show to “a curtain or veil”. With her mother speaking of her “being born in exile”, it seems a much more personalised work. But perhaps, like 'Homebound', the point is that we the audience are outside the picture. The distance to us is immeasurable, the experiences unknown and unknowable, the English translation only marginally more comprehensible than the Arabic.
But, as is common of Hatoum's work, at the same time it hints at a universal experience. As Thomas Wolfe said, “you can never go home again”, and so it's significance takes on a positive feedback loop with it's inaccessibility. The more we can't get back, the more we want to look. We all have Fall myths about how we lost our close connection to things, whether religious or political. But perhaps they all come down to the personal, our veneration of our own childhood perpetuating the sense of that childhood being external to us.
'Light Sentence' (1992, above) is formally reminiscent of Conrad Shawcross' 'Slow Arc Inside a Cube IV' (2009), shown as part of the Hayward's 2013 Light Show exhibition. In both a light bulb is remotely moved within a wire cage, to change the play of shadows on the walls. Yet beyond that formal similarity the works are entirely different, as different as two canvases might be while still using oil paint.
Shawcross uses a much smaller cage, across which the bulb travels proportionately further. The effect is almost like a simulated fairground ride, as the shadows fly around the walls you have the feeling of hurtling through space even as you stand stationary. In Hatoum's work the bulb moves slowly, up and down between two banks of wire-mesh lockers. And what's evoked isn't a ride but an entrapment. The cages suggest containment without refuge. They reminded me of the way soldiers are given their own kit to look after, but are expected to have it not just arranged in a determined way but available for inspection at any point.
Similarly, the title suggests at imprisonment. The shadows playing on the walls around the viewer create a double layer of wire mesh, as if we the viewers are being enclosed by the work. But it also suggests the modern open-plan office, granting you a small square of territory but at the same time opening you up to scrutiny. As with 'Homebound' the absence of the human figure creates menace, as if we're looking at a space created for people which gives no consideration to them.
When an artist's biography is, to us, exotic there is a temptation to turn it into their Rosebud. This may be exacerbated when that artist is Palestinian, due to the drastic nature of their situation and the media's tendency to reduce them to either terrorists or victims. Our antennae can be out for 'Palestinian voices', who might interpret the situation for us.
Yet exile is a double-edged affair, and Hatoum has said quite explicitly that her work is as informed by arriving in London as it is by leaving Beirut; “My first impression was the control on the individual, the surveillance issues, cameras pointing at you all the time. That’s why these things came into my work right from the beginning... At the Slade, my first encounter with a big institution, I was shocked by the coldness, by all the rules. I was this chaotic person who wanted to find space. But they wouldn’t give me any.” And sometimes it takes an outsider to show your own country to you. She's also commented that the Slade contains the mummified body of Jeremy Bentham, deviser of the omnipotentPanopticon.
'Cellulites' (2012/13 above) in many ways reprises these themes. Open metal 'cells', something like metal lobster pots, echoing the wire mesh lockers, contain glass-blown red hearts. The hearts look as though their shape may be conforming to the imprint of their cages. Or alternately they may be squishing themselves through the gaps, unlike their prisons unconfined to a fixed shape. And then the biological-sounding title suggests at another possibility – the human heart is kept in a cage, we even call it the ribcage.
'Performance Still' (1985), as the name might suggest, is a still from a performance work where she walked around Brixton dragging Doctor Martin boots behind her which were tied to her feet. It feels as internal as 'Homebound' and 'Light Sentence' are external. Perhaps analogously to the proverbial monkey on the back it suggests that we can never really remove our boots – we always drag behind us the dead weight of ideology.
The exhibition shows us both this still and a video of the performance, but strangely at quite separate points. And perhaps ironically the close-up still is much more effective than the video. The video cannot help but highlight the difference between her and everyone else on the street. Some laugh at her, while she's straightfaced. But even when they just ignore her it's still too reminiscent of the Jesus-like suffering artist, bearing the world's sins on behalf of others more concerned with frivolous things.
'Impenetrable' (2000) is again reminiscent of the wire mesh cages. A block of thin rods appears to float etherially, reminiscent of marsh reeds or a bamboo forest – simultaneously substantial and insubstantial. It's immediately aesthetically enticing, in a way that's unusual for Hatoum. It's only when you go up to it do you realise that the smooth-looking rods are barbed. I kept trying to parse this and finally realised the point was that you can't. As the name suggests, it calls to the eye at the same time a meaning can't be hung on it.
If this is not a perfect show, Hatoum is not a consistent artist. Some of her work does stray into the post-modern. (For example, 'Don't Smile, You're On Camera', 1980, a performance piece where she video-scans herself and then members of the audience.) And too many pieces are commentaries on another artist's work, when that work is not even particularly well known.
Plus the show is over-reliant on boards to document her performance pieces. Which reminded me of when museums just line up broken bits of pottery along a shelf. If Hatoum has spoken of the effect upon her of the cold, institutional world of Britain some stills of her work place them in haunted institution surroundings. These work so well it suggests the best place for this exhibition would be the peeling paint and exposed piping of some disused post-war office block, rather than the neat and clean tourist trap of the Tate galleries. The above does focus on the highlights. But then the highlights... well, they're high...