in Features | 01 JAN 98
Featured in
Issue 38

Positive and Negative

Mona Hatoum's US retrospective

in Features | 01 JAN 98

Prosperity makes you sleepy. With low unemployment and strong economic growth, the US economy has lulled Americans into a lethargic nap. Social disparity, global balance and political self-examination are the last things on people's minds. So imagine the response to a Mona Hatoum survey exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago? Roll over and hit the snooze button.

Not so fast Rip Van Winkle. Although alien to priggish American culture, Hatoum's weary nihilism serves as a cautionary tale. Her work prompts us to link the present to the past, prosperity to recession and freedom to captivity. It enters our national slumber like a bad dream and stirs our economic bliss with hard-edged reality, duplicity and danger.

In the context of middle America, Hatoum's metaphorical objects appear callous, curious and foreign. Her exquisitely crafted artefacts - informed by New York Minimalism and European pessimism - are realpolitik testaments to order and authority that challenge the relevance of America's rosy grasp of righteousness and material culture. If the sinews of late 20th-century America seem held together with blind idealism, democracy and populism, Hatoum reminds us that the world is also bound by ambiguous compromises, covert acts and deception.

The artist possesses an uncanny ability to understand relationships between different events and to conceptualise patterns, weaving together nuances and sagacities in a manner that brings the discussion of physical experience and emotional anguish to a plane not clouded by issues of morality. The work's lack of sentiment is relocated onto the viewer, constantly reminding us not to trust anyone or anything and that virtue is never its own reward. Most importantly, her objects function as political similes for the balance of power.

Perhaps the work sounds rather solemn next to the optimism of the American Pollyanna garage wizards (Dan Peterman, Jason Rhoades and Keith Edmier) and candy-coated painters (Laura Owens, Sally Elesby, and Fred Tomaselli). In Europe, her strategy is similarly removed from a new generation of artists who look for humour and literalism in the everyday instead of irony and cynicism. Hatoum represents the last generation of artists who can be defined by what Donald Kuspit calls a 'lack of forthrightness, calculated equivocation, ambivalence of feeling and ambiguity of meaning, pursued as ends in themselves, rather than as the unfortunate fallout of circumstances'.1

A Palestinian born in Lebanon and exiled in London, Hatoum has, as Arthur Schlesinger said of Henry Kissinger, 'the soul of a refugee'.2 Her work conveys a sense of arrogance and insecurity, conviction and sadness. As an emigré, she naturally sifts through issues of place and identity with a 'European backward-lookingness'.3 Again in contradiction to America's future-oriented drive toward psycho-social gratification, Hatoum's own experience of estrangement is masked in memory stained with a kind of unconscious negativism.

Quarters (1996) and Divan Bed (1996), for example, are two sculptures from an ongoing investigation of beds that haunt the viewer with their human absence. Aesthetically, these works balance the psychological dimension of oppression with Hatoum's own troubled fascination with interior and exterior spaces. Both works look like prototypes for mass-produced institutional furniture. Impeccably fabricated from industrial materials and crafted with subtle detailing, these structures of confinement parallel geostrategic frameworks, models for urban segregation and official public architecture. The implied physical and emotional constraints suggest neither safety nor threat and unlike their art references - Magritte's bronze Madame Recamier (1967) and Kienholz's State Hospital (1964-66) - are impersonal and machine-like.

The rectangular form of Divan Bed is constructed from patterned steel tread plate steeped in the colour of gun blueing. Its split through the middle suggests a closed, industrial, futuristic type of sarcophagus. The performance-prop quality of this piece, like much of Hatoum's recent sculpture, has a direct line to Robert Morris and his transgressive Minimalist platform. For example, Morris' first Minimal sculpture, Column (1961-1973), first exhibited on the stage of New York's Living Theater, sought literally and metaphorically to reconstruct the physical reality of the human body. Originally Morris was to stand inside the painted aluminium plinths as they fell to the floor of the stage. According to Maurice Berger, 'the action of the sculpture as a kind of confrontational performer created an explicit analogy between itself and the artist's body'. 4 Both Hatoum and Morris beckon us to remember that we are not more than the sum of our physical parts, but while Morris set out to topple the idealised forms of late Modernism, Hatoum ritually re-erects them as symbols of socio-cultural order.

The four sets of five-high steel bunk beds in Quarters (1996) underline Hatoum's overarching belief that all social coteries and cultural cartels are artificial and sites of isolation and loneliness. Here, her severe realism is both insecure and mannered. Like Short Space (1992), an installation of suspended mattress springs, and Untitled (1992), two facing wire armature chairs, one child-sized and the other adult-sized, Quarters is devoid of humour and pleasure. The works speak of false internal coherences and bureaucratic forces but never of play or untidy feelings. Formally, Hatoum's brooding melancholy and ideological fervour leads Minimalism down the road of deception and disguise, rejecting its celebration of the commonplace for the careful arrangement of the site of trauma.

Similarly, Hatoum synthesises the systematic and material motivations of Carl Andre and Eva Hesse in her floor pieces Pin Carpet (1995) and Entrails Carpet (1995), dispensing with moral homilies and engaging in a manipulation of our own antagonisms - pain, disease and mortality. Entrails Carpet is a strangely piled rug comprised of moulded rubber entrails that snake tightly together to form a closed rectangular shape. Glossy, iridescent loops of swollen intestines replace the loops of yarn that typically constitute a carpet. The idea of disembowelment conjures up all sorts of unsavoury associations, from putrid smells to battle field deaths, but Hatoum's neat and sanitary arrangement of spilled guts onto a contained area of floor shows the extent to which she ties order to decorum and decorum to beauty.

Pin Carpet is more deceptive, and, like Socle du Monde (1991-92), its resemblance to something else is momentarily magical. Hatoum's field of straight pins pushed up through an unseen canvas is clearly a surrogate for the dualities of seduction and repulsion, pain and pleasure, religion and belief, yet it always remains beautiful. When examining this piece as it sprawls primly across the floor like a newly vacuumed shag-pile, the viewer recognises the form as both alien and familiar: Aladdin's magic carpet and DuPont's latest acrylic pile blend, an Islamic prayer mat and a miniature bed of nails.

Appropriating Piero Manzoni's 1961 Socle du Monde, Hatoum's 'Pedestal of the World' is an enormous magnetic cube covered with iron filings that look like meandering skeins of silver yarn, brain lobes or more winding bowels. Again, she metaphorically careens through a circuitous trek of allusion, imitation and evocation. A precise understanding of electromagnetic energy and its aesthetic territory is iced over with ironic references to teeming disorder concealed within the rational. Like a magisterial Donald Judd sculpture in a fuzzy grey wool skirt, Hatoum's Socle du Monde is all bewitchment; while the millions of tiny filings held in place by an invisible force may parallel the artist's deep-rooted passion for stability, their elemental beauty is quickly squelched after grasping her metaphorical sleight-of-hand.

Political issues are most explicitly investigated in Hatoum's early video work, such as So Much I Want to Say (1983), a comment on the human will to do nothing and everything. The transcontinental performance that resulted in this five minute video was modelled on the Western World's export of electronic news to a global audience. Every eight seconds a static image of Hatoum's face being smothered by a pair of large male hands slowscans over the screen while the soundtrack transmits her monotone voice repeating 'So much I want to say'. As a result of the satellite delay, her voice and image are deadened to the point of incomprehensibility, representing all who are voiceless and powerless in the media sphere. Changing Parts (1984), another early video, is a peregrination from Hatoum's family bathroom in Beirut to a violent public performance in which a naked Hatoum struggles to escape from a sealed clear plastic shower unit. A resplendent cello suite gives way to bursts of nettlesome audio static as still photographic black and white compositions of tiled floors and bathtub corners transmogrify into a messy (albeit futile) onslaught against invisible psychological constraints that inhibit orderliness. But the culmination of Hatoum's video performances must be Corps étranger (1994), a room-sized, pseudo-microscopic chamber in which viewers observe on the floor around their feet a circular video projection of the artist's body orifices being probed by a surgeon's endoscopic camera. Wet, pinkish tissue pulses, swells and gives way to the camera as the viewer goes for a chimerical ride through the androgynous, pornographic and scientific corpse of both the 'other' and the 'self'.

Hatoum's formal skill succeeds in destabilising the usual one-to-one relationship between the viewer and the work, preparing the way for her oppressive net of uncomfortable metaphors and the 'politics of identity'. Void of innocence and wonder, her language is typically one of stealthy, power-oriented diplomacy. The Henry Kissinger of the art world, Hatoum's realist philosophies reject moral idealism and demand ambiguous compromise and deception. However, a recent series of drawings the artist completed during a residency at a Shaker community in Maine suggests a new direction. Using wax paper, Hatoum made rubbings directly recording the drainage holes in colanders and the perforations of cheese and vegetable graters. There is a new honesty and straightforwardness in these drawings: Hatoum curbs her voice as one of the illuminati and lets the social order, via domestic accoutrements, speak for itself.

1. Donald Kuspit, 'European Sensibity Today' reprinted from New Art International, 1990, in Theories of Contemporary Art, ed. Richard Hertz, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, 1993, p.120.

2. Walter Isaacson, Kissinger, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1992, p.763.

3. Donald Kuspit, Op.cit., p.118.

4. Maurice Berger, Labyrinths: Robert Morris, Minimalism and the 1960s, Harper & Row, New York, 1989, p.47.