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Mona Hatoum. Publicity photo

“Oh, Mona!” 0

An interview with Lebanese-born Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum

Paula Lūse

When people who are in-the-know hear the name Mona Hatoum, their most common reaction is “Oh, Mona!”. And right they are, for Hatoum truly is worth an “Oh!”. Even if you’ve never heard of her, a quick Google image search will leave no one indifferent, regardless if you’re a fan of performance art, video art, and installations – or not.

Up through 26 February 2017, the Kiasma Contemporary Art Museum in Helsinki is showing a large and inclusive exhibition of works by the famous Palestinian-British artist. The show presents a good overview of Hatoum’s artistic oeuvre from the late-70s to the current day, and includes documentation from her early performances as well as video works, photographs, installations and sculptures.

Exposition view. Publicity photo

Mona Hatoum. Undercurrent (red), 2008. Close-up. Photo: Paula Lūse

Hatoum grew up in a Palestinian family in Beirut, which is also where she studied graphic design. Since Hatoum’s father didn’t approve of his daughter’s wish to become an artist, she resorted to working in advertising in order to make a living. Hatoum’s life took a sharp turn in 1975 when she took off to London for what was supposed to be a short visit; but civil war broke out in Lebanon, and London became Hatoum’s new home. From 1975 to 1981 she studied art, after which she held a part time teaching post at Central Saint Martins school of Art. At this time, Hatoum also actively worked with performance art; through it she expressed her anger, personal struggles and dissatisfaction with the political situation in Lebanon. Over time, Hatoum began to regard performance art as too direct and didactic of an instrument, and in the 90s she turned towards installation and sculpture.

Mona Hatoum. Untitled (wheelchair II), 1999. Publicity photo. The artist seems to turn the idea of who is looking after whom on its head. The work is playing on the notion of the much-used phrase “biting the hand that feeds you”.

Mona Hatoum. Grater Divide, 2002. Publicity photo. Grater Divide is based on a Victorian foldout cheese grater that has been scaled up to the size of a room divider that cuts across the space. Hatoum takes innocuous domestic objects and turns them into threatening sculptures by scaling them up to human proportions to explore the unsettling within the ordinary.

Mona Hatoum. T42, 1999

Hatoum’s work speaks about a world full of conflict and contradictions, often using as symbols pieces of furniture and objects from everyday life that have been ironically transformed – such as a wheelchair with sharp steel knives instead of handles, or a bed that looks like a huge vegetable grater. In my opinion, one of her most heartfelt works is a teacup for two, T42; Hatoum once revealed in an interview that the piece was created in response to falling in love with her partner.

Mona Hatoum’s work has been exhibited in practically all of the world’s most prestigious art institutions, such as New York’s MoMA, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, etc. She has participated in the Venice Biennale (1995 and 2005) and Documenta XI in Kassel (2002), as well as in biennials in Sydney, Istanbul, Moscow, and elsewhere. Hatoum has been nominated for the Turner Prize in 1995, and was awarded the illustrious Joan Miró Prize in 2011.

Mona Hatoum next to her artwork Map (clear), 2015. Publicity photo. A world map made of clear glass marbles spreads the floor. The marbles are not fixed to the floor, which makes map vulnerable and unstable. The vibration caused by viewer's movements can shift parts of it and threaten to destroy it. At the same time it makes the floor surface treacherous and impassable. Maps are a recurring theme in Hatoum's work. They portray a world with unstable boundaries, shifting borders and a shaky geography.

Map (clear), 2015. Close-up. Publicity photo

Arterritory had an exclusive opportunity to meet the artist. Hatoum led a short tour through the exhibition, commenting on individual works that she wanted to highlight. After this informative walk, Arterritory asked a few questions to the artist about her artistic career, her sources of ideas, and how she chooses the materials that she works with.

Mona Hatoum. Impenetrable, 2009. Publicity photo. A light and airy cube hovers just above the floor, as if levitating. On closer inspection, however, this simple form, which appears so delicate from a distance, reveals its materials: rods of barbed wire, heavy with connotations of conflict and exclusion. In the title Impenetrable, Hatoum makes reference to the Venezuelan artist Jesús Rafael Soto's series of Penetrables, hanging cubes made from colorful rubber tubes.

After seeing the exhibition and getting acquainted with your early work, I wonder whether, in your opinion, art can still surprise in the modern age?

This isn't really my aim; I'm not interested in doing something just to shock. My work is very subtle. Often it's just up to the viewers how they interpret my work. I like it when the audience physically interacts with the work, being either seduced or repelled by it. And some ideas or concepts start forming in their minds a result of this physical experience. My work operates in the realm of subtle connotations. It is not about shocking but more like whispering something to you. Maybe in some of the early performances I did engage in heavy political issues and the work was quite visceral and could disturb, but that was in the 80s which was a long time ago.  At the time I was working with very different strategies and specific political content. Now I try to convey the meaning indirectly through the abstract and material qualities of the work, using a variety of materials and geometric and minimal forms. For example, the work Impenetrable (2009) – it is a large cube that hovers a few centimeters above the floor and has and feels light and airy and elegant, but at the same time, the material it is made of, which is barbed wire, is heavy with connotations of conflict, borders and barricades. So, there's atension between the reduced, simple form, which is then contradicted by the meanings that can be associated with the material used.  

Is the urge for viewers to interact with your work linked to a desire to see the work in different connotations?

Totally. I like to think of the viewer as a co-producer of the artwork: what they can bring to the work; what it mean to them. The viewer, somehow, completes the work in his or her own way.

Mona Hatuma. Light Sentence, 1992. Publicity photo. This installation is made up of wire mesh lockers stacked up to create a three-sided enclosure with a light bulb moving in the middle. This is one of Hatoum's earliest installations. Subverting the clean lines, industrial materials and grids of minimalist art, it introduces traumatic and political themes. The title plays on the idea of a lenient term in prison.

Do you often get a completely different perspective on your work based on what critics or viewers think, as compared to what it is that you wanted to get across?

Of course. I'm constantly surprised at how many different meanings can come out of the work. For example, in the work Light Sentence (1992), I see the moving shadows as a destabilizing and therefore a disturbing element in the space, but someone just told me that she saw the shadows as something hopeful. It's a wonderful reaction. The shadows can be disturbing but also very beautiful and poetic. People pick up on an aspect of the work because it resonates with them specifically. And who am I to say – “No, you can't think that way. It's not about this.” The language of art is very open and ambiguous, and that's the beauty of it.

Mona Hatoum. Cellules, 2012–2013. Publicity photo

I think that everyone who has visited the exhibition has tried to find themselves in at least one of the pieces. For example, the piece Cellules makes me think about heart chambers, or the imprisonment of a soul.

At the same time, it makes me think of buildings in which people have been trapped like animals. You can interpret this work in different ways, and why couldn't it be a heart trapped inside the rib cage?

Mona Hatoum. + and -. 1994–2004. Publicity photo. A rotating motor-driven arm sweeps slowly over the surface of a large sandpit, simultaneously creating and erasing circular lines in the sand. This kinetic work represents the interplay between two opposite forces, making and unmaking, building and destroying in a continuous cycle.

What has been the longest period of time that you have invested in the realization of one piece?

The work + and – was first realized in a small version in 1979 when I was still a student. It took 25 years before it was it became this large, 4 meter-diameter version. This work refers to the never-ending cycle and the interplay between two opposing forces – creation and destruction. 

Mona Hatoum. Video performance Roadworks, 1985. Publicity photo. This video documents a performance that Hatoum staged in Brixton, South London in 1985. Set against a background of London's inner-city race riots, the performance consisted of Hatoum walking barefoot through Brixton with large boots attached to her ankles by their laces. The boots she used were Dr. Martens, which have been traditionally worn by the British police, but were also adopted by the skinhead movement often associated with racist violence.

Have you thought about making a performance again?

I don't think that I have the physical ability to do those very demanding endurance performances any longer. In any case, working in this very experimental and improvised way suited me at that time because I was too self critical and restless and could not stay with a work for too long. Now, when I'm working on a piece, I like to experiment and make the mistakes in the privacy of my studio before showing it in a public situation. Working in the area of performance, you start after a while feeling insecure because nothing remains of it. The photo and video documentation that you see in this exhibition are the only evidence I have from my ten years of working in performances in the 80s. Before I got into performance and video, I was very much into exploring materials, and I went back to that in the 90s.

Mona Hatoum. Present Tense, 1996/2011. Photo: Paula Lūse. The work is made up of 2200 blocks of olive oil soap, a traditional Palestinian product from Nablus, a town north of Jerusalem. The drawing on the soap blocks, created by tiny red glass beads pushed into their surface, depicts the map of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accord between Israel and the Palastinians. The beads delineate the territories to be handed back to the Palastinian authority.

You use a lot of different materials in your work. What is the process of creating an art piece – do you first come up with the idea and then look for a way to execute it?

I like to go to the places where the exhibition is going to be held and get to know the place; I try to discover what's available in the area. It can be the space that inspires me, the culture, or the materials that I find in that location. Very often it's accidental. It can work both ways – I may have an idea and I suddenly come across the material that can embody it, or I discover a material which inspires an idea for an artwork. It's very fluid. I'm very experimental and like trying new things. I like surprising myself and, hopefully, surprising other people as well. I don't have a specific way of working. I envy people who have a specific set of materials or strategy that they keep perfecting; I couldn't do that, but I admire people who can. There's something very secure about working with just one set of material. I'm always exploring different ways of working and different materials. This is how it is with me.