Hit and Miss: Mona Hatoum

Jointly organised by the Centre Pompidou, in collaboration with Kiasma and Tate Modern, this survey of Mona Hatoum’s work presents a panoply of her output that dates from the early 1980s to the present day. When an overview of such breadth and scale pulls one into the work, one cannot help but want to linger, view and re-view particular inclusions, in short, prolong the experience, because it would be a big disappointment to have it end too soon.  Sadly, this exhibition doesn’t do that – at least it didn’t do that for me.

What bothered me the most is that the work didn’t hang together. Sure, artists can use whatever materials and formats they want, but the work in this exhibition somehow felt disconnected. From the way it zipped back and forth, it came across more like a group show, not an overview of a single person’s output. One minute I was looking at Grater Divide (2002), which seemed like a cute piece of Pop Art or worse – one of those great big silly oversized products that were sold at Think Big in New York City before the store closed in 1994 – then I found myself looking at electric kitchen appliances that seemed like they were trying to scare me with their hums, buzzes and crackle crackle…crackle. Moreover, I found the glowing gadgets to be more decorative than pointed.

I’d already seen Light Sentence (1992) at the National Gallery of Canada in the early 1990s and, to be honest, it didn’t do much for me at that time. Back then I focused on the material aspects of the work, but here I paid attention to the shadows of the metal cages that moved across the floor and up and down the wall. The ongoing flow and shifts in shape and scale only made me feel nauseous. That is something I didn’t want or need.

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Hot Spot (2006). Photo: Stephen White, source: http://whitecube.com/exhibitions/mona_hatoum_hot_spot_masons_yard_2006/

The supposedly sinister glow emanating from Home (1999) and Hot Spot (2013) only caused me to think back to the power of  Jana Sterbak’s I want you to feel the way I do…(The Dress) (1984-85). The psychological impact of this hollow and electrified gown derives from the one-to-one relationship that develops between the object and the viewer. The reference is to pain that can be physical or mental in nature. The object has a medieval feel to it, but it’s also a very effective depiction. So haunting, I would have to add. I saw the work back in the 1980s and the memory of that experience hasn’t left me yet.

Okay, so enough of the low points! But when Hatoum excels, she really excels. Take, for example, Socle du monde (1992-93). I first saw this work in Washington, DC at the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture in the exhibition Distemper: Dissonant Themes in the Art of the 1990s (1996) and found it to be just as visually and intellectually impressive now as I did then. Its impact lies in the way it merges the cube, the archetypal modernist form, with aspects of the human body. The object is covered in a dense black fur of iron filings that eerily replicates the pattern of entrails. It is also a homage to work made by Piero Manzoni.

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Socle du Monde (Pedestal of the World), 1992 (refabricated 1996). Source: Distemper – Dissonant Themes in the Art of the 1990s, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 1996, exhibition catalogue, p. 53.

The work was accompanied by a statement when first exhibited. At that time Hatoum wrote: “Thirty years later, the plinth, which always denotes the separate and inanimate character of what is placed upon it, has itself lost its homogeneity and stability and taken on the appearance of a decaying unstable structure. …Today, the idea of a pedestal for the earth fixing it at the center of the universe may suggest a revival of anachronistic ideas and blind beliefs which are becoming more and more apparent in every part of the planet.” (1)

A second sculpture abounding in metaphoric potential is the kinetic + and – (1994-2000), which consists of a circular table of sand that is continuously manipulated by a single rotating arm. As one half of the arm passes, its teeth creates grooves that soon disappear with the second half’s smoothing sweep.

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+ and – (1994-2002). Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lightsgoingon/5795506507

Like the hands of a clock that are subjected to ongoing cycling, the arm’s movement recalls the passage of time. It also speaks of the effect of natural forces on the desert and oceans, and of building and erosion, processes that bring change about quickly or over lengthy periods of time. The work is a closed system in which the making and unmaking of its surface never stops and the quantity of the material affected never alters. Though there is nothing mysterious about its presence and the way it functions, it manages to capture attention and, in doing so, takes on a magical aura. Watching it engenders multiple realisations. I particularly liked how it never looked completely the same, for each pass of the arm produces a sightly different composition.

Mona Hatoum was seen at Kiasma, Helsinki. Exhibition dates: 7 October 2016 – 26 February 2017.

  1. Neil Benezra, Mona Hatoum – Direct Physical Experience, in Distemper – Dissonant Themes in the Art of the 1990s, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., 1996, p. 55 (quote’s source: Pour la Suite du Monde, Montreal: Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montreal, 1992, p.7).
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