Before there was Warsan Shire, there was Mona Hatoum. Shire’s poem “Home”, which opened with the lines “No a single leaves house unless/house is the mouth of a shark,” has made her the 21st-century cantor for exodus. However the Somali-British poet is heir to a lineage of artists who have wrenched lyricism out of relocation.
As Tate Modern’s triumphant new show demonstrates, no one has expressed the terrible beauty of unbelonging greater than Mona Hatoum. Born in Beirut in 1952, the artist seasoned a double exile. Her Palestinian family members were obliged to leave Israel in 1948 and “existed with a sense of dislocation”, Hatoum has stated. Then, in 1975, Hatoum discovered herself stranded in London when civil war broke out in Lebanon. She completed art college in the British capital and now divides her time in between London and Berlin, though a nomadic gene sees her accept residencies all through the planet.
Despite her private trauma, Hatoum is far from a confessional artist. Tate’s exhibition opens with “Socle du Monde” (“Base of the world”), a cube covered in black iron filings which cling to hidden magnets, which is named right after a 1961 sculpture by Piero Manzoni.
The intellectual jester of conceptualism, Manzoni placed a plinth upside down to suggest that our complete planet was displayed on its surface. In a smooth metal which anticipated minimalism, Manzoni’s function echoed the Duchampian credo that all the world’s an artwork waiting for a museum to place it on show. Hatoum keeps the hermetic geometry, thereby declaring herself an artist who has no intention of letting her feelings overwhelm her type, however her tactile pelt whispers of uncanny forces caged within, as if Carl Andre had been reimagined by Steven King’s Carrie.
By the time she created “Socle du Monde” in 1992-93, Hatoum had adopted minimalist form as her primary grammar. However the initial rooms remind us that her early language was overall performance. A black and white photograph of Hatoum’s bare feet tied to a pair of Doc Martens (footwear of decision for fashionable skinheads) as she trudges by way of Brixton is the legacy of a film — on screen in a later area — entitled “Roadworks” (1985) that sprang out of her anger at the era’s race riots.
A layer-cake of imagery assembled from make contact with sheets and grainy footage, “Don’t smile, you are on camera” (1980), creates the illusion that male bodies are getting surreptitiously stripped by a prying lens. The unsettling sleight of eye speaks of an artist revenging herself — for this violating gaze is hers — on an art establishment which has denuded girls for centuries.
Taking her cue from a generation of feminist artists just before her, Hatoum saw performance as a “revolutionary medium”. But by the 1990s she had outgrown its innate melodrama. Made in 1992, “Light Sentence” is 1 of her earliest installations. Consisting of two rows of wire-mesh lockers in amongst which hangs a single, swaying lightbulb, it envelops the spectator in an infinite grid of silky, fluctuating, wolf-grey shadows. At after prison cell, interrogation chamber and battery cage, yet also astoundingly, autonomously lovely, it has an specifically strong resonance in a gallery where Agnes Martin, topic of a Tate retrospective final year, was a current resident.
But the American painter declared that her lines have been “innocent as trees” — private, transcendent expressions of her outer world. Hatoum puts her matrices to more pointed use. She know that with out the grid there can be no cage, no prison cell, no bed, no electric power and no map, all of which are recurring tropes in her oeuvre. (Tate’s show, sensibly, does not adhere to chronology and therefore maintains the cyclical elegance of Hatoum’s material repetitions and recalibrations.) As such, Hatoum is in the vanguard of a skein of political artists, such as Cornelia Parker, Nadia Kaabi-Linke and Hajra Waheed, who use the foundation stone of geometric abstraction to temper overt emotion.
Nonetheless, Hatoum also sieves her sensibility through a surrealist filter. She frequently uses organic substances — hair, blood, urine — and has a predilection for household objects which tends to make her the daughter of Meret Oppenheim and Louise Bourgeois, feminist artists who also turned the tools of their oppression into weapons.
At Tate, a gigantic cheese grater is blown up to resemble a hazardous daybed. A French garden chair (“Jardin Public”, 1993) sprouts a triangle of pubic hair from the holes in its seat. The unsettling menace is intensified by the whine of “Homebound” (2000), an installation of objects — colanders, child’s cot, hamster cage, assorted lightbulbs and furnishings — electrically wired with each other so that they buzz, dim and flare with ominous indifference to our presence.
Time and again these Plath-like howls of fury are quietened by Hatoum’s rationalist architecture. “Homebound”, for example, is framed by a colony of exquisitely pared-down works which includes “Present Tense” (1996), a rectangle of golden soap bars which bears the faint tracing of a map of Palestinian territories as drawn up in the Oslo peace accords. On the wall, swatches of burnt toilet paper (“Untitled”, 1989) have been burnt with tiny perforations that type stuttering, singed rows suggestive of an indecipherable morse code.
These diminutive interventions balance out the brutal violence that simmers in Hatoum’s monumental installations. The second half of this show introduces us to “Quarters” (1996), four metal beds with bare mattress frames stacked five higher and arranged in the panopticon shape that, thanks to its capacity for surveillance, produced for ideal Victorian prisons. Nearby is “Hot Spot” (2013), a stainless steel globe with the continents outlined in red neon as if the entire planet was in flames. Just as it is all getting as well apocalyptic, we have “Projection” (2006), an additional map traced in flocks of cotton on a white ground which imagines our planet as a pillowy, utopian phantom, the alter ego of these bleak, ascetic bunks.
As a songstress of residence, clearly Hatoum is no Martha Stewart. Yet, in spite of essential attempts to pigeonhole her, she also is not the visual equivalent of Edward Stated. Although Mentioned, the pre-eminent witness to the Palestinian displacement, wrote a gorgeous essay about her perform in 2000, reproduced in Tate’s catalogue, Hatoum’s concerns venture additional. The plight of her parents’ birthplace is always on her radar. But she’s also telling us that domesticity is death to female empowerment. And that handful of of us, regardless of gender, ever actually uncover a refuge.
The show closes with “Undercurrent (red)” (2008), a scarlet mat whose tight weave loosens into tentacles plugged into lightbulbs, their intermittent glow reminding us just how much blood there is on everybody’s carpet these days. It’s a robust piece, reminiscent however not derivative of the Aids-connected light operates of Cuban-American artist Félix González-Torres.
A a lot more subtle coup de foudre would have been delivered by “Measures of Distance”, which sits halfway by way of the exhibition. Produced in 1988, this video is a palimpsest of sound and image, showing Hatoum’s mother as she takes a shower, her physique barely discernible behind a curtain of Arabic writing. Fluid as a river, spiky as barbed wire, as inspired a grid as Hatoum ever devised, the calligraphy tends to make a perfect formal container for the sadness in Hatoum’s voice as she reads aloud the letters her mother wrote to her throughout their separation.
As lines such as “Dear Mona, I have not been in a position to send you any letters since the regional post workplace was destroyed by a auto bomb . . . ” echo by means of the rooms just before and beyond, we intuit that this exhibition will disrupt our own homecoming.
To August 21, tate.org.uk
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