“No one has put the Palestinian experience in visual terms so austerely and yet so playfully, so compellingly and at the same moment so allusively,” Edward Said on Mona Hatoum’s work
A cheese grater scaled up and turned into a room divider, a photo of the artist walking with Doc Martins tied by their laces to her ankles, a giant cube covered in iron fillings. These are the objects that greet you when you enter Mona Hatoum’s exhibition in London’s Tate Modern. The works on display span thirty-five years of her career. Born in Beirut to Palestinian parents displaced in the Nakba and then stranded in London when war broke out in Lebanon, Hatoum’s work speaks of displacement, exile, belonging, identity and conflict.
Household items become menacing weapons and the familiar is mixed with the strange in this immersive body of work. A bed, a place associated with sleep and being safe, has been fashioned from a vegetable grater with the sharp outlines of its holes promising pain. The room divider’s transformation into a scaled up cheese grater moves it away from its normal function of preserving privacy, with intrusive gaps and a frame that cuts across the room aggressively. One installation features a number of household objects, such as a cot, kitchen table and cooking utensils, which are all connected to each other with an electric wire. Lights dim and then brighten, all against the backdrop of a constant buzzing. Objects so familiar are at once transformed into something dangerous, made even more menacing with the sensory overload of the lights and sound.
These pieces bought to mind the work of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s Oven-Pan, part of a larger body of work which distorted everyday household objects associated with “women’s work” with protrusions that rendered them unusable. When expanded to room sized installations these also took on a menacing character. For Hatoum, the tools of female oppression are being turned into weapons. But the collection also addresses her heritage and the difficulties of coming from a place where even home is dangerous.
This is true for both her Palestinian heritage and her Lebanese home. Both countries have suffered from enduring conflict. One of her installations features red beads imbedded onto the surface of 2,200 Palestinian soaps mapping the lines of the disconnected Palestinian territories created by the Oslo agreement. The perishable soap shows the impermanence of these artificial boundaries. Other aspects of Palestinian suffering are referenced throughout – barbed wire, prison, surveillance – all speak of menacing state authority. Hatoum’s Impenetrable directly refers to Venezuelan artist Jesús Rafael Soto’s Penetrables, an installation composed of masses of hanging plastic cords into which spectators are welcome to enter. In contrast, the clean minimalist cube structure of Impenetrable is subverted by the fact the delicate lines of the structure are made of impassable barbed wire.
The artist’s constant mixing of the familiar with the strange reminds me of a recent interview with Hatoum in the Guardian in which she describes her first ever visit to her parents’ home in Haifa. While the country was completely new to the artist, her parents’ house felt familiar to her. She had constructed a visual image of it through the memories of her father. Memory in this sense no doubt works to close the distance between the displaced and their homeland, a tool recruited by the exiled to lessen the pain of separation caused by war. Her piece Measures of Distance speaks of this pain, featuring letters written by Hatoum’s mother in Beirut to her daughter in London.
Hatoum is however wary of viewers over-amplifying her roots. “They come with this preconceived idea of where I come from,” Hatoum said when talking to the New York Times last year, “and therefore what I’m putting in my work, and they tend to over-interpret the work in relation to my background.”
It is hard not to – the exhibition features the iconic pattern of the keffiyeh, a symbol of solidarity with the Palestinian people, woven out of hair, Palestinian embroidery hung as if windows and delicate glass sculptures of hand grenades. For example, her work Light Sentence features prism lockers that cast swaying shadows as a result of a swinging light bulb. The effect on the viewer is suffocating, disturbing and disorientating. I immediately thought of Palestinian prisoners and then of the constant instability of displacement. However, Hatoum references the power structures in Western urban environments and their regimentation of individuals, observations she made following her move to London.
There is no single interpretation for each piece – the viewer can see a statement on the position of women, hints of heritage or an analysis of Western power structures. For Hatoum this is the point. One thing seems certain – this body of work is full of contradiction and uncertainty. She plays with the everyday and distorts it; she subverts minimalist structures with political messages and even the familiar becomes the strange. In the process we are left exposed to the contradiction and uncertainty of the world we live in.