23 March 2005

Mona Hatoum: Exile from main street

Endoscopy, electricity and estrangement drive the thought-provoking art of Mona Hatoum.

"I don't know where this is going," interjects Mona Hatoum during an exclusive interview with The Bulletin last month. "Is this about me or is it about the work?" Well, when you're one of the most lionised figures in contemporary art, about to mount your first Australian show, and it's called Over My Dead Body, then it's got to be about both.

A survey of Hatoum's sculpture, performance and installation since 1992, the show was nabbed for Sydney by Museum of Contemporary Art director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, when she saw it at Berlin's prestigious Hamburger Kunsthalle lastyear. Hatoum will be in Sydney to oversee the show's installation and participate in public Q&A sessions.

"Much of my work gives a sense of uneasiness with the world," says the Beirut-born Palestinian, who has lived in Britain since 1975 when civil war broke out in Lebanon.

"There's an estrangement or alienation ... A lot of works refer to everyday objects which in being transformed become unusable or threatening. There's an undercurrent of some kind of malevolent force." For instance Incommunicado (1993) presents a cot as designed by sadists, made from cold steel with a base of razor-wire where the mattress should be. Malevolent indeed, but in terms of pure design, it is cold, seductive and beautifully executed.

More recent work such as Homebound (2000) "deals with the home and can be seen in terms of women and domestic entrapment, domestic violence". An array of objects - tables, chairs, cups, lampshades, beds - are wired for electricity and alternately glow and buzz. Surrounding the exhibit is a wire fence that has the spectator wondering if it too is electrified. Hatoum says "it's really just to make people question their environment". One much-visited theme refers to architecture as "a kind of institutional violence - as structures that imprison, constrict or regiment the body in some way." In Light Sentence (1992), a "swinging lightbulb casts moving shadows against the wire-mesh [cage] and the whole effect is kind of woozy, like the ground is shifting under your feet." And let's not forget surveillance. InHatoum's celebrated Corps Etranger (Foreign Body), a microscopic camera makes a strangely compelling journey. "The film is shot inside my body using endoscopy," she explains. "It's very seductive but also disgusting. People want to follow it and see where it's going ... it has this double edge to it. It's like invading the boundaries of the body and taking surveillance to an extreme."

Hatoum is also keen to set the record straight on the media’s tendency to distort and “sex up” her biography as some sort of “exotic other”.

“It is a problem,” she laments. “Some people always think that I’m speaking as someone who grew up in Lebanon or from the experience of an exile. It does sometimes enter into the work because I have been displaced, because I’ve had to deal with very different environments, leaving my culture and entering another culture, nothing is secure or stable or understandable, but it doesn’t mean that everything I do is framed by my biography. The geographic part is not what makes the work.

“People often call me a refugee, but please do not describe me as a refugee,” she continues. “It’s an insult to refugees to call me one and I don’t want people to think I’m trying to get any mileage that way. I mean I’m exiled from Lebanon, my parents were exiled from Palestine, but they were never actually refugees.” Hatoum cites a recent monograph that said her my mother (who died three years ago) was living in Sabra and Sha-tila camp, “which is simply not true.”

“I don’t where people get these bizarre facts from. One writer said Light Sentence was about the architecture of the Palestinian camps – I mean how did they come up with that? They obviously have never been to a Palestinian camp, these places grow up very organically, there’s nothing programmatic or regimented about them.”

Hatoum’s is the exemplary post-Cold War contemporary art resume: a graduate of London’s esteemed Slade School of Art, represented in serious public collections from MoMA to the Tate, she had her first solo show at the Pompidou in 1994; was short listed for the Turner Prize in 1995 (and was favoured to win but was pipped by the Shark-embalming controversialist, Damien Hirst); joined Jay Jopling’s white hot stable at White Cube gallery in London the same year; was included in the Charles Saatchi’s landmark landmark 1997 show, Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection; and since the early nineties has been traveling the globe, mounting shows of destabilising wit in public galleries, museums and art fairs, all to a chorus of gut-wrenching, teeth grinding approbation.

Not that it’s gone to her head. She denounces any association with the YBA’s and renounces the patronage of Saatchi: “I’m ten years older than all these guys. The only reason I was in Sensation is that Saatchi got his hands on one of my works. In fact at my first show at White Cube (in 1995) he wanted to buy everything and I said no, I didn’t want to be part of that. He managed to get hold of a couple of works and that was why I was in Sensation but now he’s since sold them all.” (Coincidentally, Deep Throat (1996), the work that appeared in Sensation, still stands as Hatoum’s auction saleroom record, selling for £60,950 at Christie’s London in 2002, against an estimate of £25,000-£30,000.) In an age when artists rush to play self-promoting entreprenuer, constructing celebrity to seduce collectors and seeking publicity to attract commissions, Hatoum’s unguarded commitment to art before the art system is refreshing, and undoubtedly (and ironically) one key to her success.

Hatoum was visiting London in 1975 with her parents when the unholy hell of civil war broke out in Lebanon. She would remain in London pursuing a career as an artist. Now it’s collectors and curators who pursue Hatoum and the curators are winning. “I prefer to have my work bought by museums - I’ve only ever done one private commission,” she admits. “I’m always being asked to do private commissions but I don’t really like that very much… I want the work to exist in the public domain and be visible to as many people as possible.”

Firmly in mid-career, approaching two decades at the peak of her profession, can there still be much to wring one’s hands about in this life? You bet. “If one feels alienated or whatever, the fact that one becomes successful, has a bit more money in the bank or becomes recognized as an artist won’t necessarily change that,” she replies. With lesser lights you might doubt their sincerity, but Matoum displays such a healthy indifference to flattery and critical distance from success that it’s obvious she remains steadfastly uncomfortable about the state of world and burns with a need to say so – no matter how wacky, obscure or difficult the saying might be. And hey, it’s contemporary art and she can get away with it.

“Recently I was asked recently why I wanted to be an artist and I replied probably because artists are permitted to break rules. I always felt I was in a very restricted society growing up in Lebanon and felt that art was one way out of that, a licence to go crazy and do whatever I want.”

“For me, the impetus behind making works that show the world as an alien, foreign or maybe hostile place is in some way to articulate the experience of people who are culturally displaced, exiled, or feeling like a foreigner wherever (they) go – I mean that’s not a feeling one can ever change or that ever changes.”

The entire world will remain a foreign land for Mona Hatoum until she departs it. Luckily for posterity and the world’s patrimony, her artworks will remain to prod, provoke and stimulate us into considering what it means to belong to a society, a culture, a people - but also what it means to not belong, to be lonely in the crowd.

Over My Dead Body is at the MCA, Sydney, March 23-May 29

First published in
The Bulletin, Volume 123; Number 12

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