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MONA HATOUM, Light Sentence, 1992, Galvanized wire mesh lockers, electric motor and light bulb, 198 × 185 × 490 cm. Copyright the artist. Photo by Philippe Migeat. Courtesy Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris.

Mona Hatoum

Lebanon Palestine UK
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

A large cube, lined inside with hundreds of magnets, was covered with millions of black iron filings forming intestinal undulations that appeared as though fat worms lurked beneath the structure’s surface. Entitled Socle de Monde (1992–93), the sculpture pulled visitors into Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum’s retrospective at Tate Modern. In addition to this showstopper, the exhibition featured a broad range of works, including the panopticon-like installation Quarters (1996) and Light Sentence (1992), in which a light bulb illuminated the center of a rack of cages, creating unsteady shadows. These and works such as Corps Étranger (1994), a circular viewing space for visitors to observe a video of an endoscopy of Hatoum’s body, explored a key concern of her practice: surveillance, including the act of watching and being watched.

Another work, Homebound (2000), occupied an entire gallery. Electrified crackling noises, emitted from an installation of domestic appliances trapped within a wire barrier, pervaded the entire first half of the exhibition. Here, viewers also found some of Hatoum’s more darkly absurdist work—such as Grater Divide (2002), seemingly a room divider that is in fact a giant cheese grater, and Daybed (2008), which initially appears to be the eponymous furniture, but is actually also an enlarged side of another grater. At a glance, they are like comical props that Wile E. Coyote would use to capture Road Runner; yet at the same time they seemed to warn of the false sense of security that lies within everyday life.

This exhibition, however, was not simply a linear survey of Hatoum’s sculptural achievements. Much of the art on display, which exceeded one hundred works, came directly from the artist’s personal archive. Some smaller pieces had rarely been exhibited. Opposite Socle de Monde, an enlarged still from a 1985 performance was propped against the wall, showing Hatoum walking barefoot through London’s Brixton district, with a pair of Doc Martens boots tied to her ankles, mere months before the site was overtaken by major riots arising from racial tensions. The image signified the focus of Hatoum’s political and endurance-based performances within the exhibition.

Comprising framed documentation, text, transcripts and drawings, The Negotiating Table (1983), meanwhile, chronicled a performance in which Hatoum, wrapped in plastic and covered in blood, lay down on a table like a sacrificial offering to the audience. In another documented performance, Position: Suspended (1986), a dirt-covered Hatoum placed herself within a chicken-wire shack for a day and invited the audience to watch her pace back and forth in the confined space. Also on view was Don’t Smile, You’re on Camera! (1980). A video of Hatoum filming a seated audience, mixed with actual footage from this documentation process, was combined with separate visuals of naked body parts and X-ray images, which played up the camera’s invasive nature on a subject’s body and boundaries.

Hatoum’s drawings were also given a prominent platform within the exhibition, including those created using pen, pencil, hair or by burning lines and shapes onto various surfaces. Particularly strong was a series of five untitled drawings from 1999, made by rubbing implements such as colanders and graters onto Japanese wax paper, each offering a tactile sense of impact between the aforementioned objects and surfaces.

After such strong beginnings, the exhibition showed some sign of fatigue in its second half. The kinetic work + and – (1994–2004), in which a moving rake creates and then erases ridges from a circular pit of sand, and Undercurrent (red) (2008), comprising a woven electrical cable and light bulbs, seemed to be cramped a little awkwardly inside the galleries. The same could be said of Turbulence (black) (2014), a circular formation of hundreds of black, caviar-like glass marbles, where the effect felt slightly watered down as visitors were prevented from walking around the work or taking a closer look at it. Nonetheless, there was still a real elegance to the retrospective. In her works, Hatoum tests the influence of social constructs and structures upon the body, while effectively exploring the quirky and uncanny, and the sense of oppression and violence that are found in our lives.