Following the dramatic outcome of the EU referendum just last week, the sense of disillusionment and division across the British population is ubiquitous. With just a 3.8% difference – resulting in the decision to leave the European Union – the 72.2% of the population that voted is remarkably divided. A feeling of detachment from the country we are living in has been commonly expressed across all social media platforms since the results were announced, with political and economical unrest growing more apparent each day. In this period of astounding national and international change, the Mona Hatoum exhibition at Tate Modern could not be more fitting to the melancholic sentiment radiating throughout Britain – especially London.
Born in 1952 to a Palestinian family in Beirut, Hatoum experienced exile first hand in 1975 after becoming stranded during a visit to London; a result of civil war breaking out in Lebanon. Stuck in a foreign country and separated from her family, Hatoum had no choice but to build a life for herself in Britain, attending the Slade School of Art and establishing her artistic career based on her experiences of a war-torn world.
The curators of the exhibition tackled the issue of displaying Hatoum’s earlier performance pieces with framed panels showing archived material of the performances and the planning that went into them. These photographs and descriptions make it possible to comprehend the working processes of Hatoum and appreciate the planning necessary for live performance pieces. Despite lacking the effect of the actual performance pieces, these documents provide the opportunity to explore a seminal period in Hatoum’s early career as well as demonstrating her meticulous planning process.
Moving away from performance, as her career developed, the rest of the exhibition – spanning 14 rooms in total – is much more accessible. Hatoum’s installations and sculptures have a profound impact, covering issues of sexuality, war and ideas of imprisonment in the domestic world. The domestic sphere was a clear source of inspiration for Hatoum, frequently using motifs of home furniture and kitchen utensils in order to evoke a variety of intense emotions. Neglecting chronological order in organisation of the exhibition serves to reinforce the idea that all issues raised by Hatoum in her pieces continue to be pertinent in the present day, regardless of the time in which they were created.
The timeless quality of Hatoum’s work is most apparent with Present Tense (1996). Composed up of 2,200 blocks of olive oil soap, the map from the 1995 Oslo Peace Accord between Israel and the Palestinian Authorities is illustrated across the surface. Small red glass beads pushed into the surface of the soap show territories that were to be handed back to the Palestinians. The use of soap as the main material was a controversial choice that Hatoum was questioned on frequently after the piece was first displayed in a gallery in Jerusalem back in 1996. The transient and temporary implications suggested by the use of this material can be interpreted as a comment by Hatoum on the transient nature of the treaties put in place; an apt projection of the future instability that continues to prevail today.
Hatoum transcends large-scale worldly issues such as war and politics to much more personal ones – notably gender and imprisonment in the domestic sphere. Measures of Distance (1988) is perhaps the most emotional piece in the exhibition; an ode to her loving relationship with her mother who continues to live in Beirut with the rest of Hatoum’s relatives. Due to the contrasting conditions of the countries in which the two women reside, they are subjected to remarkably different lives and expectations. The installation piece is imbued with their different forms of communication, with a visual component exhibiting blurred photographs of her mother showering overlaid with Arabic writing taken from the letters sent between them. A translation of the letters is read aloud by Hatoum on top of the audio of the pair’s hushed phone conversations, slipping between English and Arabic. The intimacy of their conversations combined with the photographs of the mother evokes an impression of a deep mother-daughter bond, whilst the mixture of letters and phone calls act as a reminder of the physical distance between them; a consequence of war and conflict. There is an overriding tone of sadness and displacement in the piece, which effortlessly evokes a familiar sense of homesickness in any viewer.
Hatoum’s work has notable influences from a range of twentieth-century artists, with a clear ambition to provide experiences that unsettle and discomfort the senses. Grater Divide (2002) and Daybed (2008) are enlarged representations of domestic kitchen utensils with subverted functions. The title Grater Divide itself is an indication of Hatoum’s vision, enlarging a Victorian style fold out cheese grater to monumental size and placing it in a way to resemble a room divider. The size of the sculpture is intimidating and disconcerting with the holes all over rendering it useless as a room partition. The same can be said for the enlarged vegetable grater labelled as a Daybed when using it as such would undoubtedly inflict pain. With No Way and No Way III – two smaller pieces displayed in a room dedicated to showcasing the artist’s working methods – Hatoum has manipulated a soup ladle strainer and a colander by filling in the holes with sharp metal spikes. In doing this, Hatoum subverts the function of the kitchen utensils transforming them into aggressive and violent looking weapons. These ideas can be linked to the work of Martha Rosler in Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975). Rosler famously created the film parodying popular cooking shows of the time, performing an A-Z tutorial of different kitchen tools and subverting their function, turning them into weapons. Hatoum also appears to take inspiration from Dada ideals – continuing with the concept of found object and assemblages – reinforcing the importance of the concept behind her work. This is proven by the plethora of small sketchbooks on display alongside each piece in the room, articulating Hatoum’s thought process with pieces that may initially seem like they required little thought to create. Hatoum aptly articulates her stance on the oppressive nature of the domestic sphere in which she feels – as a woman – relegated to and thus she strives to fight against this expectation with her dramatic and aggressive pieces.
There is such a vast array of Hatoum’s work on show at this exhibition – each room having unique and equally distressing impact. Homebound, first shown in 2000, is a culmination of the ideas presented in the smaller works relating to issues of gender and domesticity. An arrangement of kitchen utensils and other pieces of furniture are linked together by an electric wire with a live current running through them. The current is set on a programmed dimmer constantly changing, lighting up the bulbs and creating an overwhelming buzzing sound when at their brightest. The amplified sound is aggressive and intrusive, impossible to escape from even when walking around the rest of the exhibition. A fence of steel wires prevents you from physically interacting with the installation, adding to the sense of oppression and entrapment. Once again Hatoum dwells on ideas of confinement in the domestic sphere, overwhelming the senses and having a forceful impact.
Hatoum is not afraid to confront the most pressing issues of society in her work, tackling concerns of war and violence as well as the oppression of women. Incorporating a diverse range of mediums and materials into her pieces, the exhibition is consistently compelling and thought-provoking. Spanning more than three decades of her career, Hatoum’s older pieces remain just as relevant as her most recent work – troublingly suggesting there has been little progress with even the biggest global issues. Hatoum’s stimulating and provocative exhibition is unmissable in light of current events, challenging visitors with ideas of isolation and detachment in a restless world of constant upheaval.