In order to enter Mona Hatoum’s retrospective at Tate Modern you have to navigate the pit of the stomach and the flesh of the throat. There’s no way around it. Just over the threshold is the dark bulk of Socle du Monde (1992-93), which transforms Piero Manzoni’s sculptural joke into the base of a troubled world - as complex and mysterious as the system of forces that allows thousands of iron filings to fur the work’s surface in a writhing, intestinal pattern. Beyond it is Corps étranger (1994), a squirming projection of an un-medical eye probing private fleshy apertures. It’s difficult to watch as the camera ventures far beyond what is comfortable or desired; the interior of the artist’s body pushes and pulls, refusing the invasion – a different sort of gag.
|Socle du Monde (1992-93)|
I have asked myself what it means to resist many times in recent weeks and I know I’m not alone. Resistance has risks in it. Not just the very real danger of being overcome, but also the realisation that you might cave – despite your best efforts – suddenly becoming intimately aware of your limits. Resistance is shaped by information but it begins in your body and, moving through the exhibition spaces, which hold around 100 of Hatoum’s works from the last 35 years, this fact dawns like a gut level punch.
The roots of Hatoum’s practice are present in documentation of early performance works, which confirm her reading of the body as a battleground. Addressing a troubled relationship between developing nations and the west, Hatoum created visceral installations that placed her at the dead centre of situations from which there was no escape - from threat or from the eyes of others. However it's beyond these photographs, in work that suggests rather than involves the presence of bodies, that a sense of precarity and peril is most keenly felt.
|Homebound (2000), Tate Modern installation view.|
At the centre of the exhibition is Homebound (2000) a kitchen tableau hijacked by a live circuit. The irresistible draw of familial warmth is replaced with white heat - the heart of the home pulsating with deadly voltage. In other quiet corners are a baby cot whose mattress is piano wire and a wheelchair kitted with knives. Space is carved up by the cheese grater room dividers produced in the early 2000s and then by the stacked cage and barbed wire works of more recent years. The illusion of safety in both public and private space is weaponised, threatening to physically alter you with indented skin, electric shocks and blinding, interrogative light.
1975 marked the beginning of an extended exile from Beirut for Hatoum, who was travelling in the UK during the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war. It also marked a dismantling of the idea of home as a place you could easily identify with a pin in a map, let alone as a refuge from danger. As such, Hatoum’s is a landscape of current and friction, where the bold and combative rub up against intimate domesticity. Among works whose scale is oppressive, their materiality cold and hazardous, there are textiles, voices, stains and handwriting - body stuff; traces of humanness clinging like hairs to soap.
|Over My Dead Body (1988-2002)|
Hatoum shows us how the body appends itself to the world, covertly altering and occupying it. In Keffieh (1993-9) long dark locks of hair are embroidered into a traditional male headdress; in Over My Dead Body (1988-2002) a toy soldier balances on the artist’s nose in the direct barrel of her defiance. The cultural specificity of Hatoum’s experience is shown to be bold lexicon in her work, but its relevance is universal. The metals of masculine war games are twisted into something fleshier, something that breathes. Resistance is affected in personal, interior space; in a female physicality that might not always be granted ownership of its boundaries; in a shared connective tissue. It feels right then, that in order to leave the exhibition you must navigate Undercurrent (2008), a splayed nervous system of red wires, woven to a grid at the centre and frilled with bulbs that pulsate with gentle light. Beneath the conflict and noise of the surface Hatoum draws attention an elemental charge. To something living. And there’s no way around it.
Entry for the Frieze Writers Prize 2016