Christine Lindey reviews an exhibiton by Mona Hatoum at Tate Modern, London.
Mona Hatoum manages the rare feat of creating art about politics and the human condition without dry didacticism, but with barbed wit, elegance and subtlety. And has done so for over four decades. Born in Beirut in 1952 to Palestinian parents, she became marooned in London by the 1975 Lebanese war, having recently arrived there to study art. She subsequently settled in London but retained a lifelong internationalist outlook.
Her work blossomed while studying on Stuart Brisley’s radical MA course at the Slade School of Art which stressed socio-political content and expanded the artist’s means of expression to include performance, installations, video, film and print media. In resistance to the sexist cultural climate of the late 1970s, budding women artists like Hatoum were particularly receptive to these new art forms, which freed them from the oppression of centuries-old, male-dominated traditions of painting and sculpture.
Hatoum’s work positively fizzes with the breadth of expression this opened up. Her rigorous but imaginative choice of the most apt forms, processes and materials to suit each work’s content led to installations, posters, sculptures, film, posters and documented performance art. The most mundane objects and materials of everyday life such as soap, light bulbs, sand, hair, kitchen implements and neon tubes are transformed into visual poetry whose meanings can be teased out by the viewers’ active engagement rather than passive consumption.
Some works relate to specific topical events. The early performance Roadworks of 1985 (above) was spurred by that year’s protests against the police’s racist implementation of Thatcher’s hated stop and search laws which erupted into riots in Brixton. Wearing a boiler suit, Hatoum attached the laces of Doc Martins boots to each of her bare feet and “walked” laboriously through Brixton market, each step hampered by the bulk of the heavy boots. Commonly worn by policemen and National Front skin-heads, the Doc Martins referred to their racist harassment of Brixton’s Afro-Caribbean community, while Hatoum’s dogged physical perseverance and moral courage in facing the banter and bafflement at her action by the market’s public testify to human resilience.
Present Tense of 1996 is a more subtle but equally specific political statement. The deceptively simple installation carpets the floor with a rectangle of small, cream blocks softly gleaming in the light. Closer examination reveals these to be 2,200 bars of handmade olive oil soap from Nablus, upon which a map of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accord is marked out in tiny red glass beads as delicately as embroidered beadwork. That Israel has since then further encroached on Palestinian land rather than honouring this agreement, makes the continuing relevance of this instillation all the more poignant. Typical of most of Hatoum’s work, it initially seduces with sensory beauty only to provoke with the seriousness of the issues it raises.
Over My Dead Body was a poster displayed in 1988 on adverting hoardings in cities including Glasgow, Leeds and Derry. A toy soldier, wielding a gun threateningly, is ridiculed by being placed on Hatoum’s nose as she glares angrily back at him. Using a form which demands directness, Hatoum made this powerful, anti-militarist statement through humour and dramatic changes of scale.
Other works engage with socio-political injustice and oppression in more general ways, allowing for multi-layered associations, complexities and contradictions. Light Sentence, whose title reinforces its allusion to imprisonment, is a large installation made of galvanised, wire mesh lockers stacked taller than a human being, to form a three-sided rectangle inside a smallish, rectangular space. A single, bare light bulb travels through the mesh throwing intimidating, but visually alluring, moving shadows whose cage-like forms entrap the viewer into a dizzying disorientation.
Similar vertiginously conflicting emotions are elicited by Impenetrable, a visually stunning ethereal sculpture consisting of a large rectangle formed by delicate, parallel metal rods apparently free floating from each other, hovering in space without any visible means of support. Closer inspection reveals the slim rods to be barbed wire suspended from the ceiling on transparent fishing wires. Aesthetic attraction turns to repulsion then back again, the work’s unsettling elegance nudging us to take nothing for granted.
The contemporary artist’s dilemma is how to make meaningful statements in a society saturated with images reproduced ad infinitum. The form of much of Hatoum’s work defies reproduction, so stressing the importance of primary experience. With fertile imagination and open-mindedness, Hatoum invents ever varied forms through which to express progressive ideas and responses to the world with acute moral and political judgement, passion, humour and beauty.
Tate Modern’s intelligently and deftly curated exhibition does justice to this truly important living artist. As one of the most exciting exhibitions of contemporary art staged in London in a long time it is not to be missed. You won’t be disappointed.
See http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/mona-hatoum. Until August 21 2016.
Until she recently retired Christine Lindey was an Associate Lecturer in art history at the University of the Arts, London and at Birkbeck College, University of London. She is a visual arts critic for the Morning Star and her fifth book, Art for All: British Socially Committed Art c.1939 - c.1962, will be published in the near future.