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Encyclopedia of Modern Art and Arab World
موســــوعة الفـن الحديـــث والعالــم العربـــي
Artists' Index

Mona Hatoum - Turbulence

​​​Written by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath

"Philosophy is the opposite of all comfort and assurance. It is turbulence, the turbulence into which man is spun, so as in this way alone to comprehend human existence without delusion."1

Turbulence as metaphor

Thus spoke Heidegger when elucidating the fundamental purpose that philosophy plays within human activity: a profound questioning of everything that one assumes as a fixed finality.

This is what Mona Hatoum's art achieves. Ranging from small ready-mades to large-scale immersive installations, from politically engaged performance pieces to formally inclined sculptural objects, her prolific body of work refuses   to settle for the comfort and assurance bestowed by the mundane. On the one hand, it insists on upsetting the art-historical narratives and classifications to which it alludes. On the other, it renders obsolete the faculties of temporal recollection and corporeal perception that the viewer clings to in an attempt to define, even control, the emotional and intellectual ambivalence into which they have been flung.

In doing so, Hatoum's work posits probability, not merely as the philosophical counterpart of an a priori absolute certainty. More so, it allows for a realm of experience where uncertainty becomes a gateway into a renewed comprehension of human existence. "I want to create a situation where reality itself becomes a questionable point. Where viewers have to reassess their assumptions and their relationship to things around them"2, Hatoum once said in describing the conceptual impulse that underpins her work. "The best art is that which complicates things for you by exposing impossible contradictions, which makes you question your assumptions about the world so that you walk away with more questions than answers."3

In this regard, turbulence is employed as a gateway into a renewed understanding of Hatoum's work; a metaphor for this state of hovering between certainty and uncertainty where, as Edward Saïd put it, "familiarity and oddness are locked together in the oddest way, adjacent and irreconcilable at the same time."4 Turbulence is, therefore, intended as a title for an allegory. This is a story about an unyielding condition whose characters, the viewers, constantly oscillate between the clarity that is provided by the familiar and the ambiguity that derives from the peculiar.

That certain formal concerns and conceptual tropes have permeated the work of Hatoum for an odd thirty years or so is evident. These have been elaborately discussed and dissected by many critics, curators and scholars of art history alike. Their ruminations have situated the work within a variety of diverse interpretative contexts. Some have dwelled on the overtly political such as Salwa Mikdadi's emphasis on the Palestinian "Nakba" of 1948 and its aftermath, as a fundamental point of entry into several of Hatoum's works.5 Others have focused primarily on the work's purely formal aspects, yet without dismissing the political, like, for instance, Patricia Falguières' reference to Modernism, in particular the Minimalism of Le Witt and Judd, in her discussion of "Hatoum's tactical use of the canons of art history" 6, albeit an art history that remains, according to Falguières' references, decidedly and exclusively occidental.

Given its sheer complexity, there have been, undoubtedly, some less informed extrapolations coerced into Hatoum's work such as, for example, the contrived likening of the tendrils in Undercurrent (red) (2008) or, even more absurdly so, the organic whorls of small blood vessels in Baid Ghanam (sheep's testicle) (1996) and the swirls of lathered hair on a man's back in Van Gogh's Back (1995) to organic arabesques whose "formal idiom combines Arabic and European systems of signs into an aesthetic unity."7

The density of Hatoum's work has equally necessitated interdisciplinary methods of interpretation that borrowed from other sister disciplines operating beyond the scope of art criticism and historical inquiry. Take, for instance, Chiara Bertola's comparative analysis where, in an attempt to explicate Hatoum's hybridized forms, she likens the "constituent mutability of her work to Diderot's notion of metamorphosis in which the concept of form was not a fixed given."8 In another text entitled Home and Away: The Strange Surrealism of Mona Hatoum, Alix Ohlin carves out specific connections between the artist's Corps étranger (1994) and La grande broyeuse (Mouli-Julienne x 21) (2000) and Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis and In the Penal Colony respectively in order to further illuminate how Hatoum's work, similar to Kafka's, "inhabits an alternate reality where regular lives assume dream-like forms"9 due to her experience of dislocation.

In response to such a wealth of material, the choice of turbulence as a title for this exhibition, while borrowed from one of Hatoum's installations, is primarily a reflection of a curatorial desire to provide a distinct reading of her oeuvre that builds on and expands the critical terrain highlighted in some of the preceding references. The notion of turbulence as an idiomatic framework for this exhibition proposes a shift in locus away from the strands of interpretation that have been repeatedly employed to fix Hatoum's work within a set of clearly defined territories. "Though Mona Hatoum has used a great variety of media, she has inventively maintained a continuity in the issues addressed, among them the mapping of reality at the fringes of vision, a problemization of our understanding of alterity, space and time, the subversion of the formal properties of works of art, a procedure based on an economy of loss; and the reformation of female imagery."10 This is one of many similar assertions about Hatoum's work that continue to be expounded within the boundaries of a binary polarity that is ostensibly steeped between homeland and exile, stasis and mobility, formalistic purity and political rhetoric, domestic docility and feminist emancipation.

Therefore, instead of abiding by the existing paradigms, and while keeping in mind the formal, semantic, and biographical axes that often intersect and overlap in her work, the exhibition appropriates the notion – and nature – of turbulence as an alternative lens that allows for a restructuring of our comprehension; one that echoes the modus operandi that has permeated the work, and to a certain extent the life of the artist. Turbulence, hence, begins to operate as a dialectical model that has been orchestrated as a means to challenge and reorient the viewer's gaze. From a curatorial standpoint, it has been conceived as a metaphor that illustrates three significant strands which, given the time and location of this exhibition, call for proper investigation.

Turbulence as a complication of art history

The first interpretation of turbulence as intended in this exhibition is one that occurs at junctures of rupture within the established classifications of art history. The manner by which Hatoum's work absorbs, appropriates and re-invents specific art-historical styles has led to a conflation between the purely formal and the inherently political. For instance, works that are seemingly minimal have ceased to be strictly self-involved and have been activated by an awareness of certain socio-political issues. The cube in Impenetrable (2009), the grid in Light Sentence (1992), the Bauhaus-like features within the Bunker (2011) and Bourj (2010–2011) series are all reflective of how the aesthetic essence of so many of Hatoum's works is derived from such staples of Modernism. Yet, unlike how these and other forms had been employed before, Hatoum refuses to settle for Modernism's thrust towards objectivity and its relentless championing of form as both medium and message. Instead, she proceeds to invent "a language all her own. It is an elastic language, one which allows several levels to interact with themselves, a language that operates 'between formal rigor, conceptual subtlety and political awareness'."11 On another level, for example, Hatoum's work has often been likened to Surrealism. This is, in part, due to the way she has relied on the distortion of scale and the incorporation of unconventional material in readymades and sculptural objects that flirt with the menacing, subvert the erotic and exhort the unfamiliar, or un-heimlich.12 However, while invoking Surrealism's relationship to image-making in that "images cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two or more distant realities",13 Hatoum's intent, unlike that of Surrealism, is not confined to releasing the unbridled workings of the subconscious, nor is it primarily steeped within the tenets of Freudian psychology. Au contraire, Hatoum brilliantly inverts the ruses of Surrealist contradiction to create sobering, and at times equally playful environments, that are meant to further our interrogation of "human existence without delusion", to quote Heidegger once again. Sprague Chairs (DOWN TOOLS) (2001) Untitled (wheelchair II) (1999) and Natura morta (medical cabinet) (2012) are all good illustrations of this filament within Hatoum's work.

Further than providing us with a description of how Hatoum has managed to upset rigid art-historical categorizations, turbulence, from a curatorial angle, is intended to be seen as a revisionist maneuver that confronts the parameters upon which the dominant histories of modern and contemporary art have been structured. If Mathaf is meant to offer an Arab perspective on modern art, it is essential that our references to modernity, and consequentially our understanding of contemporaneity, transcend the exclusive occidental narrative that has insofar provided us with the established canon. Therefore, for instance, when discussing Hatoum's negotiation of Surrealism's juxtaposition of opposites in the making of an art that is concerned with the real, one could introduce into the discussion the activities of the predominantly Surrealist, Cairo-based Art and Liberty Group (f. 1939). "When properly examined, it becomes apparent that it is in their negotiation and adaptation of non-conformist approaches to exhibition design and display that their surrealist counterparts were employing, particularly in Paris and London in the 1930s, that they were most successful in instigating a rupture within the cultural and political structures which they sought to reform."14 And, to cite, by way of example, yet another often-quoted formal phenomenon in her work, when Hatoum 'contaminates' Minimalism with issues of identity that are derived from the specificity of her background, could one not also recall the geometric minimalism of a painter like Saliba el Douiahy whose ostensibly abstract paintings persist on being an embodiment, albeit severely disguised, of a specific location in his native Lebanon? These are significant examples of preceding acts of conscious negotiation that have been conventionally reduced to acts of 'borrowal'. To acknowledge them, more so within an art-historical discussion that is centered around an artist like Hatoum, is to begin a process of reversal, one that is undoubtedly turbulent, that could allow for a de-centering of the locus of art-historical production and, along with it, the prevalent rhetoric surrounding modernity as a primarily western invention imported to lesser effect by other parts of the world.

This critical reconstruction of the past, while cumbersome, is a mandatory task imperative for the re-contextualization of the present. One might protest against such an undertaking. For what does an artist like Hatoum, for instance, have in common with members of the Art and Liberty Group or with Saliba el Douiahy? Nothing and everything! Nothing, if one sets out on a trivial pursuit of constructing a simplistic linear history of classifications, periods and styles. Everything, if one manages to extract the uncanny parallels of disposition between the artists of the past and those of the present; if one crystallizes their appreciation of the resemblance that lies, not in the art itself, but in the attitude that both groups of artists developed toward how art can be made, what the legitimate sources for its inspiration are, and how these in turn can be re-invented to fit a specific socio-political context.15

Turbulence: the confounding of the personal with the collective

The personal history of Mona Hatoum has repeatedly been intertwined with the semantic intent behind her work. Often times, even in the least political of her works, the locus of interpretation has lied within notions of exile, identity politics and the yearning for homeland. "Her work is the presentation of identity as unable to identify with itself," explained Edward Saïd. Her art "articulates so fundamental a dislocation as to assault not only one's memory of what once was, but how logical and possible, how close and yet so distant from the original abode, this new elaboration of familiar space and objects really is."16

While never evading the complex correlation between one's background and their artistic output, Hatoum has often expressed, from early on in her career, an objection towards cultural framing that reduces an artist's oeuvre into a simplistic and literal manifestation of their personal biography. "With the early performances, I saw myself as a marginal person intervening form within the margins of the art world, and it seemed logical to use performance as a critique of the establishment. After a while I was becoming dissatisfied with the obviously rhetorical attitude and I wasn't sure any more whether the work I was doing was really what I wanted to do or the result of internalizing other people's expectations and the fact that I had been moulded into the role of political artist. It's quite a thin line. I wanted to make work that privileges the material, formal, visual aspect of art making and try to articulate the political through the aesthetics of the work."17

Despite Hatoum's nuanced articulation of the autobiographical in work that is primarily concerned with its aesthetic dimension, pre-determined readings of her work persist, and continue to gravitate towards topics that are overtly political such as exile and migration. In response, this exhibition would like to challenge the exclusive framing of exile as a predicament strictly pertaining to the personal history of Hatoum, and invite the viewer to reconsider it as a history of estrangement that is deeply intertwined with the experience of modernity. Modernity's obsession with fluidity has resulted in a significant shift in the individual's experience of home. In a world rampant with globalization, where journeys can occur not only across geographical boundaries, but equally so through the proliferating technologies of global communication, the presupposition that any given culture is the making of a sealed set of traditions and practices confined to a clearly marked locale is no longer valid. Consequently, "in modernity the meaning of home has shifted from being a shelter that unifies the dual consciousness of memory and destiny through tradition, to being a container of incommensurable practices and improvisations."18 Migration and exile, in turn, can no longer be perceived as a hazard that is enclosed within the tragedies of departure and the dreams of return caused by political banishment. Instead, they become metaphors for the totality of ruptures that pervade the modern age. The migrant, therefore, is no longer only the person who has undergone geographical displacement due to political or economic hardship, but anyone who has experienced a sense of estrangement due to "the modern anxiety over authenticity and the struggle for meaning in modernity."19 John Berger best described this when he wrote: "to emigrate is always to dismantle the center of the world, and so to move into a lost, disoriented one of fragments."20

Therefore, to look at the history of modernity as one and the same as a history of exile, is to collapse the boundaries that separate the autobiographical from the collective. Turbulence can be indicative of that collapse, that confusion arising from the conflation of the personal with the public. This will hopefully liberate Hatoum's work from the essentialist burden of exilic victimage and allow the viewer to see it as a metaphor for the various extents of displacement in modernity. Hence, a work like Routes (2003) becomes more a mapping of transience as a modern phenomenon, rather than cartography of the artist's personal journeys. Home (1999), for instance, ceases to be primarily explained within the confines of Hatoum's personal loss and yearning for home, but as an embodiment of a universal deliberation over the definition of home, not vis-à-vis a given geographical location, but, to use Mircea Eliade's words as a "site for the ontological reconciliation of time and space."21 Even works as personal as Measures of Distance (1988) and Interior Landscape (2008) can thus acquire a broader meaning and become a vessel that embodies the sense of estrangement and alienation experienced by all of us when subjected to loss and separation.

Turbulence: a curatorial disposition underlying the exhibition

Turbulence is indicative of the curatorial methodology that underscores the spatial distribution of the exhibition, echoing the experiential nature of the artist's work. The exhibition has been conceived as one complex installation where the diverse works on display come together to articulate an overall sense of turbulence that derives simultaneously from the particular formal contradictions that are specific to each work, as well as the cumulative tension that is augmented by their carefully planned placement. The exhibition's premise and title build on one of Hatoum's topical works. Turbulence (2012) is a 4 x 4 meter square installation composed of thousands of glass marbles laid directly onto the floor. Placed exactly at the centre of the exhibition, this installation lies at the heart of a linear but non-chronological trajectory whereby a number of unexpected juxtapositions echo the complexity through which the artist has managed to challenge, and at times disturb, our experience of the ordinary. For instance, a work like Natura morta (medical cabinet) (2012) is placed within close proximity of another work also made from glass: Silence (1994). Besides the wide range of formal characteristics evident in the extremely different treatment and use of glass in each of the two works, their placement within view of each other enhances the menacing agency of each, thus, multiplying the sense of threat within the entire space. To cite another example, Roadworks (1985), a video documentation of an early performance by Hatoum, shows her walking barefoot through the streets of Brixton, dragging a pair of large Dr. Martens boots, tied to her ankles, behind her. The video is played on a monitor that is placed on the floor against one of the side walls of the main hall leading into the exhibition space. Upon entry into that same gallery, the viewer is first confronted with what appears as a metropolis consisting of a number of massive pieces from her Bourj (2010–2011) and Bunker (2011) series that are intimidatingly placed in the center of the space. The discrepancy in monumentality and positioning between the large sculptures and the dwarfed monitor further highlights the spatial relativity of each. Moreover, the viewer could read in this juxtaposition an attempt at a re-enactment of sorts where the act of walking amongst these structures today echoes the artist's performance of 1985. To give one more example, Suspended (2011), an installation comprising 35 swings that hang close to each other from the ceiling, is one of only two works occupying a narrow long gallery. The other work is Turbulence (2012). Besides the sensation of tension caused by the obvious visual dichotomies between the two pieces, one extends vertically towards the ceiling, the other lies horizontally on the floor, one is mobile, the other static, the viewer's anxiety is intensified when walking through the hanging swings as they inevitably start to sway. The movement of the swings, which only a minute ago were equally static like the marbles on the floor, augments the viewer's awareness of the fragile physical elements surrounding them, and how their presence could lead to an unraveling of the seemingly fixed marbles lying on the floor only a few feet away. Such juxtapositions allow for an intense aesthetic experience that is both inviting yet impenetrable, or, in other words, turbulent.

Turbulence as reality

The last three years or so have witnessed a significant resurgence of a much-contested debate over art and political engagement. While social and political tropes have frequently been associated with artistic production in the Arab world, there is no doubt that this ferocious return has been triggered by the ongoing conflict-ridden transition that has come to be labeled as the Arab Spring. In response, many artists have succumbed to the temptation of making work that is politically overt yet formalistically unresolved. This is not the first occasion where the axes of art making and political action intersect. It is highly unlikely that this would be the last either. However, there, on that cusp, stand a very few number of artists who have successfully managed to draw the line between political orientation and artistic integrity. Hatoum is one of them. While her work grapples with issues of displacement, it never looses sight of its physical nature. And as she continues to reflect on highly political topics related to the human condition at large, she never ceases to expand the formal and material qualities of her artistic expression. Therefore "to locate Hatoum's work within a particular geo-political construct would be to underestimate dramatically the physical impact of what happens when form becomes self-supporting in both physical and conceptual terms."22 Or, to put it in her own words: "When my work shifted from an obviously political, rhetorical attitude into one bringing political ideas to bear through the form and the aesthetic, the work became more of an open system."23 It was two years ago that we embarked on this close collaboration with Mona. We were at the opening of one of her exhibitions when the idea of working together came about. Ever since, it has been a rigorous journey of growth and exchange. Our insight into her work is undoubtedly the result of her unwavering guidance; to hear and see Mona talk about her art is both, enumerating and enamoring. As for her work, it is constantly originating from a place of wonder, where an unwillingness to settle for the familiar is always propelling her towards new terrain. "Don't start with the good old things but the bad new ones",24 Brecht once said. This is the inquisitive impulse that lays at the heart of Hatoum's work, and that, in one word, is turbulence.

1 Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1995, p. 19.
2 Mona Hatoum, Interview by Janine Antoni, Mona Hatoum. Amman: The Khalid Shoman Foundation, Darat al Funun, October 2008, p. 22. Interview first published in BOMB Magazine, New York, Issue # 63, Spring 1998, pp. 54–61.
3 Mona Hatoum, Interview by Fereshteh Daftari, Here is Elsewhere. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, November 7, 2003 – February 4, 2004.
4 Edward Saïd, Mona Hatoum: The Entire World as a Foreign Land. London: Tate Gallery, 2000.
5 Salwa Mikdadi, The State of Being in Mona Hatoum's Artwork; Mona Hatoum. Amman: The Khalid Shoman Foundation, Darat al Funun, October 2008, pp. 59–73.
6 Patricia Falguières, Disbelonging; Mona Hatoum: Shift. Berlin: Galerie Max Hetzler and Holzwarth Publications, 2012, p. 68.
7 Rainald Schumacher, Mona Hatoum: Double Sound – Organic Arabesques and Narrative Grids; Mona Hatoum Munich: Sammlung Goetz and Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2012, pp. 45–49.
8 Chiara Bertola, Mona Hatoum. Unstable, Living, Organic and Moving Forms; Mona Hatoum: Interior Landscape. Milan: Charta, 2009, p. 21.
9 Alix Ohlin, Home and Away: The Strange Surrealism of Mona Hatoum; Mona Hatoum. Amman: The Khalid Shoman Foundation, Darat al Funun, October 2008, p. 45. First published in Mona Hatoum: Undercurrents, XIII Biennale Donna Ferrara catalogue, 2008.
10 Catherine de Zegher, Mona Hatoum: Beyond the Violence Vortex into the Beauty Vortex; Mona Hatoum: Projecció. Barcelona: Fundació Joan Miró, 2011, p. 120.
11 Bertola, 21.
12 Kirsty Bell, Mona Hatoum: Unhomely. Berlin: Galerie Max Hetzler and Holzwarth Publications, 2009.
13 André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, (trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane). Ann Arbor, 1971, p. 37.
14 Sam Bardaouil, "Dirty Dark Loud and Hysteric': The London and Paris Surrealist Exhibitions of the 1930s and the Exhibition Practices of the Art and Liberty Group in Cairo." Dada/ Surrealism 19 (2013): n. page. Web.
15 Sam Bardaouil, The Transmodern Artist; Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, Told Untold, Retold: 23 Stories of Journeys through Time and Place. Milan: Skira, 2010, p. 7.
16 Saïd, Mona Hatoum: The Entire World as a Foreign Land.
17 Hatoum, Interview by Janine Antoni, Mona Hatoum, p. 22.
18 Nikos Papastergiadis, Modernity as Exile: The Stranger in John Berger's Writing. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993, p. 11.
19 Ibid, p. 11.
20 John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. New York: Bloomsbury, 2005, p. 57.
21 Mircea Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries (trans. Philip Mairet). New York: Harper & Row, 1967, p. 115.
22 Andrew Renton, Mona Hatoum. London: White Cube Gallery, 2006, pp. 29, 33.
23 Hatoum, Interview by Janine Antoni, Mona Hatoum, p. 23.
24 Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht (trans. Anna Bostock). London: Verso Books, 1977, p. 121.  

 

This essay was originally published in the exhibition catalogue Mona Hatoum: Turbulence. First published by Silvana Editoriale S.p.A., 2014. All rights reserved © Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and Qatar Museums, Doha, Qatar. Exhibition Curators: Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath.