Mona Hatoum’s work, as collected together in this retrospective, neatly straddles recent preoccupations at the great institution where it currently resides. There’s quite a lot to do with performance art, though the artist seems to have moved away from this in recent years. There are political echoes from the ever-turbulent Middle East. Hatoum was born in Beirut to a Palestinian family in 1952, and settled in London in 1975 after civil war broke out in Lebanon while she was on a visit to Britain. She now divides her time between the UK and Berlin. Her work is fairly solidly non-commercial. This surely reassures bureaucratic patrons of supposedly avant-garde expression – though the great auctions rooms, as we know, will find a way to turn an honest penny on even the most apparently recalcitrant forms of contemporary art.
Above all, Hatoum is a prominent female artist. And the new director of Tate Modern, Frances Morris, has said that she is anxious to give women artists greater visibility. Though the project was obviously initiated before her appointment, she must feel that the show gets her tenure off to a good start. In fact so many boxes are ticked here that it makes an instinctive contrarian like me feel a little uneasy. “Approval of what is approved of/Is as false as a well-kept vow,” as John Betjeman once wrote, parodying Oscar Wilde.
Let’s clear up the minor issues first. Dinky little photographic displays, memorials to long-gone performance art, really don’t work in this kind of grandiose setting. It’s like being invited to a sit-down meal, and when you pull up your chair what they put in front of you is an ice-cold plate with just a scrap of paper on it with the blurrily typed recipe for what you thought you were going to eat.
Hatoum’s big installations are a different matter. Though the one I like best – a circular sandpit with a rotating motor-driven arm sweeping inexorably across the surface, creating and erasing a pattern of lines in the sand – is more passive- aggressive than actually hostile, a metaphor for the futility of human existence – what she does extremely well is latent threat.
This takes quite a number of metaphoric forms – a daybed-sized vegetable-grater, ready to rip your skin off if you are unwise enough to recline there. A collection of wire lockers, let by a single slowly moving light that makes them cast threatening shadows on the walls. A collection of pieces of kitchen furniture and kitchen utensils connected to one another by wires carrying live electric current, which illuminates bulbs that flicker and fade: all this generating a sinister low crackling buzz. An installation entitled Impenetrable, that consists, hanging airily just above the floor, of closely spaced strands of barbed wire.
I like these items better than the more specifically political works that refer to the fate of Palestine. And more than the slightly creepy items that show an obsession with human hair amounting to fetishism.
The question I do ask myself, however, is one about real durability. Will people want to go back to these, twenty or thirty years from now, and will they retain their edge? When they rely on technology – usually, to do the artist justice, fairly rudimentary everyday technology, how will that survive? Coming out of the show I looked down, through a glass wall, into the huge Turbine Hall, the major space at Tate Modern, currently in the hands of the builders. It was littered with various red metal barriers, all in disarray. It flashed through my mind that this was another, even more ambitious work by Mona Hatoum. But was it coming together, or was it dissolving? What called itself art was suddenly – once again metaphorically – being undone and outclassed by real life. But then, again, Hatoum’s show taught me to see it that way.
Words: Edward Lucie-Smith – Photo courtesy Twitter