The Great Unease

Mona Hatoum, Hot Spot III 2009 Foto:

Her works suggest stability while simultaneously conveying a sense of collapse. Three institutions explore Mona Hatoum’s view of present-day dislocations. Here, the three directors are giving an insight into their respective exhibitions.

Mona Hatoum is regarded as one of the most important and influential artists of her generation. Her performances, videos, photos, sculptures, and installations centre on an investigation of displacement, marginalisation, and state violence—issues she explores both against the backdrop of her own biography and in light of current social developments. Neue Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.), Kindl—Centre for Contemporary Art, and the Georg Kolbe Museum will open a major survey of Hatoum’s work in September.

Since the 1990s, Hatoum has created works permeated by a subtle play of contradictions that evoke latent danger and confusion. The pieces, with their clear formal vocabulary and shiny industrial surfaces, are characterised by a reduced aesthetic. The performative and its—always inherent—reference to the body are crucial. Hatoum’s most recent works focus on portraying precarious conditions in a globalised world. Her expansive installations employ basic shapes that simultaneously suggest both order and sudden, impending collapse. This balancing act between stability and breakdown, the familiar and the discomfiting, beauty and horror speaks to the conflicting emotions a human psyche might experience in a present marked by power-political conflict.

Mona Hatoum, Home 1999, Photo: Joerg von Bruchhausen, Courtesy by Galerie Max Hetzler

The n.b.k. exhibition focuses on Hatoum’s work around physical and psychological structural violence, a destructive force that is as likely to play out in a domestic setting as it is on the global scene. Four installations explore a state of existential insecurity that Hatoum once described as »the human condition of exile«. ›Home‹ (1999), for example, finds Hatoum applying high voltage electricity to kitchen utensils. Thus transformed into ominous, buzzing safety hazards, the objects undermine associations with »home sweet home« as a protective, intimate space. Other works make specific use of maps and cartographic systems to address human influx and movement as a result of flight, displacement, and migration: ›Hot Spot‹ (2009), her globe showing the contours of the continents outlined in red neon, presents the entire world as a danger zone. Hatoum’s work around the state control of borders and mobility also draws parallels to current debates on digital surveillance technologies and newer forms of biopolitics.

At the Georg Kolbe Museum, the artist has chosen to show a series of works that respond directly to the site—a 1920s building that once served as a modernist sculptor’s residence and studio—and moreover give insight into her oeuvre since the 1980s. Early performance videos show the artist interacting with her audience, which often consisted of passers-by in public spaces. Simple, mostly ritualised actions introduce change to everyday routines, imbuing them with a menacing ambiguity. Deprived of their context or otherwise rendered equivocal, even minor gestures become highly charged symbols, evoking a feeling of foreignness in a culturally coded environment. Encryptions, signatures, and signs of the body’s presence or absence emerge as a reference to communication systems—systems that can include spoken or written language, but also such everyday objects as furniture, jewellery, or household appliances.

Mona Hatoum, Mobile Home II 2006 Berlin

Kindl—Centre for Contemporary Art is working with Mona Hatoum to develop an expansive, kinetic, and site-specific installation that responds to the history and conditions of its industrial boiler house (Kesselhaus), a twenty-by-twenty-by-twenty-metre room in the former brewery. Partially tiled walls in the space still bear traces its former use and also show damage from the Second World War—a consequence of the brewery’s proximity to bombing at the former Tempelhof Airport. Hatoum’s towering, horizontally gridded structure has the look and proportions of a building frame or skyscraper under construction. The sculpture collapses at regular intervals, its intermittent caving and straightening alluding to the dislocations of the present, to destruction and resistance, but also new beginnings.

Mona Hatoum, 3-D Cities 2008-2010 Photo: Florian Kleinefenn

Hatoum’s key themes of migration, exile, and state control are inextricably entwined with her own biography. Born in Beirut in 1952 to Palestinian parents, the artist travelled to London for a short stay in 1975. The Lebanese Civil War broke out while she was there, and she was not allowed to return home. Hatoum now lives and works in London; she has also maintained a second residence in Berlin since receiving a DAAD scholarship in 2003/04.

The exhibition project—along with an accompanying programme of events and a publication—presents key pieces by Hatoum from past decades along with site-specific new works. It is also complemented by an international symposium and artist talk on 29 OCT 2022. Its aim is to tie an art-historical exploration of Hatoum’s sculpture into a larger look at socio-political perspectives, and to take a collaborative look at how sculpture is evolving in the field of tension between mechanisation, new images of the body, and globalisation.

Mona Hatoum, So much I want to say, 1983 Black and white video with sound © Mona Hatoum. Courtesy the artist

First published at Museumsjournal 22 MAR

You might also like