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Hatoum, Mona (1952–) - BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS, PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:, PERSONAL HISTORY, INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS, EXPLORING, THE WORLD’S PERSPECTIVE, LEGACY

art palestinian beirut

Palestinian sculptor Mona Hatoum (also Muna Hatum) was born in Beirut, Lebanon, to Palestinian Christian parents exiled from Haifa as a result of the 1948 War. She briefly attended Beirut University College (1970–1972). On a visit to London in 1975, she was forced to stay when civil war broke out in Lebanon. She enrolled at Byam Shaw School of Art (1975–1979) before studying at the Slade School of Fine Art (1979–1981). Since 1989 she has been critically and globally acclaimed for a significant corpus that includes groundbreaking examples of video, performance, and installation art. In 1995 she was short-listed for the coveted Turner Prize and, shortly after, designated a YBA (Young British Artist). By 2003 she had been invited by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York to curate Here Is Elsewhere, her warmly received “Artist’s Choice” exhibition. Hatoum continues to live and work in the British capital and elsewhere.

BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS

Name: Mona Hatoum (Muna Hatum)

Birth: 1952, Beirut, Lebanon

Nationality: Palestinian; British citizenship

Education: Beirut University College (Lebanon), Byam Shaw School of Art, London (U.K.), Slade School of Fine Art, London (U.K.)

PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:

  • 1975: Moves to London, U.K.
  • 1980–1989: Video and performance
  • 1981: Begins working as full-time artist
  • 1989–present: Sculpture and installation
  • 2004: Short-listed for the Turner Award

PERSONAL HISTORY

Transnational artist Mona Hatoum was born in 1952 as a refugee in Beirut, Lebanon, where her Palestinian parents had gone in 1948 after fleeing Haifa when the city was occupied by the soon-to-be-recognized Israeli nation. Because her father was employed by the British Embassy in Beirut, Hatoum and her family never received Lebanese citizenship. Instead, they carried British passports. After studying design principles at Beirut University College (1970–1972) and working briefly as a graphic designer in the Lebanese capital, Hatoum left for a visit to London in 1975. While away, her country erupted into an intractable civil war, increasingly exacerbated by cyclic regional hostilities, most notably an Israeli invasion in 1982. Hatoum remains based in the United Kingdom although she prefers working nomadically and around the globe, including a solo stint in Jerusalem (1996).

Because of her geographic trajectory (Palestinian-Lebanese-British), Hatoum has inevitably become identified with themes of exile, displacement, estrangement, and diaspora, as well as violence. Granted, much of her work undeniably exhibits lethal properties easily threatening viewers’ suddenly vulnerable bodies, whether through penitentiary associations, industrial strength precision, or actual volts of electricity, including digital or imagined ( Measures of Distance , 1988; The Light at the End , 1989; Light Sentence , 1992; Corps étranger , 1994; Sous Tension , 1999; La Grande Broyeuse (Mouli-Julienne × 17) , 1999; and Hot Spot , 2006). She has nevertheless resisted having her work’s content limited or reduced to a specific nationality, preferring instead to lay general claim for a universal state of alienation. Helping trigger this shift from single case toward anonymity, Hatoum exploits a prevalent mind/body split in Western culture that she noticed when moving from Lebanon to Great Britain. By inventively cultivating visceral responses, she repeatedly disrupts modernist and contemporary inclinations toward disembodied intellectualism.

Many of her works transform small home and kitchen appliances into live electrical conduits. In the frightening Sous Tension (1999), for example, scores of shiny, metallic household gadgetry permeate the family infrastructure, fitfully illuminating incandescent bulbs. The gargantuan assembly requires containment to prevent audiences from getting shocked, though they cannot avoid the intermittent sounds of electrical buzzing. While at London’s Tate Gallery, Sous Tension required several feet of buffer and a 6-foot high perimeter of fencing, with steel wires spaced a few inches apart. Several of her works benefit from compound properties—elements giving off both light and heat, such as The Light at the End (1989) and, most recently, Hot Spot (1996), a glowing electrical globe and map of the world. One of Hatoum’s most terrifying objects features a series of supersized 1950s gadgets such as slicers, shredders, and graters. Conducting neither live currents nor scorching heat, and likewise incapable of illumination, her 1999 La Grande Broyeuse (Mouli-Julienne × 17 ) nevertheless proves equally dramatic. The atrocious contraption has reminded some of torture chambers in Franz Kafka’s nightmarish scenarios. Hatoum also takes cues from Michel Foucault and EDWARD SAID (for example, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison and Reflections on Exile ).

INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS

Hatoum describes her career path as initially concerned with performance and video art (1980s) and then, later, sculpture and installation (1990s and beyond). Although such compartmentalizing follows current trends in recent art terminology, Hatoum may just as easily be regarded as a sculptor from the beginning because, by definition, sculpture encompasses all of the above media. Indeed, Hatoum’s potent corpus of work reveals great resonance with not only its immediate surroundings but also the rich (Western) history of modern and contemporary sculpture. That said, she and her YBA peers and other contemporary artists inherited a corporate aesthetics that became firmly embedded in the 1960s with the help of (primarily North American) minimalism, conceptualism, and postminimalism. In addition, her generation inescapably benefited from civil rights and feminist consciousness-raising, though she has called feminism a launching pad for a further range of social reform strategies, including postcolonialist constructions of reality. Her most effective works simultaneously draw upon many or all of these arenas often combined with technological sophistication.

EXPLORING

Given the contagion of international contemporary art exhibitions taking place around the globe (such as with Hatoum in 2007, exhibiting Hot Spot at the first biennale of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates), healthy numbers steadily presented for the recent and ongoing period by auction houses, and regular spikes of enrollment in art schools worldwide, contemporary art would appear to be thriving, even profitable, but which kinds ultimately gain value? How do some bodies of work, even subversive sorts, fare better in a globalized era than others? What does Mona Hatoum share with popular fellow YBAs, not to mention a growing cadre of transnational art stars, many of whom followed equally peripatetic routes as the Palestinian exile (such as GHADA AMER, Atlas Group, Cai Guo-Qiang, Félix Gonzalez-Torres, Wenda Gu, Shirin Neshat, Walid Raad, Yinka Shonibare, Shahzia Sikander, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Xu Bing)? If audiences today crave the sleek and regimented, then transnational art’s disparate cultural turns offer complexity to an otherwise homogenizing aesthetic.

A culmination of over a decade’s work, Measures of Distance (1988) may prove to be one of her most popular and personal if controversial projects, not to mention, as video recording, easily reproducible. The visual field sequentially incorporates a dozen still images of her mother showering that Hatoum captured with a camera on a visit back to Beirut in 1981. In addition, a steady scroll of Arabic script streams across the screen, presumably illegible to a majority of her audience, many likening the effect to barbed wire or steel under tension as well as strands of veil compelled by impropriety. In fact, the handwritten excerpts come from her mother’s letters. Superimposed by audio, as Guy Brett explains, are the artist’s English in a sad voice translating the Arabic words out loud together with tape-recorded conversation between the women intently exploring the recorded sentiments between bursts of laughter. An even more extreme case of video-recorded exposure, having involved acute risk of bodily harm, Corps étranger (1994) provides an actual endoscopic study of Hatoum’s internal organs, screened on a floor monitor at the center of a circular compartment that recalls Foucault’s Panopticon ideas. Both of these works explore tensions raised by and still debated within feminism over body control, surveillance, and physical consideration.

Hatoum’s austere economy of means and rapid assimilation of classical Western design ensure that her work settles easily, if subversively, into familiar canons of form. Perhaps most effective are the following delicate, if deadly, subterfuges. In homage to and upstaging of fluorescent bulb minimalist Dan Flavin (1933–1996), The Light at the End (1989) features six evanescent vertical heating elements mounted in a spotlit steel frame. The glowing posts appear, at first, to warmly attract but, easily approachable, ultimately alarm and potentially harm with searing temperatures. Referencing the geometric floor grids and hard metal tiles produced by Carl Andre (1935–) as well as postminimalist and dichotomous accretions generated by Eva Hesse (1936–1970), Present Tense (1996) may represent one of Hatoum’s softest yet most powerful conflagrations with its seemingly sterile installation charged with haunting sensations. Delineating the boundaries of Palestinian land Israel would relinquish as per the 1993 Oslo peace agreement but for the Palestinian refusal to sign the treaty having just then seen the maps (“little islands with no continuity or connection between them”), Hatoum methodically and painstakingly inserted tiny red glass beads demarcating the surfaces of more than sixteen-hundred diminutive bars of soap. She then arranged the bars, a Palestinian specialty handmade out of pure olive oil, in carpet-fashion for the floor of a Jerusalem gallery. Hatoum nods to Richard Serra (1939–), Robert Morris (1931–), Richard Long (1945–), and even Alexander Calder (1898–1976; e.g., La Grand Vitesse , 1969), not to mention Claes Oldenberg (1929–), in masterpieces La Grand Broyeuse (1999) and Mouli-Julienne (× 21) (2000).

Paramount to Hatoum’s transnational success has been her magnanimous tolerance for, adaptability to, and integration of cultural dissonance that she courts by perpetually placing herself in foreign working environments. Impressive demonstrations of cultural flexibility and fluency are all the more poignant for their forceful unsettling, if abruptly elegant, disjunctures, even when experienced through reproduction. However concrete the evidence of the artist’s own discomfiture of process, she welcomes the fact that audiences need not appreciate, much less be aware of, her particular pain to unavoidably experience their own disease, especially in person. Compared to Hatoum, few artists present as extensive a spectrum of experience and breadth of media, even at the risk of inadequate documentation, as with such ephemeral performances as Look No Body! (1981), Under Siege (1983), Roadworks (1985), and perhaps Pull (1995). Even more impressively, few so acutely encrystallize the terroristic tenor of daily life, whether lived in macro- or microcosm, all the while maintaining dialogue with contemporary and prior eras of art and ideas. In the spirit of Hermann Hesse and others, Hatoum hijacks masculine minimalist aesthetics, enabling alternative sensibilities.

THE WORLD’S PERSPECTIVE

Although Hatoum received steady attention from her years at Slade until the close of the 1980s, critics remained cautious. Meanwhile, her energetic exhibition record proved innovative and shocking. From 1989 until 2006, she was in more than forty solo exhibitions at prestigious institutions around the world. During these years, her work gained global respectability, especially after being short-listed in 1995 for the annual Turner Prize, one of the most important and controversial art awards in Europe (won that year by another YBA, Damien Hirst). Equally critical, she has importantly figured in such definitive and landmark group shows as MoMA’s Sense and Sensibility: Women and Minimalism in the Nineties (1994); the first Shaker community artist’s residency The Quiet in the Land (1997); and the Habana (1991, 1994), Venice (1995), Istanbul (1995), Kwangju (1997), Sao Paolo (1988), Cairo (1998), Sydney (2006), as well as Sharjah (2007) biennales, and Documenta 11 (2002). Her work also traveled with such provocative exhibitions as Interrogating Identity (1991), Inside the Visible: An Elliptical Traverse of 20th Century Art in, of, and from the Feminine (1996), Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection (1997), and Beyond East and West: Seven Transnational Artists (2004).

LEGACY

Mona Hatoum’s remarkable ascendancy becomes evident in her being recognized as an artist alone or first, instead of or in addition to being a Palestinian, woman, or political artist. She has succeeded in achieving the formal vocabulary necessary for global exchange without, however, sacrificing biographical specifics. She and many equally successful contemporaries borrow cool, contained, austere, and orderly stylistics of previous generations, especially (North American) minimalism, only to convey opposite sensation (such as conflicted, dangerous, messy, or undifferentiated) while exploring the body politic. Minimalism itself managed to pass or blend into the urban corporate infrastructure without exposing latently violent roots (born, for example, out of the American-Vietnam conflict). Similar to the peers she selects for Here Is Elsewhere , Hatoum similarly revives minimalism as radical camouflage for, as she explains in interview, “various issues without being didactic” including “sexuality, AIDS, gender, and identity representation” (Daftari, 2003).

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