Continuing her ongoing investigation of the emotional tensions activated by and through physical properties, Mona Hatoum presents three new sculptural works that render paradoxical the sense of safety associated with stability and problematize the sense of comfort assumed implicit in the notion of home.
Like much of her production, these new pieces rely on distortions of scale for their efficacy and dramatic intensity. Hatoum utilizes magnification and multiplication to reveal what the eye cannot see literally or to compound the meaning and expand the possibilities of that which is recognizable in everyday life but nonetheless left unnoticed or cognitively neglected. Corps étranger (1994), for instance, one of her most well-known and widely exhibited works to date, features a magnification of an endoscopic journey through her body. In another earlier piece, Look No Body! (1981), she amplified the natural sounds of her heartbeat and stomach. For works such as Jardin Public (1993) and Recollection (1995), she accumulated and sculpturally transformed stray strands of her hair, thereby resituating the human body’s inconsequential daily detritus into an (artistic) position that can claim notice. Her process of escalating, accumulating, repeating and amplifying, though often practiced (especially in her work from the 1980s) along the physical parameters of her own body, is not limited to that. In many of her most ambitious installations from the 1990s, the artist has worked with less apparently subjective materials and forms, such as stainless steel, glass and wire mesh, which are often used in conjunction with electricity to produce sound and light.
Mimetic repetition constitutes a dominant stylistic trope of 60s Minimalism, which, along with Performance Art, provides the visual grammar and syntax within which Mona Hatoum has fashioned her own language. The persistence of repetition, as both process and formal materialization, as utilized by Hanne Darboven, Donald Judd, Agnes Martin, Sol Le Witt and other artists involved with the development of Minimalism during the 1960s, is renavigated by Hatoum through the more subjective and theatrical possibilities introduced in early Performance works by Marina Abramovic, Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, Valie Export, Rebecca Horn, Orlan, Adrian Piper and others who expanded the vocabulary of Conceptual Art to incorporate the literal representation of the artist’s own body as both the subject and the object of the work of art.
The dominant visual codes of Minimalism – formal symmetry and sameness, an absence or reduction of color, a predilection for the materials of industrial construction such as metal, rock, wood and concrete – are accepted by Hatoum, even as she eschews Minimalism’s attempt to eliminate iconic representation. Like other artists of her generation who came of age during and just after Minimalism’s relatively rapid assimilation into the museum circuit and art historical canon during the 1970s (Hatoum was born in Beirut in 1952 and received her education in fine art in London), Hatoum approaches the rhetoric of Minimalism from a position simultaneously imbued with respect and irreverence. Like Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Cady Noland, Janine Antoni, Rachel Whiteread and other contemporary practitioners of the 1990s, Hatoum utilizes the already determined coded forms of Minimalism as receptacles within which to place ‘something else.’ While respecting the formal purity of Minimalism’s visual simplicity and its sculptural necessity, the artist embraces the subjective and directly referential tenants championed by Performance Art to allow herself to play with the fire that Minimalism most sought to extinguish: she indulges a bit of theater.
Two of the three works presented for New Works: 99.2 at ArtPace expand on an ongoing visual narrative of confinement which Hatoum has presented in earlier works that also directly reference cages and beds: Short Space (1992); Light Sentence (1992); Silence (1994); Quarters (1996); First Step (1996); Current Disturbance (1996); and Divan Bed (1996). The third installation, Home (1999), features stainless steel kitchen utensils laid out on an industrial table, highlighted by spotlights on each utensil and rendered menacing through sound (an amplification of electrical current) as well as their barricaded placement behind a wall of stretched steel wires.
The cages presented in the works Isolette, an edition of three aluminum and galvanized steel circular containers situated on the floor, and Untitled (Baalbeck Birdcage), a human-size cage resembling a house, are reproductions of bird cages the artist obtained during her travels. The small ones, magnified by Hatoum five times their original size, are drawn from a cage Hatoum found in Egypt whose quotidian function is to transport salable birds to the market. The larger cage featured as Untitled (Baalbeck Birdcage), enlarged ten times its initial dimensions, is based on a cage from Lebanon used to house birds as domestic pets.
With the Baalbeck Birdcage Hatoum synthesizes two of the most discernible forms drawn from the last decade of her work: the cage and the bed. Resembling, as many domestic pet bird cages do, the frame of a simple human house or shelter, the scale of Baalbeck Birdcage limits the ‘house’ to one room, which the artist has likened to a prison cell and is also resemblant of a double bed confined within bars. Although the three works presented at ArtPace are situated by the artist as separate pieces, their juxtaposition within the gallery produces a recognizable narrative of familiar domesticity. The large cage, with its suggestions of a double bed, stands in for the parental bedroom, while the small cages sequestered in another corner of the gallery allude to rooms reserved for children. On another wall, the barricaded and menacing kitchen utensils suggest, yes, a kitchen. The reduction of the ‘house’ into a ‘master’ bedroom, children’s quarters and kitchen illustrates, poetically and with tense reticence, the rooms within which women who are employed as wives work. Despite the formal harmony and poetic symmetry of Hatoum’s installation, the ‘home’ she presents is neither comfortable nor pretty.
Previous critics and art historians have most often chosen to emphasize the national, religious and ethnic origins of Hatoum’s preoccupation with boundaries, borders and containment – a reading as dictated by Hatoum’s earlier works, which deal directly with the political issues of the Middle East, as it is over-determined by Hatoum’s autobiography: the artists birth to a Palestinian family in Beirut and her serendipitous ‘escape’ from Lebanon’s civil war in 1975. In these three new works from 1999, however, an interpretation drawn according to an understanding of nationalized borders becomes subordinate to the installation’s more direct reference to the political and social boundaries that dictate the gendered division of psychic, sexual and other labor in the traditional heterosexual family or ‘home.’
Laura Cottingham is an art critic who lives in New York City.