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Keffieh | 1993 - 1999 | human hair on cotton fabric | 120 x 120 cm

Home and Away: The Strange Surrealism of Mona Hatoum*
By Alix Ohlin

There’s no place like home, the saying goes, and the art of Mona Hatoum sets out to prove this point in a distinctly unsettling fashion.  Home in her work is a mythical location: a place charged with loss and violence, from which we are permanently exiled, yet to which we are always drawn.  In her spare, minimalist installations, objects we may think we recognize—a colander or a cheese grater—glow and buzz with menacing electrical current, or loom ominously over our heads, many times the sizes they ought to be.  Known quantities, thus altered, turn foreign.  This familiarity breeds not contempt but a shared sense of dislocation; viewers of Hatoum’s work step into her world as strangers in a strange land. 

Foreignness has many associations, and Hatoum, whose style is edgily surreal, highly controlled, and bold, adeptly exploits them all.  In her hands foreignness unfolds to reveal a tangled web of implications: the feminist, the political, the Kafka-esque existential.  Though she first made her name with pieces focusing on the body, Hatoum has lately moved towards less narrative, and consequently more elusive, work.  Yet this shift has not robbed her art of its impact.  In fact, her recent work gathers its force from the indirect, mysterious ways in which it probes the fractured dream of home. 

Hatoum was born in Lebanon of Palestinian parents who, due to the reluctance of Lebanese authorities, were never able to obtain Lebanese identity cards, and became naturalized British citizens instead.  As a result, the feeling of not quite belonging to the society in which she lived ingrained itself into her existence early on.  Later political events increased this sense of alienation: in her early-twenties, Hatoum traveled to London for what was intended to be a brief visit.  Then civil war broke out in Lebanon, and she was not able to return home.  Stranded in London, she attended art school, studying at both The Byam Shaw School of Art and the Slade School of Art and absorbing in her training the disjunctive humor of surrealism as well as the streamlined composure of minimalism.  That break in her twenties turned out to be fateful; Hatoum has lived in the West ever since. 

Still based in London and more recently dividing her time between there and Berlin, Hatoum spends a great deal of her time traveling, and she has created much of her recent work during stays at artists’ residencies.  This nomadic lifestyle—as well as her bifurcated personal history in both the Middle East and the West—informs her work with a uniquely global perspective. 

Understandably, Hatoum has rebelled against being over-identified with her biography.  “I’m often asked the same question,” she told the artist Janine Antoni in a 1998 interview.  “What in your work comes from your own culture?  As if I have a recipe and I can actually isolate the Arab ingredient, the woman ingredient, the Palestinian ingredient.  People often expect tidy definitions of otherness, as if identity is something fixed and easily definable.”[1]  But to take her background into consideration when thinking about her art is not the same thing as reducing it to the sum of its geographical parts.  And, undeniably, her work courts a certain amount of biographical interpretation; it walks a fine line between invoking specific conflicts and referring more abstractly to human violence and cruelty.  Without communicating direct political messages, most pieces ring with political echoes. 

In her sculptures No Way and No Way II (1996), for example, she plugged the holes of a strainer and a colander with metal bolts, so that these objects take on the appearance of weapons (a mace and a land mine).  According to Hatoum, who made the first of these sculptures during a residency in Jerusalem, the inspiration for these works came to her when she experienced the frequent and unexpected obstruction of roads by military police in that city.  But the connotations evoked by these pieces do not end there.  Because they are made from kitchen objects most frequently used by women, No Way and No Way II seem to express a sense of claustrophobia, even deep rage, experienced by women alone. 

Indeed, in much of Hatoum’s work, areas of the home we associate with female nurturing and comfort—the kitchen, the bedroom, the nursery—are charged with menace and distortion.   The result is a sense of domesticity set against itself, of cognitive dissonance between the traditional function of the objects displayed and their materials and execution.  In Incommunicado (1993), a cradle made of steel, set on wheels, its springs replaced by cheese wires, suggests abuse and imprisonment rather than the sleeping safety of an infant.  Similarly, Grater Divide (2002) looks like a folding screen—one that might typically segment off parts of a room, or that a woman might change clothes behind—but is pocked with the slanted holes of a cheese grater, so that the object evokes not privacy but a visceral terror of abrasion. Dormiente (2008) offers an equally mismatched pairing of object and materials: it’s a bed one would never want to lie on, on which no rest would ever come.  Beautifully made and scary, these devices attract and repel simultaneously.   

Over my dead body | 1988 | billboard, ink on paper | 204 x 304 cm

Even children’s toys are deployed to uncanny effect, as Hatoum makes use of miniature soldiers.  In Over My Dead Body (1988-2002), a billboard shows Hatoum’s face in profile, as she stares down a toy soldier perched on her nose.  A sense of humor enlivens this photograph, as Hatoum’s haughty stare makes oppression and war seem tiny, even laughable.  She stares at the soldier the way one might look at an annoying fly.  And yet the text of the title is important: “over my dead body,” for many people in the world, is a reality that can’t be shrunken or reduced.  In ∞ (infinity) (1991-2001), the toy soldiers march in the formation of an infinity symbol, never achieving anything, endlessly in pursuit of an unseen enemy.  Arranged on an end table, such as might be found in a person’s living room, this commentary on the never-ending circularity of war is both puckishly humorous and pointedly critical. 

If ∞ (infinity) is playful, then Misbah (2006) is ghostly and sad, using light and shadow to construct an atmosphere of mystery and violence. In this work, the cutouts of a brass lantern (misbah is the Arabic word for lantern) cast illuminated silhouettes of soldiers and stars into a dark room. .  As the lantern constantly rotates, the soldiers rush around the room, and the star-shapes blur, taking on the look of explosions.  The motion induces twin feelings of enchantment and sea-sickness. All these toy soldier pieces are imbued with Hatoum’s trademark ambiguity.  Do they make war small, something to look down upon?  Or do they remind us that war is bred into us even as children, even in the way that we play, so that there is no innocence in the world? 

Thus, not even the simplest object, in Hatoum’s hands, is innocent, and no refuge can be found anywhere.   Every Door a Wall (2003) takes an ordinary curtain and inscribes it with a newspaper article describing an X-ray scan of illegal immigrants smuggled inside a truck, showing that we can’t, and shouldn’t, hide behind the covering comforts of home decor.  Perhaps nowhere is this juxtaposition more neatly expressed than in Doormat II (2000-01) in which the word “welcome” is recessed among stainless steel pins that resemble a bed of nails.  Whatever home viewers of this work are being ushered into, they had better be careful inside.  Doormat II also evokes the colloquial use of the word doormat for a person in a relationship, usually a woman, who allows herself to be dominated and abused.  The pins, then, offer a sly image of resistance, the prickly threat of an oppressed person waiting to seek revenge on the oppressor.  Thus, once again, associations of home retain a gendered edge, articulating an embedded feminism, at once wry and biting. 

Hatoum’s feminist concerns date back to the early stages of her career, when she first garnered critical attention for video, and performance pieces focusing on the body. In So Much I Want to Say (1983), a video shows her mouth gagged by male hands, while a voice repeats the title.  The sound occurs at normal speed, while the image stutters, updating from a still every eight seconds.  The disjunction between sound and visual adds extra impact to the already powerful image of censorship.  Like many of Hatoum’s pieces, this work situates the body as the locus of a network of concerns—political, feminist, and linguistic—thereby eliciting a highly visceral response.  “I have always been dissatisfied with work that just appeals to your intellect and does not actually involve you in a physical way,” Hatoum once told interviewer Michael Archer.  “For me, the embodiment of an artwork is within the physical realm; the body is the axis of our perceptions, so how can art afford not take that as a starting point?  We relate to the world through our senses.”[2] 

Likewise, Hatoum’s work Measures of Distance (1988) layers complex resonances on the body.  It shows video footage of her mother in the shower, with Arabic text across the image of her naked body.  Like a veil or a fence made of barbed wire, language cuts across her body but does not disguise it, leaving its essential outlines and the fact of its nudity plain.  The piece re-appropriates the image of the female body as one that exists to be objectified by a male gaze—the gaze here is one of longing, but it is a longing between mother and daughter, between people and language, between camera and the subject.  The sound of letters between Hatoum and her mother being read out loud accompanies the scenes, recording a dialogue between mother and daughter across a geographical expanse, as well as across the gap between generations.  The soundtrack has Hatoum reading the letters in a monotone while an animated Arabic conversation also takes place, neither mode or language privileged above the other; so too with the image of the naked body, overlaid with text.  Measures of Distance is about multiplicity of sound and image and culture, a multi-layered, multi-media portrait of co-existence.  The mood is one of both love and sorrow, because the multiplicity arises from fracture, separation, and displacement. 

Traffic | 2002 | compressed card, plastic, metal, beeswax, human hair | 48 x 65 x 68 cm

Starting from these early pieces, Hatoum has continued to employ the body as material for art, down to the use of her own hair.  In Jardin Public (1993), a chair sports a neat triangle of pubic hair.  In its punning title (public/pubic) and its clever portrait of the body in an inanimate object Jardin Public conjures the Surrealist spirit and wit of Magritte.  According to Hatoum, the piece is rooted in the common etymology of public and pubic, referencing the advent of sexual adulthood, and the concomitant entrance into civic life on the part of an individual. In Traffic (2002), two suitcases sit on the floor, attached by a thick mass of human hair.  This work presents a dense set of meanings.  It can be seen as a metaphor for those who travel, carrying their baggage (emotional, cultural and literal) from one culture to another.  At the same time, it reminds us that no object exists in our lives without getting tangled up in our own bodies, our emotions, and our sense of ourselves.  Lastly, its title seems to suggest an association with human trafficking; perhaps the hair is spilling out from a body not quite contained within these two suitcases.  The juxtaposition between the untidy reaches of the body and the rigid asceticism of the object evokes the Freudian shiver of the uncanny.  In much the same way, Keffieh (1993-1999) shows us a scarf (a headdress traditionally worn by Arab men) embroidered with hair, whose tendrils escape it on all sides. The tendril motif, which recurs elsewhere in Hatoum’s work, lends this piece a vivid and snakelike animism, reminding us that culture is alive and breathing, arisen from and written on the body. 

Recently, Hatoum’s art has migrated into new areas, while maintaining its feminist and political consciousness.  Instead of showcasing the physical presence of the body, the work tends to present household objects, such as furniture and kitchen implements, whose relationship to human beings is implied rather than shown. Often there are cages and barriers containing these objects, isolating them from the viewer, as if in a prison cell.  The resulting installations, deserted by people yet haunted by their presence, create a malevolent atmosphere that suggests the aftermath of violent events.  Situated with obvious care within the hallowed space of a museum, they could be the preserved artifacts of some deeply disturbed, by possibly fictional, culture—remnants by which its character may be judged. 

In Homebound (2000), part of Hatoum’s Tate Britain exhibit “The Entire World as a Foreign Land,” the contents of the kitchen and bedroom stand in an empty space, behind a wire fence.  Though removed from the building that once housed them, these objects are nonetheless situated as they would be inside: the chairs, for example, are grouped around a table as they would be in a kitchen.  Scattered on top of the table lie various utensils: a cheese grater, a sieve, a colander.  Lights strung within these utensils brighten and dim and the 240-volt electrical current that connects them is amplified to a threatening buzz.  Also furnishing the scene are a cot, a lamp, a birdcage, and a sofa stripped down to its metal frame; no fabric or mattress appears anywhere to soften the harsh edges of these skeletal objects. 

Where are the people who once lived in this strange, uncomfortable home?  They have either escaped its confines or been evicted from it; the wire fence exists either to protect the viewer on the outside or to hold in the family.  A sense of unknown catastrophe emanates from the place. Presumably the scene contains clues to some mysterious past events, if we only knew how to decipher them. 

The noted Palestinian scholar Edward Said has written of Hatoum’s installations that “in the age of migrants, curfews, identity cards, refugees, exiles, massacres, camps and fleeing civilians…they are the uncooptable mundane instruments of a defiant memory facing itself and its pursuing and oppressing others.”[3]  But Hatoum doesn’t wield these instruments of memory, as Said calls them, with blunt force.  Questions linger: did the family leave for good?  Were they killed?  Would they even want to return to such a frightening, potentially harmful place?  There’s a lot of ambiguity to this work, and that may be the point.  Lacking a definitive frame of reference, Homebound refuses to moralize about a particular culture or to name the names of either the oppressor or the oppressed. 

Said’s work famously has sought to address how cultural products, including literature and visual arts, have been used to grant authority to political coercion.  At the same time, he has documented the complex interreactions, even mutual influence, between East and West.  “To ignore or otherwise discount the overlapping experience of Westerns and Orientals,” he has written, “the interdependence of cultural terrains in which colonizer and colonized co-existed and battled each other through projections, as well as rival geographies, narrative, and histories, is to miss what is essential about the world in the last century.”[4] 

It is exactly this overlapping experience—one that obfuscates the  “tidy definitions of otherness” she mentioned to Janine Antoni—that Hatoum’s work is uniquely situated to express.  This art doesn’t bridge cultures; it doesn’t bring disparate people together and unify them in sentiment or spirit.  Rather, her ghostly installations boil these rival geographies and histories down to a minimalist essence, leaving on the barest furnishings behind.  As a result, all cultures—and all viewers—are implicated in the punishing scenarios her installations put on display. 

Like Homebound, Undercurrent (2004), uses electricity to create an atmosphere of threat.  It is composed of electrical cable, light bulbs, and a computerized unit that brightens and dims the lights at the pace, Hatoum has said, of “slow breathing.”  The nucleus of the sculpture is a square mat of woven cable, from which tendrils snake across the floor, each strand ending in a 15-watt bulb.

The ambiguity of the work begins with its ingredients. Cable has a specific function—to provide the wiring inside buildings—and we are generally told to stay away from it when exposed.  Light bulbs are meant to brighten the interiors of built spaces.  They hang from ceilings, covered by lampshades or fixtures, and are not to be laid out on the ground.  Undercurrent, then, seems composed of a building collapsed and turned inside out, its skeleton exposed.  If the square at its center recalls a carpet, the house it conjures is not a cozy one.  Instead, the mood created is obliquely menacing, hinting of cellars and interrogation rooms, of dangerous areas where we will not be safe. 

Given that the building for which these components were designed has apparently evaporated, we might ask what function they are now serving.  We seem to catch them in the midst of an evolution into something else.  Consider the shape of the cable as it spills out from the square mat into individual, curving tendrils.  Splayed out on the floor, the work seems to create its own territory, like a map of some invented land.  Each tendril reaches out from the center towards some new geography.  If left alone, the movement of the tendrils suggests, Undercurrent might continue to expand across the floor, annexing the space around it.  Here, as elsewhere in her work, Hatoum invests ordinary objects with political echoes.           

Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, Undercurrent looks—and acts—like more than an object.  Though cable and light bulbs have mechanical functions, the tendrils have a delicate and animated feel.  In the biomorphic structure of its cables, with the breathing pace of its lights, the work seems to glow with purpose and intent.  It could be an organism, a being with consciousness.  Perhaps that consciousness is malevolent: the sinuous tendrils evoke Medusa’s head, that frightening nucleus covered with snakes, one glance from which could turn a person to stone.  In this sense, encountering Undercurrent feels like a reckless form of trespass.  Or perhaps the consciousness of the work is not threatening but poignantly isolated, its glowing lights emitting a message whose meaning we are unable to decipher.           

A living being, territory, or house turned inside out: all of these associations can be layered into Hatoum’s work.  Each of them gives us the feeling of a world where things are not quite as they should be—in a way we can’t quite put our finger on.  The bulbs brighten and dim in silence, hinting at all the trouble we know goes on beneath the surface, all the disturbing undercurrents of our time. 

Home | 1999 | wood, stainless steel, electric wire, light bulbs, computerised dimmer unit, amplifier, speakers | 77 x 198 x 73.5 cm

Another installation work, Home (1999), consists of a rectangular table behind a wire fence, cluttered by the same kind of mechanical kitchen implements (colanders, graters, a whisk, a ladle, a grinder) made of gleaming stainless steel.  Arrayed on the table, these tools glow with light and buzz with an audible electrical current.  They could be a nightmare version of a child’s fantasy—that his toys come to life at night, when he is not present to witness their behavior—or they could be weapons, though it is left to the viewer to imagine how they would be deployed.  Home is frightening in the same way that darkness and music are the scariest part of horror movies: a sense of danger infuses the atmosphere, but the exact nature of the threat remains unclear.  Regardless, the danger zone of Home is clearly a domestic area, and therefore one that is feminine.  Electrified and behind wire, Home suggests that gender itself may be a dangerous territory, as well as a form of exile.

This sense of gender and territory entwined together harks back to Corps …tranger, Hatoum’s well-known 1994 video installation.  The title of this installation, which translates as “Foreign Body,” refers to the body of an individual foreigner—Hatoum herself—but also to the multiple degrees of intrusion involved in its execution and viewing.  To make the video, Hatoum had a doctor insert a tiny endoscopic camera (itself a foreign body) inside her.  The resulting film draws a highly magnified map of the human form: traveling from her eye to the inside of her flesh, over the geography of her skin.  As the camera moves across living tissue and trails along her skin, it shows the body in amazing detail: in shades of red and brown and white, wet and dry, highly visceral, and pulsating with life.  The images play on a circular screen set into the floor, while the screen itself is placed inside a wooden cylinder—like a large circular voting or telephone booth—which the viewer must enter.

Corps …tranger turns a woman’s body inside out and puts that interior on display.  By closing in on that territory, it forces us to look at the body in an unusual way.  As a result, its images cleverly overturn the objectification of the woman’s body pervasive in Western society: you may see every part of a woman in a men’s magazine, but you surely won’t see her capillaries or organs or the inner cavities of her body.

The installation can also be interpreted as a commentary on the veiling of the female body prevalent in many Eastern societies.  Feminists such as Fatima Mernissi have argued that sexual inequality in Islamic societies is based on a view of the female body as the source of some threatening power, a danger that has to be contained.  To neutralize this threat, women must be covered—which is to say dressed, veiled, and secluded.

In Corps …tranger, the ultimate private space becomes public, and the largeness of the images of the female body lends them a frightening, even consuming power.  Yet it would be wrong to say that there is no veil or seclusion here.  The cylinder that encloses the video adds a layer of confinement that the viewer is forced to share; in order to see these images, you must step inside and join the body in its secretive place.  You must look down on the images too, since the video, set in the floor, plays at your feet.  So the viewer’s position in relation to the work is conspicuously complicated by its formal elements: you have to examine where you stand.  As in You Are Still Here (1994), in which text on a mirror speaks directly to the viewer’s reflection, this work involves and implicates the viewer—personally, physically, even geographically.

Like Franz Kafka, another artist who felt perpetually alienated from the society in which he lived, Hatoum seems to thrive on immersing the viewer in these intricate divisions between inside and outsider.  Kafka, a German Jew who lived in Czech-speaking Prague, threaded the feeling of dislocation through the fabric of his work, and Hatoum—fluent in Arabic, French, and English, born in one country, with allegiance to a second and a life lived in a third—does the same.  What rises from this outsider’s sensibility is a parallel universe worthy of science fiction: their work inhabits an alternate reality where regular lives assume dream-like forms.

In Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” for instance, Gregor Samsa wakes up to find himself transformed into a bug.  His horrified family keeps him in a dark room.  Whenever his sister comes in to clean the room, Gregor considerately hides under the couch and veils himself with a sheet.  As time goes on, the family more or less forgets about him, piling the room with unwanted furniture, so that the territory that Gregor once occupied as his own becomes the repository for the unwanted detritus of the family’s domestic life.  In the end, effectively evicted from his family’s memory, he dies alone.  In Corps …tranger, the body undergoes a similar metamorphosis.  Enlarged and onscreen, it turns into a bug under a microscope.  Once an easily accepted fact of life, a regular human body, it grows uncomfortably, massively different, tempting the viewer to reject it just as Gregor’s family rejected him.

La grande broyeuse (Mouli-Juliene x 17) | 1999 | mild steel | main sculpture: 343 x 575 x 363 cm, discs: each 4.5 x 170 cm diameterm

In much the same way, La grande broyeuse (Mouli-Julienne x 21)  (2000) plays with scale to create an alternate reality where the familiar grows strange.  A Mouli-Julienne, a kind of grinder for meat or vegetables, is magnified into an enormous structure that towers over the heads of its human audience.  Standing tall on three legs, with its erect handle, it looks more like a sensate animal than a simple tool.  At its center, where the food to be milled would be placed, is a giant cavity, a devouring space that is easy to see as a vagina dentate writ humorously large.  Yet there are more meanings at play in La grande broyeuse than just this psycho-sexual one; as in Hatoum’s other work, the feminine is inextricably connected to other forms of strangeness.   

Hatoum herself has referred to Kafka as a source of inspiration for her work, specifically connecting his story “In The Penal Colony” to La grande broyeuse.  “In the Penal Colony” tells the tale of a traveler visiting an unnamed colony in a foreign land—a distinctly non-European locale characterized as a sandy valley with barren slopes and an oppressively hot climate.  In this place he encounters an officer who is about to execute a condemned man for disobeying his superiors.  The officer and the traveler speak French while the condemned man does not, a linguistic gap that supports the colonial framework of the story.

The device used for the execution is both laborious and sadistic.  It involves a set of needles that will inscribe a lesson (in his case, “Honor Thy Superiors”) on the condemned man’s body. This monstrous tattoo will slowly pierce his body through, putting him to an agonizing death.  As in Hatoum’s video Measures of Distance, words are overlaid upon the body; but in Kafka’s literally harrowing tale, language functions not just as image but as murder weapon.

Deeply enamored of this machine, the officer hopes the traveler will condone its use, but he is horrified instead.  At the story’s climax, understanding that the machine’s days of use are coming to an end, the officer pardons the condemned man and takes his place, ordering the machine to write the words “Be Just” on his own body.  When it goes into action the machine self-destructs, though not before killing the officer.  As it falls apart, numerous gears shaped like immense round cog-wheels rise up from it and spill to the ground.

Next to the grinder of La grande broyeuse three large disks lie on the ground, as if they too have spilled from the machine.  In light of Kafka’s story, La grande broyeuse seems to occupy a specific moment: after the machine has begun to self-destruct, yet before it falls apart completely.  Broken but standing, the machine seems ready for reu-use.  So too with the power relationships the work evokes, from colonial politics written on the body to the danger zones of womanhood; they haunt us still.

What does it mean to say that Hatoum’s work is Kafka-esque?  The link between them is important not just because of the surrealism that suffuses their work, but because that surrealism serves to draw attention, again and again, to the possibility that things can vanish: a body, a room, a home.  At the conclusion of “In The Penal Colony,” the traveler flees the colony, but the story doesn’t say where he’s going, and it seems unlikely that he’ll be able to forget what he has just seen even if he eventually does get home.  As Said has pointed out, the impact of colonialism continues to reverberate throughout the modern world, in the globalized lives we lead, and the intersecting power structures that affect us all.  The work of Mona Hatoum plots the outlines of these shifting reverberations.  If the entire world is a foreign land, then her wok draws a chilling map of the terrain.

* This text is an expanded version of an article with the same title first published in Art Papers, Atlanta, May-June 2002


[1] Bomb, number 63, Spring 1998.

[2] Michael Archer, Guy Brett, Catheirne de Zegher.  Mona Hatoum.  Phaidon, 1997.

[3] Edward Said, “The Art of Displacement: Mona hatoum’s Logic of Irreconcilables,” in The Entire World as  Foreign Land, London: Tate Gallery, 2000.

[4] Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.



See also:

> Mona Hatoum
Home and Away: The Strange Surrealism of Mona Hatoum by Alix Ohlin
Mona Hatoum interviewed by Janine Antoni Bomb Magazine, NY Spring 1998
The Art of Displacement: Mona Hatoum’s Logic of Irreconcilables by Edward Said
The States of Being in Mona Hatoumís Artwork by Salwa Mikdadi

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