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Mona Hatoum: Terra Infirma at the Menil Collection, the artist’s first major solo exhibition in the United States in about two decades, presents an overview of Hatoum’s career in a nuanced yet direct manner. Hatoum’s work benefits from its quick metaphorical wit; however, this initial, deceptively easy clarity lingers and transforms into something else entirely, an experience underscored by the work’s placement throughout various rooms of the Menil Collection. Both artist and space offered the works for the viewer’s own interpretation, although attention to their specific historical and political context is frequently warranted by Hatoum. The majority of the exhibition was located within two large exhibition spaces. In addition, several works appeared throughout the museum, placed in provocative dialogue with the museum’s architecture, permanent collection, and circulating visitors.
The exhibition investigated the domestic and the global, providing an intimate look at those intersections. Hatoum’s work seizes upon tensions within both domestic and broader communal experiences; this was especially evident in regard to her sculptures based on the forms of household objects, which promise danger and violence. By enlarging a cheese grater (Grater Divide, 2002), food mill (La grande broyeuse [Mouli-Julienne x 17], 1999), and egg slicer (Marble Slicer, 2002) to human scale, those objects’ potential use on human flesh, not food, becomes implied. Indeed, in the catalogue, exhibition curator Michelle White mentions Marble Slicer’s “concave bed that perfectly corresponds” to the scale of a child (72). In its scale, Grater Divide suggests an abrasion against the skin, bringing to mind mundane pains from a scraped knee to more severe punctures of the body caused by contact with metal such as shrapnel, or other ways humans have developed to pierce and scrape the skin of other humans.
Hatoum’s subject position(s) as a woman, a Palestinian, and an exile (born in Lebanon and then moved to London) and these roles’ relation to her work, often enter into scholarship on the artist. In a 1998 interview by Janine Antoni, Hatoum was asked about how her identity labels her work, and she stated that it is the “inconsistencies that bother” her more than the labeling: “Although I was born in Lebanon, my family is Palestinian” (“Mona Hatoum,” BOMB 63 [Spring 1998]: 56). Additionally, Jaleh Mansoor has interrogated how Hatoum’s biography is integral to our understanding of her work and her questioning of abstraction as a universal language (Mansoor, “A Spectral Universality: Mona Hatoum’s Biopolitics of Abstraction” October 133 [Summer 2010]: 49–74). In their catalogue essays, both White and art historian Anna Chave grapple with Hatoum’s work as interpreted through her biography. White writes that we should find a way to use the personal to allow for the universal. She asserts, “A much more nuanced understanding of Hatoum’s oeuvre is yielded by not reducing it to her origin story; while her work speaks, and often profoundly, to the Palestinian experience of displacement, it is more forceful when applied to diverse conditions of placelessness” (31). Chave, meanwhile, argues for understanding Hatoum’s work as a feminist critique in dialogue with modernism.
At the Menil, Hatoum’s engagement with modernism became evident through her use of the museum’s collection and space. The museum’s curatorial strategy, which typically omits lengthy didactic museum labels, further encouraged viewers to interpret the works according to their own experiences. However, many of Hatoum’s works on display at the Menil made explicit connections to specific events and places. Pieces such as 3-D Cities (2008–10) include maps of Beirut, Baghdad, and Kabul, and the cut impressions of the maps suggest disruptions experienced in those cities. Maps appear in other works such as Mapping (2012), Projection (velvet) (2013), and Projection (2006). These other map works, in materials such as velvet and cotton, are almost unable to sustain systems of mapping. Another work, Witness (2009), is a miniature version of a public monument in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square. Waiting is Forbidden (2006), an enameled metal plaque, “greets” the museum visitor in both English and Arabic. Specific places and their histories—at times, violent—were made tangible and present.
Bodily presence was evoked in work incorporating materials such as hair and fingernails, and when figural representation did appear, such as in Witness, the porcelain appeared punctured or wounded (appropriately, as the original black metal sculpture, situated in a public square, was damaged by war). Rebecca Solnit, in her catalogue essay, describes how bodies inhabit—are governed—within borders and how borders and bodies operate as both metaphor and political fact. Indeed, vignettes of violence trouble the ease with which some might understand works such as Grater Divide. Throughout the exhibition, works suggested the body under pressure, made to bend under duress. These works also operate within the context of violence, or control, as experienced within interdependent domestic modifications on a global structural scale—the space Hatoum asks us to traverse with her.
The particularly successful work Cells (2014) helps elucidate how Hatoum uses materials to create a kind of bodily identification. It would be going too far to state that the glass vessels are anthropomorphic, yet their placement in cages invites our recognition and empathy with the inanimate objects. The work consists of red glass vessels locked in cages, some alone, some paired. The vessels are separate yet seem to try to cling to one another, as if touching through the cages. These inanimate objects create both an effective and affective quality; fear and loneliness—the hunger for touch in a place created to divide—lingers in the work. Another work, Homebound (2000), appears behind wire. The timed installation includes domestic furniture and items (a baby crib, kitchen utensils, furniture) attached to jumper cables. The bright intermittent light and jarring noise disturb what remains of the domestic. Cages, locks, and other ways of controlling where and how bodies move—how they live—recurred throughout the exhibition.
In Nature morte aux grenades (2006–7), Hatoum exploits the fragile glass materials of her grenades, presented on what resembles a medical table. Her title, too, which includes the term for “still life,” calls attention to the violence of real grenades tempered within the context of an art exhibition—stilled life. The glass grenades were beautiful to look at, and based on the reactions I witnessed during my visits to the exhibition, many viewers were struck by the beauty and inventiveness of her materials. These were, after all, harmless grenades in an exhibition space, their violence muted. Do these grenades suggest other muted aggressions, perhaps less physically dangerous but damaging in other ways?
Given the influence on Hatoum of Surrealism, among other modernist strains such as Minimalism and abstraction, it is no surprise she and curator White engaged the works with the Menil’s exceptional holdings, to excellent and thoughtful ends. Several of Hatoum’s works were installed in conversation with the Surrealist collection. These interventions invited the viewer to return to her works in other rooms of the museum, and to consider those prior influences anew as well as confront how Hatoum’s work thoughtfully critiques them. If the sexual provocations of Surrealism may seem rather tired by this point, the placement of Hatoum’s small objects within a vitrine alongside Marcel Duchamp’s Wedge of Chastity (1954/1963) provided a feminist retort—one that absorbs, uses, and then discards such Surrealist tendencies. At the same time, the juxtaposition proved the argument that her work productively traffics in the language of Surrealism: the uncanny and bodily disturbance, somewhere between dream and nightmare. To take another example, hair—produced by the body, taken, and then repurposed to be worn—becomes in Hatoum’s work both beautiful and repugnant, as in works such as Hair Necklace (1995), its materials made clear by the work’s title, or the witty Van Gogh’s Back (1995), a chromogenic print in which a man’s abundant back hair, made wet with soap, adopts the swirling strokes of the painter.
The artist’s body, our bodies, and the body in general were evoked constantly throughout the exhibition. Some pieces just hurt a little to look at, their human scale looming and ready to wound us. As the exhibition convincingly showed, Hatoum’s work invites us to imagine those wounds inflicted upon ourselves—and, conversely, those wounds as they are visited upon others. More specifically, the exhibition was generous in its empathic invitation to imagine the potential pain borne by our own bodies and the pain of others experienced by those in exile, without a homeland. The body of a person displaced, without a home and likely seeking shelter somewhere safe—in other words, a refugee—is a figure called up frequently in Hatoum’s work, and it was a strong presence in the Houston exhibition as well. Particularly emblematic was the mirror work, YOU ARE STILL HERE (2013), hung between two galleries in an intermediary space belonging to neither. When looking at the work (at yourself), your body was put in an awkward place, a place in which you were “in the way,” a disruption to human traffic through the space. With the placement of this work, Hatoum effectively asked the viewer to see herself within the work while simultaneously seeing herself as placeless. At the same time, it was a generous placement, anchoring the viewer and reminding her that, indeed, “you are still here,” in the Menil Collection. Owing to the works’ many poetic corporeal suggestions and the perceptive arrangement of them, Mona Hatoum: Terra Infirma was a tender and painful exhibition, in the best sense of both words.
Melissa L. Mednicov
Assistant Professor, Department of Art, Sam Houston State University