Mona Hatoum: Home and Identity, from Figure to Frame and from Frame to Figure.
By: Roxanne Sbitti*
Mona Hatoum is a Palestinian artist known for her sculptural works as well as her conceptual and situational art (1). The idea of home and homeland are consistent themes in Hatoum’s work since the 80’s, both in their metaphorical and literal senses. Being a migrated artist, the notion of home is charged as the idea of a concrete identity is indisputably complex. Her work and her life are filled with contradictions of the past and present, of exile and belonging. However, Hatoum transforms the pain of her physical exile into an opportunity built on the privilege of seeing things from a ‘wider perspective’; this provides the viewer a simultaneously independent and universal viewpoint which aids in the process of identifying with the artworks.
As Hatoum’s surroundings in exile have altered her perspective on the world, it is only by consequence that her art reflects this perspective by allowing her to find inspiration within her struggles, even going so far as to depend on them.
Interlinking Metaphor and History Together
This paper intends to analyze and demonstrate how she presents these struggles to the viewer through the relationship of visual and contextual substance, interlinking metaphor and history together in three of her works: Present Tense (1996), Homebound (2000) and Drowning Sorrows (2001-2002). This will be further emphasized by a discussion concerning the range and extent of comprehension by both Palestinians and foreigners in relation to the intimacy of the subject matter and its possible limitations.
Even though Hatoum’s body of work is deeply rooted in her personal history, more specifically her experiences as a Palestinian exile and the Palestinian homeland shaping her homebound theme; the discussions and issues which inhabit Hatoum’s work transcend her personal route and demonstrate a broader context.(2)
Hatoum claims: “I always try to make the work in such a way that it can include you and your experience as well as mine. If I’m trying to convey a feeling of instability, I’m not doing it in a kind of documentary sense. I’m creating a work that you can experience physically – it’s not necessarily an illustration of a specific event.” (3) Her subversive visualization of the home is undoubtedly relied upon her memory and romanticism however, Hatoum’s subject itself remains open for identification and connotations of viewers by making them engage with the artwork through multiple senses.
Hiraeth: wistfulness for a home to which you cannot return
When uprooted from an unshakeable sense of identity adorned with traditions and common methodologies, it is unlikely to adopt a foreign Kafkaesque environment in the wake of this exile. This unprecedented reality appears as an unfading cloud, covering the sky while it’s bright blue light remains somewhere underneath it, hidden in the subconscious. Returning ‘home’ thereby becomes the central motive, the wind which pushes the cloud, but when it is impossible to achieve, a romanticized melancholy rises in any material a person tries to hold onto. The most compatible word for such a feeling word would be Hiraeth. An untranslatable noun which could be described as a wistfulness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.
Edward W. Said mentions: “Hatoum’s work is the presentation of identity as unable to identify with itself, but nevertheless grappling the notion (perhaps only the ghost) of identity to itself. Thus is exiled figured and plotted in the objects she creates.” (4) Hatoum’s Drowning Sorrows exemplifies this definitional exile Said presents.
Drowning Sorrows creates suggestive effects that leaves the viewer wondering, but seldom pinning down a clear definition of what the piece might imply or hold within its context. Similarly, this piece displays both the shortcomings and bittersweet beauty of being in exile while maintaining its own discretion. The work is made out of glass bottle pieces laid over the ground which appear to touch the floor and even almost submerge in it since they are broken, as if they were floating in a sea. The sharp angles of the glasses might imply the pain which is inflicted upon a person in exile, giving an actual physical appearance to the aching and agony the distance and irretrievable home have caused. However, Hatoum places these glass shapes in a way to show that even though the edges are apparently blunt, they embody the ache of exile and that the imaginary water that is implied underneath them is quiet and empty of torture.
In exile, excruciating pain comes from dispossession, loss and the pure feeling of nomadic non-belonging. These glasses are not brought together purposely, a statement by the artist to both the Palestinian and foreign viewer that the ambiguity the exile feels towards exile, both literal and mental, can be silenced by metaphorically “drowning sorrows” and diving into the void which is not shown, where there is no pain, where there is no occupation. Hatoum thus transfigures her exilic pain into a work of imagination which becomes the hallmark of her artistic power through such suggestiveness, creating a significantly powerful tool through the poetry of politics and identity in art.
In the matter of politics for example, Hatoum allows Palestinians to be used within representation of identity which is negatively scaled within more specific contexts and political issues of “Palestinian” versus “Israeli”. The viewer can naturally distinguish this and might even look for it in works of art such as Hatoum’s, when dealing with exile, diaspora, oppression and many other aspects. To attempt to clear contradictions away is not a viable option since the roots are so deeply ingrained that a bypass of these issues can never be disregarded. (5) Nonetheless, Hatoum uses and manipulates the installation so that a threat of boundaries between what is internal and external, between artist and viewer, one or the other, becomes abstract. A thin line is thus provided which only the viewer will be able to either break or cherish.
Concerning the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Hatoum has made numerous pieces that address notions of the homeland and how they correspond with the viewer. In Present Tense for example, Hatoum presented the most uncomfortable eerie conflict, so that the somewhat 'peace' of the Oslo Agreement of 1993 is instantly recognized to be criticized and even regarded as a disgrace. (6) Yet, the history and the continuity of culture thrive more than ever in this installation. This work is a result from the residency Hatoum did in Jerusalem in 1996, encountering a map of the Oslo Accord’s partitioning of territory. Hatoum’s version of the map however, is deeply suggestive of Palestinian identity.
How does she do this? - Hatoum created a grid of 2,200 square shaped blocks of olive oil soap which was one of the last traditional products still being made by hand in Palestine at the time. She then pressed tiny red beads to form the territorial division that were to be “returned” to the Palestinian authorities. Lines that depicted Palestinian areas appeared unattached so to state that instead of continuous limitation and boundaries, other forms of oppression exist: dissolution, surveillance and destruction. The installation addresses the way in which these adversaries share the politically determined events of recent history. Each block of soap is thus symbolic to determination. They hold on elegantly to one another as if holding on to history, memory or a sense of place, of belonging; feelings the artist is so deeply entangled with. Vivienne Jabri writes in her article: “In this strangely prophetic work, time and space, past and present, are co-present in their mutual (dis) locations, where peace is violence, where internationally sponsored agreements constructed as peace are constitutively built on denial, where maps are drawn and re-drawn and ultimately, naturalized as the given order of things.”
The smell of the soap causes a physical reaction in the viewer. To Palestinians the smell is reminiscent of the streets and homes their country hugged them with, but to foreigners it couldn’t have triggered anything but the smell of hygiene and sanitarium. However, Hatoum’s intention was not to solely provoke a memory or a concrete motive, but rather to provoke a bodily experience of the work in the viewer through the use of the artistic language of minimal art, a physical encounter and intimate relationship, so to speak, between the artwork and the viewer; as the majority of Minimalists aim to do. Abstraction as well as minimalism as artistic fields or categories, allow the artist to use metaphoric materials that are strangled with inescapable, historically infused values. Mona Hatoum states: (7)
However, despite being a captive of cultural conflicts and marginality, Hatoum is by herself at “war” against all that has put her in the prison of this vague, struggling identity.
By illustrating how the artist’s alternative power to see through the veil of this misery, she emphasizes how the identities themselves are corrupt through the source of the exilic opposition and sometimes even through her “home”. Her resistance is thus exhibited and amplified through the symbolic and poetic language of her art.
This vision of home as a violent space is exhibited in Hatoum’s Homebound . Transforming an ordinary, everyday set of a kitchen, filled with pots, colanders, sieves, etc., into a detention space, a metaphorical prison, Hatoum adorns the setting with electric wire forms which produce a current having its sounds amplified by speakers to dramatize the scene. By doing so, the objects take on another form or entity, being lit and dimmed over and over again,6 making noise so as to almost resemble a set in a vintage horror film. The observer is thus completely taken away by this sudden transmission of what is supposed to be a calm place, visited every day, into an unfamiliar and oppressive pen. Mona Hatoum strips the viewer’s privilege of having a familiar space, providing them with an alternative of a rebellious home. A home which does not want to be touched nor visited, a home which is ashamed of being assaulted over and over again. It stands tall, spitting the unapologetic truth of oppression. Consequently, an abiding home is no longer a possibility in Hatoum’s art which is built on the angst of exile, a scream for what was once the most desired. Hatoum now introduces the viewer to a dislocation, shifting from an eye of familiarity that gives a sense of warmth, into a distorted memory of what once was, or maybe never was. The possibility that the romanticism of a dream, was nothing more than a deceiving eye, transitioning to the thought that exile was not so much different from “home” after all. If it is to be read in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict once again, Hatoum’s work exhibitions a demanding critique of the peace process, linking it directly with the continued subjugation of the Palestinian population. The process is built on an exclusion that facilitates surveillance and punishment, making it harder to demand something from a home which is unable to provide anymore.
Nevertheless, Hatoum's oeuvre has a seductive attraction, leading any person to view the installation. Hatoum shares with the viewer her deepest feelings that are manifested in her art, that are both troubling and liberating, without expectations. The interesting point in Hatoum’s work of involving the viewer in the art, is not for the appreciation, but for the interrogation. May it be Palestinian or foreigner, Hatoum’s art demands constant questioning, constant consciousness, witnessing, of what was and what is, of how it was and how it is. It is in this moment of reflection that the subject acquires a critical attitude. An art that is hard to bear, an art that is full of grotesque symbolism, a refugee’s playground, an art that demands to be seen as an art that embodies the idea of a single homeland, are all heavy demands, but very necessary to convey nonetheless. Edward Said: “Better disparity and dislocation than reconciliation under duress of subject and object; better a lucid exile than sloppy, sentimental homecomings; better the logic of dissociation than an assembly of compliant dunces. A belligerent intelligence is always to be preferred over what conformity offers, no matter how unfriendly the circumstances and unfavorable the outcome.”
Mona Hatoum’s art is not a delicate nor easily mobilized resistance, it is one that defies fixed definitions by forcing the viewer to articulate a political subjectivity. Each one of Hatoum’s works contains an index to the past, an index to the lost and uncertain of one of the world’s greatest conflicts with all its tension, dangers and even beauty. One cannot search for a safe haven in Hatoum’s work for it is impossible to find since she breaks the given order at any given chance. Her work is filled with the connotation of stability of the home and homeland, places that are undermined by the continuous projection of feelings from to instability, to fear and threat that are projected upon the viewer, whomever it may be. The imagery of the present is no longer dissociated from its constitutive past. Those drawn to the image cannot escape the fact that have become complicit in its production and ultimately, responsible.
*Roxanne Sbitti is a cinematography student at Concordia University, this paper was done as a final paper for the Arth 200 class, instructed by Stefan Jovanovic.
1. (Postcolonial Text, Vol 4, No 3 (2008) Hatoum, Said and Foucault: Resistance through Revealing the Power-Knowledge Nexus Rehnuma Sazzad Nottingham Trent University)
2. Schulenberge, Anneke. “Beyond Borders: The Work of Ghada Amer, Mona Hatoum, Shirin Neshat and Shazia Sikander.” Dissertation, Radboud University Nijmegen, 2015.
3.Güner, Fisun. "No way home." New Statesman 137, no. 4901 (June 16, 2008): 42-43.
4. Said, Edward. "The Art of Displacement: Mona Hatoum’s Logic of Irreconcilables." Mona Hatoum: The Entire World as a Foreign Land (2000): 8-18.
5. Mansoor, Jaleh. "A Spectral Universality: Mona Hatoum's Biopolitics of Abstraction." October no. 133 (Summer2010 2010): 49-74.
6. Jabri, Vivienne. "MONA HATOUM: EXILED ART AND THE POLITICS OF RESISTANCE." Social Alternatives 20, no. 4 (October 2001): 37-40.
7. Michael Archer, Guy Brett and Catherine de Zegher, Mona Hatoum (London: Phaidon, 1997), p. 27.