Bodily Identifications: Mona Hatoum at Tate Modern, London, 4 May–21 August 2016
In 2012 I went with Kirsty Hall to the Louise Bourgeois exhibition at the Freud Museum. We had a long and (characteristically for Kirsty) diverse, wide-ranging and allusive conversation afterwards (in Giraffe, surrounded by incredibly noisy children) and then Kirsty wrote her review (Sitegeist No. 8).
I was reminded of this enjoyable way of thinking dialogically about art and went with a young art historian to Mona Hatoum.
The visit was an opportunity for me to be in the presence again of art which I first encountered at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford (now called Modern Art Oxford) in 1998. Those installations have been part of the structure of my mind ever since. And the current exhibition also has many other works made since then. This is a major retrospective of a major artist. And by going to see it with someone very different from me, I hoped for new insights as well as new experiences. My companion is of a different generation and gender from me and an expert in contemporary art, which I am not. In what ways would a young woman see Hatoum’s work differently from me? Would her knowledge support or undermine my amateur enthusiasm? How would we both (white British) respond to the themes of racial and national displacement and of political violence in the work?
The exhibition presented an extensive collection of the performance work and videos, the sculpture and installation works by Hatoum over the past 35 years. The Director of Tate Modern writes (in the exhibition guide) that this work ‘places Hatoum at the forefront of intellectual contemporary practice.’ There are many reasons why Hatoum’s work is particularly interesting to psychoanalysis, which I will try to convey in this review, but initially I will try to give an idea (without commenting at first) of what visiting the exhibition was like. The first thing you meet in the exhibition is Socle du Monde (Base or Pedestal of the World). It is a black cube standing 6 ft. high and looking like hair or fur or intestines. It is in fact composed of iron filings held in their swirling patterns by powerful magnets. Through several rooms of video installations, which I’ll come back to later, you come to a collection of tiny frail pieces of paper the size of old-fashioned writing paper, but mainly plain or with burnt or embossed images. They are variously made of woven human hair (a recurrent theme) and also skin, nails, urine and blood. Further on a studio flat in a (large) corner of one exhibition room (called Homebound) is furnished with tables, chairs, lamps, kitchen implements, electric fires etc. all of which are wired together and connected to a powerful electricity supply which is turned up every few minutes so that the whole room audibly fizzes with terrifying but invisible energy. Hot Spot is a globe standing more than 7 ft. high with red neon outlining the continents and picking out places of military or civil unrest. It indelibly shows a world (our world) that, as Hatoum says, is ‘continually caught up in conflict and unrest.’ (From the exhibition guide).