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Number 12: Summer 2016

Bodily Identifications: Mona Hatoum at Tate Modern, London, 4 May–21 August 2016

Nicholas Bayley

What doesn’t Hatoum’s work cover? From the intensely physical and personal (pubic hair, her mother in a shower) to major statements about political displacement such as Quarters or Light Sentence and often with a delightful sense of humour (the pubic hair forms the seat of an ornate wrought-iron chair called punningly Jardin Public. What they all share is an intensely thought-provoking and profoundly visceral confrontation with being human. And as my companion put it ‘thinking through materials.’ They are about alienation, about being de-centred, about Being-towards-death. It is no surprise that in the essays in the exhibition book (Van Assche & Wallis, 2016) many references will be familiar to readers of Sitegeist, including Merleau-Ponty, Irigaray, Kristeva and Foucault.

In the short space of this review I can only hope to convey a brief impression of the fascination and corporeality of Hatoum’s work for those readers who are unfamiliar with it and to urge you to seek it out (the exhibition next goes to Helsinki) at its main homes at Tate Modern and Centre Pompidou, Paris. Meanwhile, I will try to comment briefly on the impact this exhibition had on a middle-aged psychoanalyst and a young art historian.

My friend was most of all interested in the connections. Indeed, there was a narrow corridor room containing a great variety of materials, inspirations and made objects—a simulacrum of the artist’s studio— which she called ‘the connection room’. We also discussed together how some of the sounds or smells of installations preceded them or lingered after visiting, not just in the mind but literally. My companion spoke about how the enormous bench-sized cheese grater had not made sense to her when she first saw it alone in another museum, but here it was contextualized and powerful. The ‘bodily identifications’ grow stronger with exposure.

For my companion the most memorable piece was the one called Present Tense. A room is floored with square pale Palestinian soap bars, whose olive oil scent fills the surrounding galleries. Picked out on the soaps, as if embedded—as happens to soap bars—is a pattern in pink. On closer inspection, it is not body tissues this time, but glass beads. They show a map of the Occupied Territories. Hatoum, we learn, bought the soaps in the souks of Jerusalem Old City just as one might buy them in an East London corner shop, feeling support for the Middle Eastern conflict. The intimacy of the soap—its smell, its function—exposes the struggle and ephemerality of the Palestinian people’s plight. And so many ideas cling to the room—a soapy floor, sketchy map like a body, scent, handcrafted merchandise, tradition, recent history… The identifications take a bodily presence.

For me, one of the most powerful of all of the works was one of the video installations, Corps Etranger (Foreign Body). You stand in the dark inside a tall circular hut only big enough for two or three other people. The floor is a TV screen so you have to huddle against the wall to look down at it. Showing is a film, made with specialist medical cameras, which explores, probes and penetrates the artist’s body. Sliding over skin, negotiating patches of hair, plunging deeply into each orifice, in full colour and with body fluids and sphincters pulsing with life, we travel over and into her body. It is as though the caverns of Lascaux have come to life, or as if we have shrunk beyond Brobdingnagian dimensions to a virus. It is prurient, horrifying, disgusting, fascinating, invasive, unforgettable. I have thought and talked about it a lot in the 18 years since I first saw it, but could hardly bear to stay with it this time. Most other people, I noticed, could only bear it for a second or two. Being all alone in there might not be so bad, but to be inside Hatoum’s body standing beside strangers is difficult. Certainly, my companion did not enter it with me. So many psychoanalytic thoughts burst from this experience: following the skin inside and outside the body, the erogenous sites but also the ego; seeing what we should not; seeing what our own body must (approximately) look like; surveillance; the uncanny and abject forced into our mind; the intimate and familiar made strange…