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Born in Lebanon to Palestinian parents Mona Hatoum's work is often presumed to be about displacement, alienation, exile and all the other things that an exiled Palestinian artist might be 'expected' to make art about. But while many of these elements have played and continue to play a part in Hatoum's work, this London-based artist's work is not an art that can be deemed to be political in any conventional or localised way. Nor is it limited to or, ultimately, about any one specific issue. 'There isn't a conscious effort on my part to speak directly about my background and history,' Hatoum has been at pains to point out. 'But the fact that I grew up in a war-torn country the fact that my family was displaced, a Palestinian family that ended up living in exile in Lebanon, has obviously shaped the way I perceive the world. It comes into my work as a feeling of unsettledness. The feeling of not being able to take anything for granted, even doubting the solidity of the ground you walk on' (M. Hatoum in interview with C. Spinelli 1996, reproduced in M. Archer, G. Brett & C. de Zegher, Mona Hatoum, London 1997, p. 134.)
Extending beyond the bounds of the political and into the realm of the personal, Hatoum's work weaves a careful path between physical presence and metaphysical absence. Her art both invokes and appeals to a sense of a common humanity - one that she both draws from and reveals underlying, and even perhaps uniting, the complex and divided world of everyday image and experience.
In her performances, videos, installations and objects, Hatoum reveals the inherent disparity between the conventions of how we see, interpret and comprehend the world around us and also, most importantly, how, as individual, sensory and above all physical beings, we feel about it and experience it. Her art is a dialogue between individual interior feeling and exterior perception with much of it investigating the disparity that often exists between the mind and the body and the surprise, even shock, that such disparity can bring about.
In Corps d'Etranger of 1994 or Deep Throat of 1996 for example, Hatoum exposed the body as an alien, ugly and strange reality somehow divorced from our own sense of self. Corps d'Etranger is an enclosed shell that forces the viewer to contemplate a cinematic exploration of the body's interior filmed with an endoscopic camera while Deep Throat is a more humorous take on a similar subject. It is a restaurant setting that serves up the unpalatable visual truth about the act of eating for the viewer's mental digestion. Here, the convention of dining and all its elegant exterior apparatus is wittily contrasted with the ugly visual reality of its interior physical experience by a video film documenting the passage of food into the body. These two unappetising but undeniably real and visceral films invading the viewer's sense of their own personal space, force questions about our apparent ease with, familiarity and acceptance of our bodies and their functions.
A common thread running through much of Hatoum's work, her preoccupation with the body as a vital and often overlooked arena of experience in art is, she has suggested, possibly, 'because I come from a culture where there isn't that tremendous split between body and mind.' When Hatoum first came to England in 1975, she said that 'it became immediately apparent to me that people were quite divorced from their bodies and very caught up in their heads like disembodied intellects. So I was always insisting on the physical in my work. I did not want my work to be one dimensional in the sense that it just appeals to the intellect. I wanted it to be a complete experience that involves your body, your senses, your mind, your emotions, everything. I think this has very much to do with the culture I grew up in where there is more of an integration between body and mind' (Ibid, p. 141).
As if to make us aware of this apparent lack of integration and with the aim perhaps of enlightening or even of healing the rift, Hatoum's work has an innate ability to shock or surprise with the sense of absence or of the displacement between body and mind that it expresses. This effect is often achieved by exploring the discrepancy between the way in which we respond to an object or environment both visually and physically. Provoking an often uncomfortable feeling, it informs installations like Recollection (1995) where an empty room is heavily imbued with a human presence solely through simple creations made with that most fragile and seemingly vulnerable of materials, human hair, or in Marrow (1996), a limp hospital cot made from marrow-like rubber. In a reversal of the cot's function, the marrow of this work exists alone and without the sturdy encasement of bone to protect and support it. Humanising this familiar and functional object, Hatoum has also rendered it vulnerable, helpless and, similar to a pair of rubber crutches she also made at this time, seemingly crippled. Her subversion of the function of this object of support and protection and her rendering of it vulnerable and body-like, simultaneously appeals to our compassion and threatens our sense of the logic of what we see to the point where the space surrounding the work becomes strange and ambiguous.
This uncanny dislocation of space is a common characteristic of Hatoum's best work. Like the deceptively simple forms of much Minimalist art, from which she has evidently drawn some inspiration, Hatoum's objects and installations often resonate with a sense of mystery and fascination even inspiring a sense of vertigo in the viewer. More felt than perceived, this vertiginous feeling is effected precisely because Hatoum's art appeals simultaneously to both the physical and the visual in the viewer, making them acutely aware of their own bodies and the fragility of their presence at the same time as they are being visually stimulated. As with her sumptuous giant metal cheese grater/screen Grater Divide (2002) or her silver metal Wheelchair (1998) with its razor-sharp knife handles, there is often a deeply pervasive undercurrent of physical pain directly accompanying the aesthetic sense of pleasure induced by her creations' undoubted visual appeal.
Nowhere is this strange paradox between mind and body in her work better or more humorously illustrated than in Doormat of 1996. Made entirely from nails, this exquisite Minimalist object with its warm and humorous 'Welcome' message is undercut with a sense of the pain it would inflict on the human body if stepped on, or, in the manner of an Indian fakir, lain upon. As Hatoum has said of this work it is a material reflection of her experience as an outsider in Britain in the early 1980s and her attempts to 'deal with an environment that I had experienced as hostile and intolerant'. A little piece of Britain the Doormat is a concise masterpiece of form and idea that retains its character as both an item of comforting familiarity and as an aesthetically pleasing object of desire. Its apparent domesticity and blandness is ultimately deceptive though, masking its sharp-edged and decidedly unwelcoming material nature. A conventional and familiar object that stands at the juncture between both the private and the public spheres, the doormat epitomises the place wherein Mona Hatoum's art operates. On the borderline between two worlds, it exists in both but belongs to neither. Seemingly familiar and aesthetically pleasing, it gets under the skin, often uncomfortably so, exploring and exposing the rifts between exterior and interior, between public image and private persona, between the politics of the masses and the rights of the individual and between what is said and what is meant, between the art object and the viewer and ultimately, and most importantly, between outward appearance and inner experience. 'Who feels it knows it.'
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