Over my dead body

Mona Hatoum
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
23 March – 29 May 2005

From the comparative safety of Australia, how can we truly comprehend the trauma that exists as a daily companion for those in war ravaged situations? A taxi driver from Somalia, a house cleaner from Bosnia, may be the only encounters in our daily lives from which we have the chance to glean life stories which explain the most pressing reasons why they have left their homelands. The narratives are usually brief and revealed only when probed.

Mona Hatoum was brought up in Beirut in a Palestinian family and was at art school in London when war broke out in Lebanon and she was compelled to stay put. This enforced exile, from 1975, informs all of her art practice as does the rage of gender inequality and perverse power relations. It is a powerful indicator of the world of migration, the increase in diasporic communities (based less on economic opportunism than on the human instinct for survival) and brings an unavoidable sense of displacement and loss. The environment she escaped is paradoxically that which formed the identity of her youth and that which betrayed its promise. Writing at his best, Sebastian Smee in a review for the Weekend Australian, states how Hatoum’s survey of twenty years, ‘suggests deep wells of vulnerability and tenderness among the despair and indignation. In her best works, her histrionic and didactic tendencies—her private psychology and her political convictions—are kept mutually in check’.1

I agree with Smee and it is understandable that in this survey of Hatoum the early 1980s performance works by her are comparatively crude and unrefined as though the urgency of recording (through film and still photography) takes precedence over refinements of technique. But how, after-all, does one indicate institutional violence, the curtailment of freedom for women, when as a young woman experience has proved society to be so devastatingly unjust? Measured coolness comes only with maturity.

Mounted with astute timing by the Museum of Contemporary Art, this is Mona Hatoum’s first solo exhibition in Australia. Installed through several gallery spaces on two levels of the Museum, it presents a cross-section of Hatoum’s sculpture, video and installation work from 1983 (the short video ‘So much I want to say’ and the small, intentionally raw drawings The Negotiating Table) to the major installations Light Sentence (1992), Corps étranger (1994) and Documenta II’s Homebound. Interspersed between these two zones of her career– the early exploratory exercises into her personal identity and political position and the later fully developed, pared back and ambitious statements, are the metal sculptures. These include the chilling Untitled (wheelchair) (1998), with knives serving as handles, and Balançoires en fer (1999) two swings constructed with a potentially lethal blade on the edge of each seat.

Much of Hatoum’s work is concerned with the human body. Addressing the senses and also developing her practice, it is based on the body occupying a physical space. For instance, the first impression on entering the exhibition at the MCA is to confront the video installation Corps étranger, a circular structure with a shifting video image of an eye close-up, and female orifices, which are intruded upon by the camera’s action. Accommodating only one viewer at a time, this work includes speakers emitting the amplified sound of a heartbeat which permeates through the other exhibits of Hatoum’s nearby. The sensation is unsettling and unavoidable. So too is the installation on the mezzanine area, + and – (1994-2004) which is a large rotating disk filled with sand and a dividing form which makes ripples as beautiful as those in Kyoto gardens, yet smooths them over without a trace. As we grow to learn, so much in our lives is covered and buried without a trace in an endless process of repetition.

The contradictions of beauty and violence, attraction and repulsion are the poles which Hatoum fearlessly brings into play in her practice. The stark recognition that her work brings to us is gut-wrenching. We are reminded that at the beginning of the 21st century, for many the global environment is one of unbearable anxiety, uncertainty and violence. Through her personal testaments and empathy with others in exile, or in extreme situations, this artist eloquently faces up to the bare fact of trauma. In Australia, only Dennis Del Favero has come close to conveying (through his films and photographs) how contrary and destructive human actions can be and how catastrophic unchecked greed and power are to communities.2

Mona Hatoum is rightly placed in the top echelons of the visual arts today and it is a major coup that the exhibition Mona Hatoum: Over My Dead Body is shown in this country. For MCA Director, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, the exhibition has been long-awaited; she curated the exhibition, based upon exhibitions at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, Kunstmuseum Bonn and Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall in 2004. The show is accompanied by an excellent book in English, published by Hatje Cantz of the same year. For the Sydney venue, an additional brochure recording an interview between the artist and Macgregor, completes this memorable event.

Mona Hatoum, Light Sentence, 1992. Wire mesh lockers, slow moving motorised light bulb, 198 x 185 x 490cm. Mona Hatoum, Fonds national d'art contemporain, Ministère de la culture et de la communication, Paris, FNAC 94656 (1à 39).  

notes: 

1. Sebastian Smee, ‘Rage, naturally’, Weekend Australian, 9 April 2005.

2. See Jill Bennett, Fantasmi: Dennis Del Favero, UNSW Press, 2004.