Exploring issues of oppression, dislocation, and conflict, Mona Hatoum’s sculptural and conceptual works in various mediums are often seen in relation to her by now well-known biography. She was born to Palestinian parents in Lebanon; in 1975, while visiting London, she found herself unable to return home due to the Lebanese Civil War. She resided in London for many years after.
Hatoum’s Paris retrospective included the works for which she is best known: installations and sculptures featuring such allusive objects as cages, barbed wire, and maps. Most interesting, though, were her early 1980s performances, which were here represented not just by grainy black-and-white video documentation, but also by archival images, sketches, and writings by the artist, describing these dramatic pieces in a laconic manner. In Don’t Smile, You’re on Camera (1980), a commentary on surveillance, Hatoum pointed a video camera at audience members seated in front of her; behind her, a monitor showed a live feed of the footage, into which an invisible assistant was mixing images of naked or X-rayed bodies. In Under Siege (1982) she struggles to stand up in a transparent box full of wet mud to the sound of revolutionary songs in French, Arabic, and English and news reports on the political situation in the Middle East.
Surprisingly, these overtly political performances seemed less obvious than later, more universal sculptures, such as a baby crib with thin, sharp cheese wires for a mattress (Incommunicado, 1993), or a steel wheelchair with knife blades for handles (Untitled [Wheelchair II], 1999). However, the show also offered much-needed comic relief by including some of Hatoum’s more amusing surreal gestures, such as Jardin Public (1993), a neat triangle of pubic hair sitting on a garden chair. All in all, the exhibition showed Hatoum to be one of the most wide-ranging and important artists of our time.
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 109.