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Portrait: Mona Hatoum – Architectural Review

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Resonating with multiple presences and places, the work of the British-Palestinian artist remains a powerful statement on violence and displacement

In the middle of the gallery there is a stack of lockers made of mesh that might be animal cages. The lockers have been manufactured to stand slightly taller than a person. They are laid out in rows like a model city. A solitary light is hanging in the middle of the space. The naked bulb ascends and descends on a motorised pulley. The movement of the light is slow and routine ‘like a life in prison’. The light penetrates the lockers, illuminating them and casting silhouettes against the wall and the bodies of the audience. The shadows form a patterned moiré that works its way up and down the periphery of your vision. You might be forgiven for thinking that it is the ground, rather than the light bulb, that is moving. The effect is disconcertingly violent, delicate and vertiginous at the same time. Titled Light Sentence (1992), this installation by the artist Mona Hatoum became a site of pilgrimage for architecture students during her Tate Modern show in 2016. That shouldn’t be a surprise. From early performances where she turned the panoptic infrastructure of state surveillance back on herself and her audiences, to the ongoing engagement with domesticity, to the interest in carceral architecture and confinement, Hatoum’s practice has always cut through architecture’s disavowed heart with a surgeon’s skill.

A Pile of Bricks III, 2019, plays with scale, appearing almost as an architectural model, complete with windows and articulated facades

Credit:Mona Hatoum / White Cube / Theo Christelis

Hatoum’s work often operates at the scale of the room: the 1995 work Recollection consists of a loom, used to weave human hair, mounted to a table in a room scattered with balls of hair

Credit:Mona Hatoum / Kanaal Art Foundation Kortrijk / Fotostudio Eshof

The ’90s would prove to be a defining decade in Hatoum’s career. In 1995, she was in the United States and she visited Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary. Recounting the visit, she begins by describing the Slade School of Art at the beginning of the 1980s, absorbing Michel Foucault’s reading of disciplinary architecture around the corner from Jeremy Bentham’s effigy and becoming increasingly aware of London’s oppressive surveillance infrastructure. Just a short walk from the Slade on Caledonian Road was Pentonville Prison; like Eastern State Penitentiary, it had a radial plan inspired by Bentham’s writing. Though Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary had been closed 18 years earlier, it opened for public tours in 1994. During her tour, Hatoum visited a cell and took a photograph of a steel frame bunk bed without its mattress. Later, once back in her studio in east London, she would ask someone to return to the prison to record the exact dimensions of the frame for fabrication. The frames were rebuilt in studio to original proportions, but Hatoum reduced the space between the frames, stacking them five-high like shelves instead of two-high like bunks. The metal is left bare, and they are exhibited in banks of four. Titled Quarters (1996), the work is simultaneously a place to rest, a device to store objects, and a space of confinement. It exhibits Benthamite taste for evaluating the balance between pleasure and pain, though to perverse rather than utilitarian ends. It toys with the audience like a well-designed trap, perfectly condensing realities and scales into a single piece made up of uniformly repetitive elements.

Quarters, 1996, by Mona Hatoum

Credit:Mona Hatoum / Viafarini Milan / Andrea Martiradonna

Quarters, 1996, was inspired by Hatoum’s visit to Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia where she took this photograph

Credit:Mona Hatoum

The ability to condense multiple realities in a single piece might be the defining characteristic of Hatoum’s work. It shares minimalism’s economy of expression but surpasses the intensity of its effect. Some elements recur: domestic items like beds, tables and kitchen utensils, but also organic matter shed and clipped from the body – skin, hair, nails. Materials are charred, woven, plaited, broken, sewn and stained. The overall experience is often mischievous but resolutely visceral.

Mona Hatoum’s work is often described as paradoxical or referential but that is not exactly right. It’s not as simple as saying the elements and the spaces they create refer to somewhere else. The experiences they create tell us something important about experience itself: that experience is always both here and elsewhere. I don’t think that quality is unique to diasporic artists and artwork, but I do think that diasporic peoples live the co-presence of different realities more intensely – like what Edward Said describes as the contrapuntal aspect inherent to exile, or what Ghassan Hage describes as the lenticular condition in relation to the Lebanese diaspora, but with a dark, surrealist twist.

Cage-like structures also feature in Light Sentence, 1992 – light from within projects the cage onto the gallery walls, expanding its enclosure

Credit:Mona Hatoum / Locus+ Archive Cardiff / Edward Woodman

Light is used in The Light at the End, 1989, to express imagined feelings of pain

Credit:Mona Hatoum / Edward Woodman

The first example of the contrapuntal or lenticular character of her work is found in a talismanic piece, a crucial pivot point as her practice moved away from performance toward installation. The Light at the End (1989) occupied the narrow end of a wedge-shaped space in London’s Showroom gallery. This time the room is dark, its blood-red walls illuminated by the glow of six vertical orange lines in a corner. From afar, they might be fluorescent tubes like a Dan Flavin. Moving closer, the lines bar access to the corner of the room like the gates of a prison cell. Then finally, just before you get close enough to touch them, you register the shock of heat emanating from bright filaments burning incandescently before you. The eye registers light but touch triggers the danger of imagined pain. ‘No one was doing work like that at the time,’ says John Akomfrah, referring to the subversion of minimalist art practice and its violent evocation of incarceration. The work was defining not just for Hatoum but for an entire generation of artists.

Looking back, art practice in Britain in the 1980s occurred with a unique intensity for diasporic communities. Thatcherism was ravaging the country, anti-racist struggles were building momentum and finally finding expression in the cultural sphere. In 1986, Black Audio Film Collective released Handsworth Songs. In 1988, Rasheed Araeen curated The Essential Black Art at Chisenhale Gallery with works by Frank Bowling, Sonia Boyce, Zarina Bhimji and Hatoum. A few years later, Araeen would launch the journal Third Text. The importance of those artists and that period was obscured by the prominence of the YBAs (Young British Artists) and the enthusiastic embrace of Cool Britannia that followed, spurred on by the election of Blair’s New Labour government. From the perspective of the present, one can’t help but see that as a forewarning of sentiments that would lead to Brexit many decades later. Many in that generation of artists would first find recognition abroad before later finding it at home. Only in the last years have British African, Asian and Caribbean artists of that generation started to receive the recognition they deserve.

Measures of Distance, a film from 1988, captures the artist’s mother in the shower overlaid with letters sent to Hatoum by her mother. Written in Arabic but read aloud in English, the piece speaks of displacement and the separation of loved ones by war

Credit:Mona Hatoum / Tate

Interpretations of Hatoum’s practice often move to biography, due to the political didacticism of earlier performance pieces and to works of an explicitly autobiographical nature like Measures of Distance (1988), where she reads aloud letters from her mother in Beirut over footage of her mother in the shower. At times, biographical over-coding has come at the cost of engagement with its formal precision and conceptual clarity. Yet certain important facts should be repeated. Her Palestinian family had to flee Haifa in 1948 because of Israeli terror. In 1975 she couldn’t return to Lebanon because of the start of the civil war. Then there was the devastation felt after the massacres of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila in 1982. So surely Light Sentence and Quarters referenced humanitarian architecture, like the relief agency tents and shelters of refugee camps in Lebanon or Palestine? Few imagined that the works alluded to English society and the housing blocks of her adopted city. After all, what qualifies this artist to cast an ambivalent gaze back at her host? Such expectations are still all too familiar to many, exhibiting the peculiar, pernicious logic of cultural production in the Western metropole: everyone can be international except the rest of the world which must remain local. This is especially true in the more intimate, local and domestic works such as Remains of the Day (2017), where wire mesh wraps around domestic items – chairs, tables and children’s toys –before they are burnt, the wires barely holding the fragile charred remains in place.

Hatoum’s 1985 artwork Roadworks, a performance on the streets of Brixton, explored an idea of oppression that was autobiographical but also found resonance with the Black communities in the local area

Credit:Mona Hatoum / Brixton Art Gallery / Patrick Gilbert

Hatoum’s recent work continues the restless formal exploration of displacement, destruction and incarceration, most strikingly in Remains to be Seen (2019), where a three?dimensional grid of concrete fragments that seem to be the residue of a recently destroyed building are suspended in the air like an explosion arrested at its halfway point.As a generation of artists in Britain receive just, albeit overdue, recognition from major institutions, and while Black and Palestinian liberation struggles become common cause for the first time since the 1970s, and as ‘occupation’, ‘apartheid’ and ‘abolition’ enter popular consciousness and begin to mobilise new generations of architects, it is worth pausing to celebrate an artist that has prefigured these concerns for so many years. Mona Hatoum has dedicated her practice to interrogating the everyday menace lurking behind the routine of modern life with alacrity and feeling. Her work expresses the vulnerability and precarity of the human body and its entrapment in the architecture of the home and the architecture of the prison with equal measure. If sometimes it’s difficult to tell the two apart, that’s precisely the point.

The Jane Drew Prize

A spirited advocate for women in a male-dominated profession, Jane Drew graduated from the Architectural Association in 1929 into a profession that was unwelcoming to women at best. She started her own practice after the Second World War, and her work played a substantial role in introducing the Modern Movement into the UK.

Last year, the prize was given to Kate Macintosh. Previous winners include Amanda Levete, Odile Decq, Grafton Architects’ founders Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, Zaha Hadid, Kathryn Findlay of Ushida Findlay and Eva Ji?i?ná.

The Ada Louise Huxtable Prize

Ada Louise Huxtable made history by being the first full-time architecture critic at a US newspaper when she joined the New York Times, and was later awarded the first Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1970. Ghanaian-Scottish architect Lesley Lokko won in 2021. Feminist writer Beatriz Colomina won in 2020. Swiss-French artist and architectural photographer Hélène Binet won in 2019. Sculptor Rachel Whiteread, former Serpentine Galleries director Julia Peyton-Jones and client and architectural patron Jane Priestman are the previous recipients of the accolade.

This piece is featured in the AR March 2022 issue on Bodies + W Awards – click here to buy your copy today

Lead image credit: Mona Hatoum / Andri Pol

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