A Dangerous Game Played out in Various Spaces

The work of British-Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum has been exhibited throughout the world and her sculptures and installations can currently be seen at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, where she has been awarded the 2010 Käthe Kollwitz Prize. Gesine Borcherdt reports

photo: Jim Rakete (© Mona Hatoum)
Mona Hatoum has lived in Europe since the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975: "On the one hand a terrible experience, but on the other I would not otherwise be doing what I'm doing today," Mona Hatoum says

​​ Mona Hatoum plays a dangerous game; dangerous because her artworks are made of barbed wire, are electrically charged, conjure up nightmares, yet are still unbelievably beautiful; a game because they reposition the viewer in a child's perspective: graters as tall as human beings, standing in the room like a pitch-black screen for changing behind, or forming a bed, like a razor-sharp torture instrument evoking gruesome fantasies.

In Undercurrent (2008) cables are woven with fabric to form a huge red carpet, then reach out like tentacles from all four sides, light-bulbs glowing and dimming in a calm breathing rhythm at their ends. But the meditative appearance is deceptive; the carpet, a universal symbol for homeliness, is wired to the mains – an electrical "current". It is as if as if Hatoum has turned the Akademie der Künste into a doll's house full of monstrous furniture.

An absurd mixture of surrealism and minimal art

Mona Hatoum, a Palestinian who grew up in Beirut and today lives between London and Berlin, has now been awarded the 2010 Käthe Kollwitz Prize for her work which, according to the jury, "in the midst of a civilization grown complacent, self-congratulatory and sentimental, renews the primal experience of human beings' otherness in the world".

​​ Her visual language is indeed an absurd mixture of surrealism and minimal art; it is at the same time alienating and beguiling, familiar and disturbing to look at the grid structures of her delicate stitched images and simple necklaces of human hair, or to confront the steely barbed wire Cube (9 x 9 x 9) (2008) – the basic form of 1960s US minimal sculpture and an indication that the ostensibly familiar can be extremely harmful, even deadly.

War in Lebanon

Damage, displacement and distrust, murder, exile and evocation have all played a particular role in Hatoum's life. While she was on a short visit to London in 1975 the civil war in Lebanon began. Twenty-three years old at the time, she was unable to return to her family. "On the one hand a terrible experience, but on the other I would not otherwise be doing what I'm doing today," Mona Hatoum says.

Photo: Mona Hatoum
Electrically charged: in the installation Undercurrent </i>the carpet, a widely-understood symbol of cosiness, is wired to the mains electricity

​​ Her brief trip to western Europe became a stay of thirty-five years and her new home became the various places throughout the world where she has exhibited over the last two decades. These have included the MOMA New York, the Venice Biennale, Kassel documenta and Berlin, where she moved in 2005 thanks to a grant and stayed, or more accurately where she rents a flat and a studio: "Berlin runs at a slower pace, it is not as hectic as London or other metropolises. I enjoy that," says Hatoum, providing a rough impression of the tempo her life otherwise follows.

She began her artistic career in the 1980s studying fine art at London's Byam Shaw and Slade art colleges and initially producing performances and videos in which she directly addressed the separation from her homeland. In the film Measures of Distance (1988) she superimposed Arabic letters exchanged between herself and her mother like a soft veil over her mother's naked body under the shower; there could hardly be a more intimate representation of the yearnings and vulnerability of body and soul – and also of the difference between two generations of women.

When Hatoum later screwed colanders together so that when inverted they looked like land mines, decorated maps of Beirut, Kabul and Bagdad with attractively designed craters (3-D Cities, 2008-2010) or draped prayer beads made of cannonballs across the floor like a string of pearls (Worry Beads, 2009), she reached out beyond her own experience and addressed global themes in which violence and domesticity enter into a macabre relationship both painful and at the same time humorous.

Photo: Mona Hatoum
Decorative craters in the cities of Beirut, Kabul and Bagdad: the installation 3-D Cities </i>by Mona Hatoum.

​​ This kind of symbolism is also a dangerous game; it is all too easy for socially concerned art to become kitsch. But Mona Hatoum largely succeeds in lending her sensuous or energetically charged objects a universality with which she evades any concrete political appropriation. What remains is the disturbing feeling of sharing a space with objects which lead a life of their own. We are not alone, voices seem to whisper to us in the exhibition. There is always the other, the unknown, the unpredictable. We are strangers in the world, ultimately helpless as a child or a clown when faced with these objects.

One thing is clear; even if some people would like to subject the entire planet to a "security check", the world would not pass it. This idea would certainly have appealed to Käthe Kollwitz.

Gesine Borcherdt

© Tageszeitung/Qantara.de 2010

The exhibition runs till 5 September, Akademie der Künste, Pariser Platz, Berlin.

Translated from the German by Steph Morris

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de


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