Mona Hatoum

Mona Hatoum on uncertainty and allure in “Remains to be Seen”

Mona Hatoum, Remains to be Seen, 2019, concrete and steel reinforcement bars, 17' 3 7/8“ x 17' 4 11/16” x 17' 4 11/16".

Many of Mona Hatoum’s installations employ just one or two materials (barbed wire, cement and rebar, steel, hair) to transform recognizable symbols and forms (maps, globes, spheres, cubes) into portentous iterations. The results can be seen as succinct metaphors for the world as it is—or as models of the future. In an exhibition at White Cube in London titled “Remains to be Seen,” on view from September 11 to November 3, 2019, Hatoum is debuting several pieces that move further in the latter direction, bringing together images of the world lit up by fire, a shattered map of floating continents, and a building whose plan incorporates its own destruction.

MODERN RUINS have long interested me—urban decay, destruction, ruins of architecture affected by war. Looking at the remains of buildings makes you reflect on the impermanence of all things, even what you think of as solid. Things that are supposed to contain you can also be fragile and breakable. People often talk about the sense of threat or danger in my work, but for me the feeling of precariousness is more important, especially in the current exhibition.

For Orbital I, a work made last year, I wanted to create something that appears to have been constructed from the remains of a destroyed building. It’s a globe made out of bent lengths of rebar punctuated by clumps of rubble, suggesting a world in a permanent state of destruction. I continued this idea in a new large-scale installation, in which chunks of concrete, which look like fragments of flooring, hang from the ceiling on straight sections of rebar. The work is heavy and light, ordered and chaotic, very much like my past work Impenetrable, where suspended lengths of barbed wire seem to float in space. This new installation creates a very different atmosphere, because it looks like the skeleton of a destroyed multistory building that has been left hanging by a thread. If you were to walk inside the cube, in between the hanging columns of concrete and rebar, it would feel quite threatening.

“Remains to be Seen” is a title that I’ve had in my head for a long, long time. I first used it in the 1980s, for a postcard-size work. I used to have a cat, and I would collect the whiskers that fell off its face and the little nails that I would find stuck in the carpet, and I made them into a collage. (My own nails will appear in a different work in this show, Nail Necklace. I also made a hair necklace many years ago.) The title seemed to be a good fit for this exhibition in part because, if you read remains as a verb, it suggests something unknown, a precarious situation, like the conditions of vulnerability, insecurity, and uncertainty that we are experiencing now in England, a situation that really applies to the whole world. When I couldn’t find a title for the new rebar installation, I decided to call it Remains to be Seen, too. This idea of remains as a noun is important to the work, but the title does not have to refer only to the remnants of a body or building—I like to use titles with double meanings to suggest that the work is open to interpretation.

I had previously considered using this title for what I then called “Remains of the Day,” a project first conceived for my Hiroshima Art Prize exhibition in 2017. I had visited Hiroshima in 2015 because I was asked to make new work for the exhibition. I decided to cover a whole set of domestic furniture with wire mesh and burn each piece to end up with ghostlike forms, where the charred remains are barely held together by the mesh. For this new exhibition, I challenged myself to make a piece that would be taller than a human, something aspiring to architecture, and I chose to work with a very tall cabinet. It was a challenge to destroy it but still have it stand up. It looks very much like a destroyed building. Its title is Remains (cabinet). People in London will very likely relate it to the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire. Another work in the series features a crib and children’s toys and chairs. This one is called Remains (play space).

The first time I used light in my work was in 1989, with The Light at the End. It was an installation made with what you perceived from a distance as bars of light. When you got closer, you started to experience intense heat; you then realized that what you had thought were strips of light were electric heating units that could burn you. The title prompted a hopeful expectation that was dashed when you got closer to the work. It read as a situation of imprisonment, torture, or pain. It was hard to tell if you were outside or inside of it: Are you jailed or are you the jailer? Are you the oppressed or the oppressor? At the same time, it was very seductive; everybody wants to play with fire. That’s when I began contemplating how a situation can be very attractive and repulsive at the same time. Beautiful, but dangerous.

Hot Spot, which I first created in 2006 and have made a different version of for this show, deals with a similar contradiction. Hot Spot (stand) is an elegant globe with delicate red neon delineating the continents. It is mesmerizing, but it also buzzes with energy that feels menacing. I wanted to suggest that hot spots, or spots of conflict, are not only restricted to certain regions. The whole world is caught up in conflicts and unrest. At the same time, the term hot spot can be read in the environmental sense, so the work could be seen as a reference to climate change.

There are a lot of different tendencies in my work: delicate, expansive, handmade, found, straightforward, uncanny. In both fabrication and installation, I always think about the viewer, their body, and how they will encounter the work—what they will see from a distance and what they will see when they get close. It is very much like a performance, but for the spectator. And much of the work has to do with trauma, where one’s experience of trauma can turn a normally innocuous object into one full of dread. During times of distress or displacement, people often attach their trauma to a specific object or environment. I try to reveal an undercurrent of hostility within something that usually looks inoffensive. It’s a way of making people question everything around them.

As told to Mira Dayal