PRINT April 1993


It is worth puzzling over the fact that American artists strategically reworking such Modern movements as Minimalism, from a vantage point grounded in a feminist or cross-cultural consciousness, have so far resorted mostly to parody. Like Rachel Lachowicz, painstakingly duplicating, in lipstick, a Richard Serra sculpture, and Polly Apfelbaum, whose loose floor arrangements of tie-dyed fabric goof on Carl Andre, most artists working this fertile terrain are reluctant to try to summon the considerable phenomenological power of the works they critique. At this point in the culture wars of the ’90s, the critical and the sensate have been largely demarcated as separate, even warring states.

Mona Hatoum’s project demands attention in this standoff because she has found a way to turn elemental forces to her use. Previously involved in performance and video, Hatoum has recently emerged as a sculptor meriting international interest for her creation of dramatic, tableaulike situations in which the viewer is confronted by a single, looming form (slowly revealed to be the framework of a simple familiar object, such as a chair) made menacing by its role as a conduit for a potentially lethal energy: heat, electricity, or, more recently, magnetic fields. The startled viewer who is expecting an esthetic experience is instead handed a potentially life-threatening situation. Yet, in substituting a literal halo of danger for the aura of the pure geometric form, Hatoum remains faithful both to the iconic presence of the forms she uses and to the message of discomfort she means them to convey.

Two Hatoum works were shown in New York in 1991, in the New Museum’s exhibition “The Interrupted Life” and the Grey Art Gallery’s “Interrogating Identity.” These shows dealt with widely differing topics (the former with the subject of death, the latter with nonwhite identity in the English-speaking world), but in both, the critical posture of Hatoum’s art was mostly subsumed by the contexts in which they appeared. The surrounding artworks, mainly characterized by the use of printed words and reproductions, tended to emphasize her work’s spectacular quality. (This although, unlike the potentially fatal gate shown at the Grey, her rendition of an electric chair at the New Museum was inoperable both times I visited; perhaps the work’s deadly charge wore out the building’s fuses.) To my mind, this reflected no shortcoming on the artist’s part, but rather seemed to underscore an institutional inability to advance beyond certain stylistic categorizations and dualities inherited from the ’60s and ’70s that still flounder about in the soup of post-Modern theoretics. In short, someone needs literally to throw the switch in order to complete the circuit of associations set up by Hatoum’s art, between esthetics, cultural relativism, and death.

There is nothing murky about Hatoum’s Socle du monde 1991 (Pedestal of the world 1991, 1991–92), executed last year for “Pour la suite du monde” (For the end of the world), a show at Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain. The piece is a homage to Piero Manzoni’s 1961 work of the same name (itself a tribute to Galileo), and the notion behind both artworks is that of a pedestal for the earth, from which one might also infer a center against which other positions would be determined. But whereas Manzoni’s work flirts with an overtly poetic view of mortality—it consists of an inscribed iron plinth placed upside-down in a Danish park—Hatoum’s lures one into a contemplative zone that is shattered when one suddenly realizes that the surface of this seemingly immutable cube is actually as transitory as a wave. Clinging to the iron surface of Hatoum’s plinth is a thick coat of iron filings, intricately patterned by the forces of the powerful magnets embedded in the sculpture. The surface shifts from an appearance of unflinching solidity to one of a teeming mass of particles, as unstable as the invisible currents that control them, and potentially very dangerous to anyone sporting a pacemaker.

For Hatoum—a Palestinian, born in Beirut in 1952, who has worked in England since 1975—the idea of concealing possibly deadly invisible forces within a sculpture has unsettling metaphoric implications. But though the power of her forms depends heavily on their menace, it is easy to locate in her work a didactic interest in probing Western uneasiness about Islamic, African, and Asian cultures. Hatoum’s recognition of the split identity implicit in her own situation becomes apparent when she muses, in regard to Socle du monde 1991, “Today, the idea of a pedestal for the earth fixing it at the center of the universe may suggest a revival of anachronistic ideas and blind beliefs which are becoming more and more apparent in every part of the planet.”1

For every obvious threshold of danger evoked by Hatoum’s sculpture, there is an equal, more subtle acknowledgment that the human species is itself the result of an incredibly fragile compromise. Unlike most other artists who have sought to address death, Hatoum’s work serves as a forceful reminder that once we separate our inclination for art from our instinct for survival, art in the true sense of the word ceases to exist.

Dan Cameron is a free-lance curator and writer who lives in New York. He contributes frequently to Artforum.


1. Mona Hatoum, artist’s statement, in Gilles Godmer and Réal Lussier, eds., Pour la suite du monde, exhibition catalogue, Montreal: Musée d’art contemporain, 1992, p. 71.