PRINT October 2021


Mona Hatoum, Homebound (detail), 2000, kitchen utensils, furniture, electric wire, lightbulbs, dimmer unit, amplifier, speakers. Installation view, Menil Collection, Houston, 2017. Photo: Frederik Nilsen. © Mona Hatoum, New York/DACS, London.

Content warning: discussions of violence and sexual violence.

WHAT INSPIRES detached bemusement from a distance—That looks funny, or at least interesting, we might think—can, at a more intimate proximity, become brutish, threatening. This is how we encounter many of the turn-of-the-millennium sculptures and installations by London-based Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum. An egg slicer has been scaled up to accommodate a human body. That same set of slicing wires has been used to replace the base of a baby’s crib. On a kitchen table lie a set of metal utensils—colanders, slotted spoons—that are connected to an electric wire, seductively inviting a deadly touch.

That Hatoum’s objects and scenes are typically domestic brings out the violence that always lurks at home, the abuse that threatens to spring forth from a spouse, a parent, an intimate other who is close enough to hurt. The classic Surrealist move of enlarging a quotidian object helps us see the harm and asks us to look more closely, to reassess the common sense that intimacy means comfort, that domesticity means safety. The magnification of these familiar implements that have been made lethal allegorizes domestic violence viscerally, not cerebrally, in the physical relationship they create. If Minimalism’s theatrical quality rests on the specific object’s anthropomorphic scale, as Michael Fried famously argued, then Hatoum’s gigantic objects stage a mordant satire, effectively shrinking the viewer like a science-fiction ray gun, correlating an overwhelming nearness with threat and distance with obliviousness. Just as we wouldn’t normally look too closely at a banal kitchen tchotchke or dwell on its potential to injure us, we might not know what goes on in a relationship and will tend to assume the best rather than the worst: He seems like a good guy.

Mona Hatoum, Marble Slicer, 2002, marble, stainless steel, 40 1⁄2 × 36 1⁄2 × 45 3⁄4". Photo: Stephen White. © Mona Hatoum, New York/DACS, London.

Two decades after Hatoum made them, and four years after #MeToo’s watershed moment, these works provoke the question of how abuse ever could have been a revelation; of why so many of us couldn’t see already that the unjust distribution of power and gendering of privilege made harm likely rather than improbable, normal rather than spectacular.

In some respects, these sculptures seem to go against the grain of an important strand of feminist art criticism arguing that rape and allegory shouldn’t mix. Consider the various aesthetic renditions of the most notorious episode of Rome’s origin myth: Giambologna, Poussin, Rubens, and countless other artists all produced works explicitly on the subject of the rape of the Sabine women. The story goes that, after settling what would become the city of Rome, Romulus and his army of followers found themselves with a shortage of women to keep their newly significant bloodlines going. The obvious solution was to steal women from a nearby community, the Sabines. The Latin word from which rape derives means theft. That the word posits women as chattel, and that the harm it names is a man’s loss of property, is one reason some feminists think we ought to get out of the habit of using “rape” at all and substitute more precise terminology, such as “sexual assault.”

Giambologna, The Rape of a Sabine Woman (detail), 1579–83, marble, 13'5” × approx. 5' × approx 5'. Photo: Mary Harrsch/Wikicommons.

Europe’s old masters depicted the scene in what Diane Wolfthal has called the “heroic tradition,” excusing if not outright celebrating the violation of women as an expression of the militant patriotism of founding a nation. Monika Fabijanska’s 2018 exhibition “The Un-Heroic Act: Representations of Rape in Contemporary Women’s Art in the U.S.” included Carolee Thea’s 1991 riposte to Giambologna et al., Sabine Woman, which sought to make the brutal reality of sexual violence harder for viewers to avoid: The sculptural tableau portrays a gang rape with life-size bodies outlined in chicken wire. The cage-like nature of the wire bodies connects the historical sexual enslavement of the Sabines with the act of rape itself. Rape is not a mere allegory here. Rape is violence against a body, not symbolism about nation building.

Hatoum, too, implicitly critiques the tradition that aestheticizes and ennobles this conflation, but her strategy revolves less around unmasking the true brutality underpinning grand narratives of manhood and empire than around answering one allegory with another. Because rape is a theft, its perpatrator not just taking a victim’s body, but also stealing their time, their labor, and their agency. What the story of the Sabines picks up on is the origin of rape in a military operation. It suggests that a patriarchal nation gets started by coercing women first into reproductive labor and then into the ongoing labor of recovering from the trauma of that coercion. Nations, like men, found themselves upon a theft. Nations, like men, assess their sovereignty as a form of population control—over peoples, over families.

Mona Hatoum, Jardin suspendu, 2008, jute bags, earth, grass. Installation view, Kunstplatz Karlsplatz, Vienna, 2009. Photo: Stephan Wyckoff. © Mona Hatoum, New York/DACS, London.

LIKE MANY OTHER feminist artists of the time, Hatoum in the 1980s and the early ’90s foregrounded performance and the body as a site of confrontation and vulnerability. These early works include Corps étranger, 1994, a video shot with an endoscopic camera that roamed over the surface of the artist’s body and into its orifices. Works like the giant egg slicer or the electrified kitchen utensils, from the mid- to the late ’90s, seemed to engage gender violence and gender politics more broadly. And in the new millennium, Hatoum thematized conflict and international relations in works such as Jardin suspendu, 2008, in which walls of sandbags, like military fortifications, have sprouted plants that perhaps symbolize the birth of peace but more persuasively and ominously suggest the permanence of war, how it has become the entire landscape upon which life transpires.

These seemingly different emphases—the bodily, the domestic, the global—are present in all of Hatoum’s works, which in turn figure their inseparability, tracing the ways in which international affairs interfere in interpersonal affairs, how the trauma written on bodies is inseparable from the treaties written in international accords. In an early work, Over My Dead Body, 1988, Hatoum photographed her face in profile with a plastic toy soldier perched on her nose, its bayonet aimed at her fiercely indignant eyes. The titular text runs in block letters down the left side of a billboard, evoking Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Your gaze hits the side of my face), 1981, or the agitprop of the Guerrilla Girls. As Kruger famously reminded women, their bodies are battlegrounds. Hatoum’s plastic toy soldier conjures images of the homes in which boys play, further reminding women that they are often conscripted into raising boys for that battle. These are boys who will read the story of the Sabines as a story about heroism and victory and what it means to be a man and to serve a nation. The toy soldier provides training in learning gender and nationalism together.

These works provoke the question of how abuse ever could have been a revelation.

In a more recent work, Hot Spot III, 2009, a stainless-steel cage in the shape of a globe about seven feet in diameter holds the earth’s continents. The landmasses are outlined in radiant neon-red tubes that seem to both warn of danger and be dangerous themselves. Both works miniaturize geographic hot spots or sites of military conflict, bringing them down to the size of the human.

Mona Hatoum, Hot Spot III, 2009, *stainless steel, neon, 92 1⁄4 × 87 3⁄4 × 87 3⁄4". Photo: Dotgain (Daniel Poller and Falk Messerschmidt). © Mona Hatoum, New York/DACS, London.

Bookended by these two miniaturizations, the giganticism of Hatoum’s domestic objects becomes more legible. Take Grater Divide, 2002. The work is ridiculous: a standing metal cheese grater more than six feet high. Installed in a gallery, it works as a room divider, but the holes make privacy impossible. The wall is a weapon rather than a shield: A person undressing behind it could be cut as well as peeped at, opened up by sharp edges made for shredding. The work is not only an enlargement of a grater, however, but also a miniaturization of a divide, prototyping, in particular, the West Bank barrier Israel had begun to construct on appropriated Palestinian land. A person traveling through a border checkpoint may be asked to undress—strip searches are not prohibited by Israeli law. In the United States, they have been allowed ever since the 1985 Supreme Court case United States v. Rosa Elvira Montoya de Hernandez, which originated with the cavity search of Hernandez, who was traveling to Los Angeles from Colombia. In both countries, the coercive invasion of bodies is more likely to be visited on people of color, who are disproportionately singled out for selective or heightened “screening.” This word’s very meaning is reframed, or enlarged, by the Grater Divide.

Mona Hatoum, Grater Divide, 2002, mild steel, 80 1⁄4" × variable width × variable depth. Photo: Iain Dickens. © Mona Hatoum, New York/DACS, London.

Gloria Anzaldúa, the queer Chicana theorist of Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), called the United States–Mexico border an “open wound” where “the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.” All borders are graters: not solid walls but permeable ones whose pores are sharpened to pierce what passes through. To get through customs, to cross a border, requires contorting ourselves, presenting ourselves in the manner that the border patrol demands. It means making ourselves palatable for the purposes of the state, breaking ourselves down so that we will be easier to consume. And perhaps this, too, is what was required of the women invited to undress in the hotel rooms of Hollywood executives: making themselves useful—or rather, becoming defined as something to be used. The executive says: Show me what you can do for me. The state says to the migrant trying to enter its jurisdiction: Better make yourself useful.

Mona Hatoum, Corps étranger (detail), 1994, video projection, wood, video projector and player, amplifier, speakers. Installation view, Centre Pompidou, Paris. Photo: Philippe Migeat. © Mona Hatoum, New York/DACS, London.

IN HER CONTEMPORARY CLASSIC of political theory, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (2010), Wendy Brown explains the mania of border-wall building—as evidenced by the West Bank barrier or the wall between the US and Mexico—as a perverse defense mechanism. The problem is that nation-states aren’t really as powerful as they want to be. Flows of goods, people, and capital easily cross borders because what drives the world today is not the competitive maneuvering of Great Powers but the global enterprise of the free market. Building a wall is a way of desperately reasserting a border that doesn’t really exist anymore, consolidating the sovereignty of people who define themselves as an “us” on the inside of a territorial marker. If nations originate in rape, in the kidnapping of people and the expropriation of land, these anxious walls suggest what happens when nations can’t hold onto the spoils anymore.

Because people sometimes imagine their nation as a proxy for themselves, they may also invest in securing the borders of a territory as a way of imagining their own bodies to be inviolable, autonomous, sealed off from the world. “In view of the several levels of intimacy and identification between state and individual sovereignty,” Brown writes, “discussions of the two cannot be cleanly separated.” A condition of being human is being dependent on other things, other people; no one is able to solely author the destiny of their body. So, too, do nations require other nations, other people—resources to import, labor to exploit. An adamantly visible line of separation helps us forget the sometimes unbearable fact of our vulnerability and need. When the line cannot hold, increasingly violent and aggressive overcompensations ensue.

Seemingly different emphases—the bodily, the domestic, the global—are present in all of Hatoum’s works, which in turn figure their inseparability.

Hatoum’s electrical installations from the turn of the millennium give form to this dynamic. In Sous tension, 1999 (the title roughly translates to “electrified”), a table and floor are littered with normal-size metal kitchen utensils: colanders, kitchen grinders, graters. Connected to a live wire, they might kill us if we picked one up. For liability purposes, rows of nonelectrified wires bar us from doing so, but the effect is to make the scene literally behind bars: domesticity as a prison. And yet the scene seems to demand that the objects be picked up. Someone has to clean up this mess.

In developed countries, the labor of cleaning up messes no one else wants to deal with has increasingly fallen to migrant women from developing countries. Cleaning, cooking, child care, elder care: All the reproductive labor needed for developed nations to sustain themselves through the generations—the labor the Sabine women were forced to perform for Rome—has increasingly fallen to migrants from the global south. Largely because of exploitative immigration policies, they are especially vulnerable to abuse. In the United States, migrant domestic workers account for the largest sector of labor-trafficking cases. When Angela Davis began to theorize the intersection of gender and racial violence within the prison-abolitionist movement of the ’70s, she considered how “rape is not one-dimensional and homogeneous—but one feature that does remain constant is the overt and flagrant treatment of women, through rape, as property.” The idea of producing bodies as property to be used was inaugurated by slavery, but “the same institutionalized form of rape is present today in such vestiges of slavery as domestic work.” Domestic workers, disproportionately women of color, are disproportionately victims of sexual violence.

Mona Hatoum, Sous tension, 1999, table, kitchen utensils, lightbulbs, electric cable, computerized dimmer unit, amplifier, mixer, speakers, cable. Installation view, Le Creux de l’Enfer, Thiers, France. Photo: Joël Damase. © Mona Hatoum, New York/DACS, London.

Reproductive labor is the labor on which all other labor relies. Without it, nothing else in a society functions—nothing works, in any sense of the term. But this labor that a population needs most it values least—and values least because it needs it most. It is too difficult and too costly to acknowledge this need. The defense mechanism is to disavow those who perform the actually essential labor, to attack them instead of praise them.

Thus, the conjunction of electrocution and domestic objects in Sous tension: a demand for the objects to be picked up and a physical punishment when they are. An untitled 1998 sculpture takes the form of a wheelchair whose handles are knives. The wheelchair evokes an interpersonal caregiving relationship of dependency and, perhaps especially, an elder-care context again increasingly reliant on feminized migrant labor. Because the wheels are small, the chair requires external force to operate: Someone has to push it. But the knives will slice open the hands of the caregiver. Violence as defense mechanism once again.

Mona Hatoum, Untitled (wheelchair), 1998, stainless steel, rubber, 38 1⁄4 × 19 3⁄4 × 33". Photo: Edward Woodman. © Mona Hatoum, New York/DACS, London.

ON DECEMBER 8, 2012, a fifty-four-year-old Jane Doe, later represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, was returning to her home in New Mexico by way of the Cordova Bridge port of entry in El Paso, after visiting a close friend who had recently been deported to Juárez, Mexico. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents “randomly” selected her for additional screening. In a private room, they visually inspected her anus with a flashlight and inserted fingers into her vagina. Finding no contraband, they transported her to the University Medical Center of El Paso for further examination. After an X-ray confirmed she was not carrying contraband inside her, two doctors examined her vagina by inserting a speculum and examined her anus by inserting fingers. Ms. Doe was handcuffed to the examination table while the CBP agents looked on, and the door to the examination room was left open during the cavity search, which yet again revealed no evidence of smuggling. She was finally released after a CT scan further confirmed no objects inside her. A CBP agent handed her a consent form retroactively authorizing the invasive searches. If she did not sign, she was told, she would be financially responsible for the medical procedures she had undergone at the hospital. Ms. Doe refused. The University Medical Center and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center later sent her an invoice for $5,000.

On September 18, 2020, Dawn Wooten, a nurse employed at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia, run by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), filed a whistleblower complaint detailing medical abuse of the migrants in her care. In addition to general medical negligence, especially a failure to follow Covid-19 preventative measures, many detained women reported that they’d received hysterectomies without informed consent. One woman had told Project South, a research nonprofit based in Atlanta, that she had met five other women in a two-month period who had received the supposedly elective surgery. “When I met all these women who had surgeries,” this inmate said, “I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp.” Wooten noted that the doctor on staff—whom she started to call a “uterus collector”—often “accidentally” performed a hysterectomy during a different procedure. The same thing happened so often in the later twentieth century to poor, primarily Black women that civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, who had received a hysterectomy without her consent in 1961, called it a “Mississippi appendectomy.”

Mona Hatoum, Over My Dead Body, 1988, billboard, ink on paper. Installation view, Hayward Gallery, London, 1989. © Mona Hatoum, New York/DACS, London.

Sociologists of the United States–Mexico border, such as Sylvanna M. Falcón and Eithne Luibheid, have documented the astronomical rates of rape there, which they attribute to its increasing militarization in the twenty-first century. The stories of the Jane Doe and the women in Georgia are stories of rape too—stories of willful penetration. They are about building and maintaining borders that can separate one population from another, those with ownership of their bodies from those without, those who can have children from those who must care for the children of others.

To pass through a border is to pass through a Grater Divide, to become molded for another’s use through violence. But the Grater Divide was also the screen in a hotel room that promised privacy without providing it, that set the stage for the most recent event in the chain of serial abuse by entitled men. Hatoum’s network of associations—from toy soldiers to neon globes, from wheelchairs to kitchen utensils, from knives to electrocution—visualizes how militarization enters the hotel room. It shows how men, like nations, erect borders through rape—how men, like nations, assert their sovereignty by disavowing their need, their dependency, through violence. Rape is another form of border wall, a physical assertion of a symbolic line dividing someone who has power from someone who does not, an overcompensation for the lack of a line that neatly divides those who are dependent from those who are not. And, like a border wall, rape is where national anxieties and masculine anxieties converge. Rape is where dependency is transformed into aggression, need into violence. Rape is where the boy with a toy soldier becomes a man by turning the body of a mother into a battlefield.

It is in fact typical of Hatoum’s work to align different scales of analysis. She says she finds it “more exciting when a work reverberates with several meanings and paradoxes and contradictions.” Hers is a slightly different take on the radical feminist slogan “The personal is political,” which means that the seemingly private experiences of navigating, for instance, relationships with men are actually organized by the larger political structure of patriarchy: a collective, not individual, matter. What her work suggests is more a kind of homology between forms of interpersonal and political violence. Figuring both the crisis of sexual violence and the crisis of migration—which is also a crisis of nationalisms—Hatoum’s works diagram the inseparability of these upheavals.

As the movement against sexual violence expands to include more stories, more types of stories, to imagine a larger and transnational network of solidarity, art might work to provide analysis, to foster connections.

Contemporary political movements sometimes seem to move on parallel tracks, making it hard to see the links, for instance, between #MeToo and decolonization. One thing we might need more of in confronting the interconnections among systemic issues are artworks that, like Hatoum’s, help us visualize those meshings and, in turn, imagine ways of integrating our responses to them. In the January 2018 issue of this magazine, Johanna Fateman reflected on Ana Mendieta’s provocative performances of rape and wondered out loud, “As testimonial and journalistic accounts of sexual violence gain new prominence and legitimacy, what is the role of the symbolic, the metaphysical, the fantastic, the conceptual, and the abstract?” It is journalism that brings us the stories of Jane Doe or the women in Dawn Wooten’s care. But it might be art that theorizes those stories, art that provisions a genre that can connect so varied a repertoire of events—the rape of the aspiring actress, the forced hysterectomy of a migrant woman—not by saying they are the same, but by visualizing a structure that is underneath all of them. Perhaps, as the movement against sexual violence expands to include more stories, more types of stories, to imagine a larger and transnational network of solidarity, art might work to provide analysis, to foster connections.

Fateman proposes that an important aspect of art engaged with rape is its taking on some of the responsibility of providing testimony, relieving the survivor of the continued emotional labor of bearing public witness to her own trauma. She proposes that art might trigger us, in a good way, tapping into anger to produce something else. That seems right to me. But I’ve been suggesting that art might also do something more like theory than testimony and that its emotional range does not have to be limited to the tragic. For there is one more element that is common to each of Hatoum’s works—the plastic soldier pathetically lodged on the ridge of a nose, the kitchen utensil that is surreally too big, the sandbags sprouting gardens—and that element is humor. Their humor is not just there to stage a gotcha or to catch us in the act of our own gullibility, our naive belief that something was funny when actually it was deadly. But neither is it there to downplay violence, to say it is not a serious matter, like the predatory comedian who says, Can’t you take a joke? When an event is so atrocious that it beggars our attempts to describe it with the gravitas it demands, comedy, paradoxically, may be a more viable register. Grater Divide is not a rape joke. But it is a joke nearby rape, beside it, there to carry us through it. It provides an analysis of rape we can survive—not laugh off, but survive.

Michael Dango is assistant professor of English and media studies and affiliate faculty in critical identity studies at Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin.