Mona Hatoum

A concern with communication is at the center of Mona Hatoum’s work. By this I do not mean that it reveals a generalized problem of expression, a certain inadequacy and futility in getting a message across, a mismatch between intention and outcome. This inevitable failure is there, too, but what has preoccupied Hatoum are the more immediate, socially determined factors that affect communicative possibility: the politics and economics of expression that vitiate it. Communication can often signify the possession and exercise of power. In that context the decision by those without such power to remain silent (which is to say, to withhold the noise of assent) may be construed as an act of resistance. To find a voice in such circumstances is hard, and it is this difficulty that Hatoum’s work addresses.

Her 1989 piece The Light at the End is something of a watershed in this respect. Hitherto, in her rich blend of installation, video, and performance she had presented herself as the site of this struggle, whereas this work involved the viewer at a much more fundamental level. After becoming acclimatized to the darkened space the viewer could discern a number of faint, vertical strips of light in the distance. Moving toward them, the spectator realized that the space was narrowing, giving another physical level of focus to the distant illumination. At a certain point, though, the faint sensation of light gave way to one of intense heat and one realized that the strips were red-hot, electrified bars.

Although the hazardous nature of this piece was immediately obvious, Hatoum’s new installation set up a similar tension between fascination and terror. A narrow passage ran down the center of the gallery between two sets of parallel piano wires. On the left-hand side the wires, which ran the length of the space, defined a horizontal plane and were fixed close to the floor at about ankle height. To the right they were fixed one above the other to form an insubstantial, yet lethal barrier at roughly groin height. The second, lower room of the gallery could be reached down a short flight of steps at the rear of the first. All the wires passed though the back wall into this space. The central wire-free corridor took the spectator from the entrance to the staircase, but the eye was also led through the first gallery into the darker beyond by the uniform orientation of the wires, which clearly did not terminate at the far wall, but penetrated it. With feet and genitalia endangered but intact, one descended into the second room only to realize that the wires now ran at neck-level.

The enormous aggressive potential of this installation was constrained by its extraordinary visual delicacy. Relationships between the different parts of the work and the particularities of each viewer might vary, but this variance was measurable against a supra-individual norm, since the heights of the wires were not determined by the proportions of a particular person, but made reference to the average male ankle-groin-neck height. With the simplest of means, then, Hatoum symbolically threatened the symbols of oppressive power through an exposure of individual fragility.

Michael Archer