New York

Mona Hatoum

What is perhaps most striking about this survey of Mona Hatoum’s work is the way it distinguishes her from her slightly younger peers, the “Young British Artists.” Unlike the parochialism of YBA art-school discourse, in which a mix of ad-savvy sensationalism and schadenfreude presents itself as something hard and daring, Hatoum’s delicate but powerful work is cosmopolitan in the best sense of the term, neither espousing universal humanism nor resting easily with preconceived notions of difference. Hatoum is highly cognizant of art-historical traditions, generous to a fault in acknowledging her precursors, but she places her work in a broader context of nationality, gender, and power with a startling visual poetics that seduces and engages while challenging, even threatening, its viewers.

Much of the writing on Hatoum’s work has focused on her exploration of the experience of exile. But Hatoum, a Palestinian born in Lebanon who came to London before the 1982 Israeli invasion (which then prevented her return to Beirut for several years), blurs the binary oppositions that inform most political ideas about displacement—inside/outside, citizen/alien, self/other. She confronts the question of what it means to be exiled under contemporary globalization; her answer is neither to wallow in loss nor to celebrate a spurious diasporic “hybridity,” but to provoke and vex the question itself.

The 1988 video Measures of Distance documents a conversation between Hatoum and her mother shot in the bathroom of her parents’ Beirut apartment. We see her mother’s nude torso veiled by an overlay of Arabic script that looks, to the viewer who cannot decipher it, like barbed wire. In a voice-over that mutes the conversation, Hatoum reads an English translation of letters the two exchanged while the war was raging and she was unable to return home. This affecting yet utterly unsentimental piece shows how history intervenes in quotidian life, and along the way touches upon the translatability of cultural concepts of patriarchy, modesty, and sanctuary.

Socle du Monde, 1991–92, an homage to Manzoni’s eponymous upside-down pedestal, is a dense cube made of steel plates and covered with magnets, attached to which is a thick layer of iron filings. The play of attraction and repulsion creates a kind of intestine-shaped relief pattern on the sculpture’s surface, an intimate topography on an uncanny yet somehow familiar map. Intestines are a motif that connects various pieces in the exhibition (which was organized last summer by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago), from Entrails Carpet, 1995, a prayer rug (or flying carpet?) molded from tubes of rubber, to the viscerally disturbing installation Corps étranger, 1994. In the latter, Hatoum uses an endoscope, a medical imaging device, to probe her own “foreign” body, so that in viewing the video we no longer know what lies on the inside and what on the outside, where we entered or where we exited.

At issue in this piece and throughout the show is not just a juxtaposition of the local and the global, or an easy conflation of the personal and the political, but a lucid and gutsy demonstration of how these spheres are imbricated, looped and knotted together like an intestine, right down to the deepest kernel of what you could call “you.”

Nico Israel