New York

Mona Hatoum

alfonso

Mona Hatoum’s New York exhibition—her first in the city since the New Museum survey in 1997—functioned as something of a primer for the artist’s concerns. Often discussed in terms of national and cultural identity (Hatoum is Palestinian and has lived in London since the mid-’70s), her tightly orchestrated installations have, in recent years, dealt with power in a more interior, abstract sense, as the ominous corollary of desire. Like Rebecca Horn and Jana Sterbak, Hatoum has roots in performance, and her sculptures retain the stamp of the absent corpus—they are appliances through which the body is evoked as a site of aggression and submission. Elegant in execution, by turns provocative and poetic in content, the work here recapitulated rather than extended statements Hatoum has made before. If a new layer was revealed, it had to do, perhaps, with the spirit of the times: This group of objects seemed to be more about design than politics.

The show was organized as if the gallery were a house. In the foyer, a stylish black-and-white photograph of old-fashioned cheese graters greeted the viewer, while the main space was furnished like a dream-scape salon. Dormeuse, 1998, a chaise longue fabricated in charcoal-gray oiled steel, was the room’s centerpiece. Its edges beveled and seamed, the steel’s embossed treads read like the textured fabric of upholstery. Such perfect meshing of object and material is a particular skill of Hatoum’s, a blend of Minimalist and Surrealist strategies that yields a tidy uncanniness. There is a hermetic assurance to her forms that consolidates ideas of longing and domesticity into threat. Pin Rug, 1998–99, performs this psychic maneuver slyly. Made of steel points upthrust through canvas backing, the small carpet is a sleek and brutal perceptual joke, the pins’ velvety sheen belying their punishing surface. Wheelchair II, 1999, suggests frank violence. Slightly miniaturized and canted forward, it promises discomfort to any sitter, while the pusher is invited to use handlebar grips sharpened to serrated blades. Rounding out this dangerous decor, Isolette, 1999, is a graceful cage made by fitting a round metal basket over an aluminum tray—just large enough to excite unpleasant thoughts about the intended inhabitant.

Hatoum’s “kitchen” occupied a back alcove, whose proscenium entrance was cordoned off by horizontal wires, reminiscent of an electrified fence. If these weren’t actually live, the sculpture behind them was. Home, 1999, displayed a collection of gleaming, stainless steel utensils laid out on a wooden table—colanders, grater, meat grinder, apple corer, scissors, and tongs all wired together, electrified, and miked. As the circuit traveled through them, lights under the colanders and grater dimmed and brightened, while the vibrations of current through metal were amplified, permeating the space with an aural literalization of “grating.”

Two additional pieces were displayed upstairs (the attic, as it were). The punningly titled T42 (gold), 1999, proffered a single-saucered, double-bowled teacup in dainty white stoneware, certainly an homage to Meret Oppenheim. Plotting Table, 1998, was the one work that solidly referenced Hatoum’s earlier interest in nationalist tropes, although it was streamlined enough to pass as “pure” design: a polished wooden plank drilled with holes forming a schematic world map and illuminated from below by means of green UV lights.

Hatoum’s genius is for sadistic, smart utility—whatever function she envisions may be socially complex or psychologically shadowy, but you feel quite sure she has engineered the perfect tool for the job. This is impressive, although her tendency to recycle forms might dull the thrill. The formal precision in this body of work can preempt the viewer’s intuitive response; Hatoum’s subject, ultimately, is anxiety, but perhaps her parameters needn’t be so tightly prescribed.

Frances Richard