LONDON – Mona Hatoum’s work is often described through long words and large concepts: globalization, geopolitics, imprisonment, destruction, domesticity, precariousness, surveillance. Although these themes are undeniably present, such descriptions make the works seem purely cerebral and downplay their extraordinary physical presence. The installations, sculptures, and works on paper in her current exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey are made of materials drawn from every part of life, ranging from the most human (hair and blood) to the most industrial (magnets and cement). They loom and cower, at one moment inviting us in, at the next shutting us out.
That’s not to say that Hatoum’s works aren’t conceptually rich. They are. In fact, they have a knack for conjuring multiple, often contradictory, meanings. One work that perfectly illustrates this is Map (mobile) (2019), in which Hatoum takes on the Modernist tradition of the mobile (a type of suspended sculpture, pioneered by Alexander Calder and named by Marcel Duchamp). Unlike Calder’s colourful abstract forms, Hatoum’s mobile makes up a map of the world. Maps are tools for structuring, containing and crystallizing space, the tool of conquest and empire. And yet Hatoum’s is constantly in motion, slowly spinning round and round. It is also made of glass — the most transparent and breakable of materials.
Sometimes our perception of Hatoum’s works is changed simply by our proximity to them. A black bust is adorned with what appears to be a silver necklace. But when you look up close, you discover it’s actually a string of fingernails. We expect to see a beautiful luxury item and instead are confronted with bodily clippings which are almost universally seen as quite gross. Even the bust is an illusion, made of painted wood rather than stone or silky fabric. Nail Necklace (2018) is one of Hatoum’s more surreal works. The strange juxtaposition of objects and materials is reminiscent of Swiss Surrealist Meret Oppenheim’s sugar cube ring or fur-lined cup and saucer. And like in Oppenheim’s works, there’s a gentle humor to it.
Overall, though, Hatoum’s worldview is deeply serious. One room in the exhibition includes three installations composed of furniture which has been burnt to a crisp. Bits of charred wood litter the floor. It could be the aftermath of a nuclear bomb. Or of a Grenfell-like fire. Either way, it’s a harrowing vision, in particular Remains (play space) (2019), which includes a crib and children’s toys. An adjacent gallery is filled with a claustrophobia-inducing arrangement of metal bunkers. It dictates and controls the visitor’s movement. So, too, does Remains to be Seen (2019), a grid of 36 steel reinforcement bars which hang down from the ceiling, punctuated by slabs of concrete. They are displayed in the first gallery and almost bar the visitor’s entry to it.
It would be easy to interpret the sense of threat and violence in Hatoum’s work through the lens of her biography. Hatoum was born in Beirut to Palestinian parents in 1952. While she was on a trip to London in 1975, the Lebanese Civil War broke out and she was forced into exile. She has lived in London ever since, with a brief stint in Berlin. But the artist has often urged her viewers not to give in to the temptation to see her work biographically. “Often after making a work I might reflect on how it might relate to my experience or that of my parents losing their homeland, for instance. But I don’t start off with this aim in mind,” she said in a recent interview. Instead, Hatoum would like viewers to bring their own interpretations to her work. Or at least their own emotions.
Editor’s note: (10/28/19, 9:08 AM EST) An earlier version of this review implied that Hatoum’s family was forced into exile due to the outbreak of the Lebanese war; only Hatoum was forced into exile. We regret the error and this has since been corrected.
Mona Hatoum, Remains To Be Seen continues at White Cube Bermondsey (144-152 Bermondsey St, London SE1 3TQ) through November 3, 2019.