Had her family not fled Lebanon during the country’s civil war in the 1970s for the relative safety of London, Mona Hatoum might have become a designer of exquisite torture devices for the Mukhabarat, or secret police, based on the evidence of the 30 sculptures and installations on view in ‘Terra Infirma’, her exhibition at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation. A serrated cheese grater, Dormiente (Sleeping, 2008), is re-imagined as a skin-flaying single bed. A food grinder for morsels of meat and vegetables is rescaled as La Grande Broyeuse (The Large Grinder, 1999), as if made to shred the human body; while Homebound (2000), an installation in the museum’s basement gallery, wires up chairs, bedframes, cutlery and tables to a live electric current that threatens to zap anyone bold enough to sit, lay or eat. The overall effect is reminiscent of the infamously booby-trapped KGB interrogation rooms in Moscow’s Lubyanka Building, used to root out dissident impulses following the 1917 October Revolution. This dank take on modernity is complimented by the bunker-like quality of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation’s Tadao Ando-designed building, in whose interior Hatoum’s domestic installation can seem like a minimalist prison.
The earliest work on display appears in the building’s concrete foyer. In So Much I Want to Say (1983), a close-up, 5-minute video self-portrait, grainy slow-scan images of Hatoum flash alongside the work’s title, as a mantra-cum-confession. The video anticipates modern livecam pornography or even the YouTube channel of shooter Nasim Aghdam, but also hearkens back to jerky CCTV footage of 1980s hostages like Terry Anderson pleading for mercy. As Hatoum repeats the words ‘so much I want to say’, her mouth is masked by an assailant’s hands, contorting her lips. She bites on various objects that prevent her from satisfying her desire to express. What, after all, does she have to say? Though it establishes the entire exhibition as a coy, calculated exploration of political uncertainty, displacement and domesticity, the video leaves that question deliberately unanswered. Paradoxically, the overall effect of all this heavy subject matter is not claustrophobic or depressive, but subversively funny.
Impenetrable (2009) and Waiting Is Forbidden (2006–08) are emblematic of Hatoum’s pre-occupation with these tangible and textual negations. Impenetrable, installed in the bright, airy upper gallery, is an homage to Venezuelan artist Jesús Rafael Soto’s ‘Penetrables’: cheery, tactile public sculptures that he began producing in 1967. Soto’s hovering minimalist cubes – made from ranks of soft and fleshy dangling latex tubes and designed to invite the audience to play and frolic – are recast as stiff iron rods wrapped in evenly spaced knots of barbed wire. Dare to penetrate this sculpture and it will issue a violent rejection. Such slick subversion of canonical minimalist forms with surreal or abrasive content is characteristic of Hatoum’s yBa contemporaries, a kind of impish leavening effect. Ultimately, though, displaced identity proves a far more powerful tool at her disposal, and Hatoum revels in contextual shifts, from Lebanon to London to St Louis. Hung up on a gallery wall, Waiting Is Forbidden, a blue street sign rimmed with white, states ‘No Loitering’ in Arabic script. Directly transliterated into English, the work’s title appears below, as a banal mistranslation become poetic, like a Sura in the Koran or a line in Rumi’s erotic 13th-century Ghazals. An injunction to a devotee or lover to act decisively or face the speaker’s wrath.
Mona Hatoum: Terra Infirma runs at Pulitzer Art Foundation, St. Louis until 11 August.
Main image: Mona Hatoum, Homebound, 2000, (detail), kitchen utensils, furniture, electrical wire, light bulbs, dimmer unit, amplifier, and two speakers, dimensions variable, installation view, 2018, Pulitzer Arts Foundation, St. Louis. Courtesy: © the artist, Rennie Collection, Vancouver and Pulitzer Arts Foundation, St. Louis; photograph: © Alise O'Brien Photography
First published in Issue 196