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Interview with Mona Hatoum: Pass the electric fork, please

The artist uses kitchen utensils and household objects to charge domestic settings with danger

Mona Hatoum knows a thing or two about displacement. When the Beirut-born Palestinian artist came to a London on what was meant to be a brief visit in 1975, the outbreak of civil war in the Lebanon prevented her from returning home, and she has been based in Britain ever since. Yet her precarious, Stateless situation—she has only ever had a British passport—has remained at the core of her work. The eminent intellectual Edward Said has declared that “No one has put the Palestinian experience in visual terms so austerely and yet so playfully, so compellingly and at the same moment so allusively”—and especially right now, when the Middle East yet again threatens to go into meltdown. However, at the same time, Hatoum remains a resolutely international, peripetatic figure, working and exhibiting her dramatic, emotionally charged sculpture and installations worldwide. This summer she has been invited to take part in Documenta X1 where she is presenting “Homebound”, an arrangement of kitchen utensils and household furniture wired up and charged with a live electrical current, which she first showed in Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries in 2000. On the eve of a major survey at the newly inaugurated Centro de Arte de Salamanca she is also showing new works at White Cube2.

The Art Newspaper: It is a very busy time for you: Documenta opens in June; and there is a major survey of your work opening in Salamanca in July. Is the White Cube exhibition all new work?

Mona Hatoum: Yes, but most of the works I am showing at White Cube are intended for Salamanca, where the space [Centro de Arte de Salamanca] is an old prison, a very inspiring, fabulous place. This was the period when I was meant to be taking six months off—I wasn’t going to show until Documenta and I was going to give myself this time to make all the new works for Salamanca. Originally I wanted to keep the White Cube show until later when I was less busy and could make one installation at White Cube and another maybe in the local town hall. But Jay [Jopling] said, “Come on, let’s show all these works before they go to Spain—otherwise they’ll be a year old before they get seen here.” It’s difficult to resist Jay’s enthusiasm—it’s quite infectious—so I said, “OK, let’s do it.”

TAN: You tend to work in response to specific places, but here you are bringing these new pieces together in a more neutral setting.

MH: I enjoy creating work in relation to spaces and specific conditions, so working at White Cube does feel very neutral. The idea is to show work that doesn’t actually attach itself to the architecture–to keep it as something that has dropped out of nowhere and is sitting there temporarily. The only thing I am doing for the gallery alone is a string of kitchen utensils hanging from the ceiling with an electrical charge going through them that powers a light bulb at the bottom. I am using that to animate the space because I don’t want it to become too static, too sculptural. The piece relates to an experiment that I made when I was a student and which really was the starting point of all those pieces that were electrically charged—like “Home” (1999) and “Homebound” (2000). At the moment we’re working on how to make it safe, so that I don’t have to cordon it off. At White Cube I am also showing a video work and a series of photographs to take the emphasis away from sculpture.

TAN: It must be a very difficult time for you with the current situation in the Middle East.

MH: For 15 years when my parents were alive and the war was on in the Lebanon, I was constantly in this terrible predicament of being here and being there at the same time, and constantly worrying about my parents and not being able to get in touch with them and stuff like that. So, in a sense, I’ve been feeling extremely numb about the current situation. What is now happening in Palestine is almost an exact repeat of what happened 20 years ago in Beirut, with the same key players.

TAN: Your earliest performances related to the political situation in which you grew up, and even though you no longer refer to specific events, your work has continued to deal with issues of surveillance, Statelessness, containment and displacement. Now, in the current context of what is happening in Palestine and the climate in the aftermath of 11 September, new pieces such as “Grater divide”, the scaled-up, sectioned metal kitchen grater, or “Traffic”, the two suitcases connected by strands of human hair, have a very particular resonance. Do you mind if people bring particular political readings to these pieces?

MH: I don’t mind. People bring to it whatever they want—the more varied readings that are given to the work, the richer it is. For me the world hasn’t changed much since 11 September. The only difference is that more people in the West are now aware of conflicts and wars that have been raging in the part of the world I come from since before I was even born. Somebody recently asked me to make “a statement about peace” and I said, “Peace? what’s that?” In other words, I’ve never experienced it myself and more people now know what that means. My work is still going along the same lines and sometimes you can see that there is a much stronger reference to that reality, and sometimes you don’t see it so much.

TAN: Your scaling-up, or altering of everyday objects and utensils—whether the enlarged or electrically charged kitchen utensils or the cots and beds that carry the potential to inflict lethal injury or become instruments for containment—act as a reminder that in war even the most innocuous object can be fraught with potential danger.

MH: This has always been an element in my work, the fact that when you approach a piece of furniture—especially a baby’s cot—you expect it to be about protection and giving support for the body and in fact it turns into something menacing. So, by implication, the environment you inhabit is a source of danger and threat, instead of providing the support you’d expect.

TAN: Yours is work that you experience as much with the body as well as the brain. Often that involves a direct use of body parts and substances. You are the mistress of hair as artistic medium, for instance.

MH: Since I was a student I was putting pubic hair, nail cuttings into paper pulp mixed in with body fluids—urine, blood and stuff like that, and then I made very thin sheets of paper in which those elements—the lines of the hair or the half circles of the nails—made accidental drawings. The reason that I went into this kind of reassessing and looking at the body was because, when I found myself in an academic environment—I was in the experimental department at the Slade—I thought everybody around me was so cerebral that I had this reaction of: “What about the body?” “Let’s get the body in!” Everybody was so caught up in their heads, walking around like disembodied intellects. And that was where it all started, as a reaction to that situation.

TAN: But at the same time you always splice the emotional charge with a keen formal sense. Whether found objects, bodily explorations or elaborately constructed sculpture your work has always demonstrated an enduring—if ambiguous—relationship with minimalism.

MH: I am always aware of those formal qualities and I’ve always had a sort of love-hate relationship with the grid. Sometimes I use it in such a way that it becomes a harsh container. I love to explore those two aspects, pushing something to such an extreme that its beauty becomes fascistic, almost, and hard and dehumanising—working with those kind of opposites is something that I like to do very much.

Biography

Born 1952, Beirut Lebanon; 1970-72 Beirut University College; 1975-79 The Byam Shaw School of Art, London; 1979-81 Slade School of Art, London

Currently showing: “Grater divide” at White Cube2, London (until 22 June)

Solo Shows include: 2001 Laboratorio Arte Alameda, Mexico City; Mass MOCA North Adams, Mass; Sala Mendoza Caracas; 2000 “The entire world as a foreign land”, Tate Modern; SITE Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1999 Castello di Rivoli, Turin; Alexander and Bonin, New York; 1998 MoMA Oxford, Scottish Gallery of Modern Art; Kunstalle Basel; 1997 Musuem of Contemporary Art, Chicago; New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; 1996 Anadial Gallery, Jerusalem; 1995 White Cube, London; 1993 Arnolfini Bristol; 1992 Mario Flecha, London; 1989 “Between the lines” The Orchard Gallery Derry; “The light at the end”, Showroom London; 1983 “The negotiating table ”SAW Gallery, Ottawa (performance).