Review: Mona Hatoum

May 5, 2016
  • Rating: ★★★★☆
Tate Modern

More than 20 years after it first went on display, the inside of Mona Hatoum’s rectum is as impressive as ever. Housed in a darkened cylinder, the alien tunnels of the artist’s bowels are projected onto the ground, a surgeon’s colonoscopy camera delving through a gurgling pink landscape that looks like a gaping crevice in the floor of the gallery.

Over the pulsing organic orchestra you can hear a haunting electrical drone emanating from further into the exhibition, somewhere beyond the room-divider-sized cheese graters that bring to mind vicious torture devices.

The bigness of Beirut-born British artist Hatoum’s sculptural pieces gives this exhibition a veneer of playful accessibility, which shifts to uneasiness once you recognise the recurring themes of violence and dislocation.

A case in point is her room-sized installation Impenetrable, which takes as its starting pointVenezuelan artist Jesus Rafael Soto’s Penetrable, a floating cube made up of suspended rubber tubes. Soto invited visitors to walk through the piece, interacting with and disrupting its clean lines. Hatoum’s response swaps rubber tubes for dangling strips of barbed wire, which the curators have sensibly cordoned off.

Hatoum’s work varies dramatically, from her early performance pieces, documented here by sketches and extracts of film, to large-scale installations and pithy, surrealist one-liners (a chair with a triangle of pubic hair; a useless Siamese tea cup; expressionist swirls drawn in a man’s damp back-hair, titled Van Gogh’s back).

Many return to her relationship with her birth country, to which she was unable to return after the outbreak of war. That dangerous-sounding electrical noise, for instance, features a domestic scene where tables, chairs, kitchen utensils and beds are all wired into the mains, the whole thing locked behind metal cables resembling an electric fence. It hints at the home becoming a place of anxiety and danger, with items such as a wired-up colander becoming Abu Ghraib-style torture devices.

Other works address the conflict in the Middle East head-on, such as a map created from olive oil soap and red beads, depicting the territories marked for return to the Palestinians as part of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords. But Hatoum is at her most effective when obsessions with politics and body horror work in tandem. Her 1983 performance piece The Negotiating Table – sadly only shown here through her original plans and photographs – saw her smear herself in animal gore, including a pair of beef kidneys, as she lay motionless on a wooden table to the sounds of Western leaders discussing peace. In another, metal cages house heart-like globes of blown glass that ooze against the bars, trying – and sometimes managing – to escape.

As the Tate Modern prepares to enter a new phase, with its soon-to-open building focusing on performance art, it’s good to know there will be a dedicated space for the Mona Hatoums of tomorrow to showcase engaging and unsettling works like this.