Master­ful Ma­nip­u­la­tor

Pales­tinian-bri­tish artist Mona Ha­toum speaks of dis­pos­ses­sion and dis­lo­ca­tion through her art. She tells Oliver Giles of the driv­ing forces be­hind her 35-year ca­reer and where she thinks the world is headed

Hong Kong Tatler - - Life - Mona Ha­toum’s ex­hi­bi­tion at White Cube in Hong Kong runs from Septem­ber 7 to Novem­ber 17.

In a cav­ernous Tate Mod­ern gallery in 2016, visi­tors could watch the world burn. Not lit­er­ally, but nearly. In the cor­ner of the room was an enor­mous glow­ing globe more than two me­tres tall. The con­ti­nents were out­lined in flick­er­ing red neon that, if you stood close enough, au­di­bly buzzed. In­side the dark­ened room, it looked like the planet was on fire.

For Mona Ha­toum, the artist be­hind this un­set­tling sculp­ture, that has some­times felt like the case. Ha­toum was born in Beirut in the 1950s to Pales­tinian par­ents who had fled their home­land. Like many Pales­tini­ans, nei­ther Ha­toum nor her par­ents were ever granted Le­banese iden­tity cards. Then, at the age of 23, Ha­toum was dis­placed once again. While she was on a short visit to Lon­don in 1975, civil war broke out in Le­banon, pre­vent­ing her re­turn. Her visit stretched to one year, then two, then be­came in­def­i­nite. To this day, Ha­toum re­mains based in Lon­don.

Per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly, these early ex­pe­ri­ences of ex­ile have in­flu­enced much of Ha­toum’s ca­reer, which be­gan with her stag­ing po­lit­i­cally charged per­for­mances be­fore her fo­cus shifted to cre­at­ing un­set­tling sculp­tures and in­stal­la­tions, like the blaz­ing globe. “Of course, my back­ground comes into my work be­cause it’s part of my life,” Ha­toum ex­plains on a bright sum­mer af­ter­noon in her Lon­don stu­dio. “But it comes about in sub­tle ways, so any­body who may have ex­pe­ri­enced dis­place­ment, dis­ori­en­ta­tion or ex­ile can re­late to the work on their own terms. My work is not meant to il­lus­trate the Pales­tinian ex­pe­ri­ence; it’s about the hu­man con­di­tion of ex­ile.”

“The un­canny” and “the hu­man con­di­tion” are big ideas, but Ha­toum of­ten ex­plores them through sub­tly ma­nip­u­lat­ing do­mes­tic ob­jects. Over the course of her ca­reer, the artist has made a door­mat with the word “wel­come” spelled out in sharp pins, re­placed all the slats on a bed with strings of barbed wire, and sharp­ened the han­dles of a wheel­chair into lethal knives. In Ha­toum’s hands, things that most peo­ple as­so­ciate with home be­come items of hor­ror. “When ob­jects that are fa­mil­iar be­come use­less, un­us­able or even dan­ger­ous, to me it be­comes a re­flec­tion on the world we live in,” she says. “They make us ques­tion the en­vi­ron­ment around us, they make us ques­tion what lies be­hind the sur­face of things around us. At the same time, I’m try­ing to evoke a feel­ing of anx­i­ety about the pre­car­i­ous­ness of the hu­man body and the threat from the world we in­habit.”

Some­times Ha­toum’s art del­i­cately bal­ances on the line between com­edy and tragedy. Her sculp­ture Grater Di­vide is a cheese grater that’s about two me­tres tall, a kitchen uten­sil that’s been turned into a dis­con­cert­ingly lethal fold­ing screen. In its new form, with its tonguein-cheek ti­tle, this mun­dane ob­ject raises ques­tions about the dan­gers of divi­sion. But, as with all of Ha­toum’s art, this idea is whis­pered rather than shouted—and is up for de­bate. “My work func­tions in the realm of sub­tle con­no­ta­tions, al­lu­sions and nu­ances,” Ha­toum re­flects. “It is not about

slo­ga­neer­ing. View­ers can bring to the work their own in­ter­pre­ta­tion.”

Ha­toum’s sub­tle ex­plo­ration of fragility, dis­lo­ca­tion and hu­man­ity has earned her crit­i­cal ac­claim for decades, and she’s re­cently reached a whole new au­di­ence with a mam­moth tour­ing ex­hi­bi­tion re­flect­ing on her 35-year ca­reer. The show opened at the Pom­pi­dou Cen­tre in Paris in 2015, trav­elled to Tate Mod­ern in 2016 and then to Ki­asma in Helsinki in 2017. Ear­lier this year Ha­toum re­ceived the pres­ti­gious Whitechapel Gallery Art Icon 2018 award, which is pre­sented in part­ner­ship with Swarovski, and she has spent much of her time since then pre­par­ing for an ex­hi­bi­tion at White Cube in Hong Kong that opens this month and will be her first show in the city.

“The show in Hong Kong is go­ing to fea­ture a com­bi­na­tion of ex­ist­ing works and works that I’m mak­ing specif­i­cally for the ex­hi­bi­tion,” Ha­toum re­veals. One of the cen­tral works, Re­mains of the Day, is an adap­ta­tion of an in­stal­la­tion Ha­toum first ex­hib­ited in Ja­pan last year, when she was awarded the Hiroshima Art Prize. “Re­mains of the Day is made from wooden fur­ni­ture that I’ve wrapped with chicken wire and then burned,” Ha­toum says. “The burnt re­mains are kept in place by the chicken wire frame, so they be­come like ghosts. Of course, in the con­text of Hiroshima these ghostly re­mains re­mind us of the af­ter­math of the drop­ping of the atomic bomb, but here the work can re­fer to the af­ter­math of any war or con­flict or even nat­u­ral dis­as­ters.”

As well as a se­ries of draw­ings, an in­stal­la­tion made of black mar­bles ti­tled Tur­bu­lence Black— “we sourced the mar­bles in China, where they’re used for Bud­dhas’ eyes”—and sev­eral other new works, the White Cube ex­hi­bi­tion will also fea­ture a vari­ant of Ha­toum’s neon globe. This one will be smaller than the orig­i­nal sculp­ture, which was called Hot Spot, and will be placed on a stand. “Hot Spot has a very beau­ti­ful, del­i­cate as­pect to it be­cause the neon is very frag­ile but at the same time it feels dan­ger­ous,” Ha­toum says. “I made the first Hot Spot in 2006, when it felt to me like the whole world was up in arms and that con­flict was no longer iso­lated to cer­tain bor­ders in the Mid­dle East. It was af­fect­ing the whole world.”

But to­day, sit­ting in Ha­toum’s im­mac­u­late stu­dio in a trendy area of Lon­don, decades af­ter she was blocked from re­turn­ing to Le­banon and thou­sands of kilo­me­tres from the Mid­dle East­ern con­flicts that res­onate through her work, does the world still seem that dan­ger­ous? “The world feels in­creas­ingly un­sta­ble and mad on ev­ery level,” Ha­toum says. “Whether it’s po­lit­i­cal, eco­log­i­cal—what­ever it is, we’re go­ing in a huge down­ward spi­ral. I don’t know how the world is go­ing to hold it­self to­gether. I used to think that Le­banon was so po­lit­i­cally charged that it could ex­plode at any mo­ment, but I feel like the whole world is like that now.”

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