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Published 19/09/2019 email E-MAIL print PRINT

Mona Hatoum: Remains to be Seen

This engaging exhibition, horrifying and humorous by turn, includes installation, sculptures and works on paper by Hatoum that reflect on our troubled times



White Cube, Bermondsey, London
12 September – 3 November 2019

by BETH WILLIAMSON

The work of Mona Hatoum (b1952) is poetic, political, surreal, funny and horrifying in varying degrees. The new and recent works selected for this exhibition at White Cube, Bermondsey, are no different. Alongside installation and sculpture, a small number of works on paper act to anchor an otherwise disturbing exhibition. This is the first London show of her work since the major exhibition at Tate Modern in 2016 and it reflects the contemporary global condition – ideas of surveillance, mobility, conflict and confinement abound.



Mona Hatoum, Remains to be Seen, White Cube Bermondsey 12 September - 3 November 2019. © Mona Hatoum. Photo © White Cube (Ollie Hammick).

The urgent themes of Hatoum’s work make more sense when we understand that this Beirut-born artist was exiled from Lebanon when civil war broke out. She moved to London to study in 1975, and the Lebanese conflict meant it was impossible for her to return home. Her experience and witnessing of cultural displacement continues to be felt acutely in her work. This is not to say that her work is autobiographical, but it certainly develops themes of exile and displacement, and these are as pertinent today as they have ever been.



Mona Hatoum, Remains to be Seen, White Cube Bermondsey 12 September - 3 November 2019. © Mona Hatoum. Photo © White Cube (Ollie Hammick).

What makes Hatoum’s work so engaging is the curious array of materials she deploys in her mission to articulate her message in a manner that is both poetic and literal. Steel, brick and concrete, charred wood and chicken wire, human nails and hair, all feature in her urgent narrative. At the same time, the formal concerns of minimalism, and in particular the grid and the sphere, permeate work that is often oppressive and troubling. Our sensory perception is stretched to its limits as we try to make sense of children’s toys made from charred wood and chicken wire or neatly displayed jewellery made from human nail clippings. Hatoum’s is a world filled with ambiguities and predicaments.



Mona Hatoum, Remains to be Seen, 2019. Concrete and steel reinforcement bars, 528 x 530 x 530 cm (207 7/8 x 208 11/16 x 208 11/16 in). © Mona Hatoum. Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis).

Walking through the White Cube’s pristine gallery spaces, how do we reconcile what we see, with how it makes us feel? How can we contemplate the violence done to bodies and to the world itself in such a space? Hatoum’s work does not provide any easy answers, but it is insistent. This is a body of work demanding our attention, shaking us violently from any complacency. The imperative is that we think, and that we think deeply, about the political predicaments that the work poses. There is no turning away from these difficult facts of contemporary global politics in this exhibition. So what of the works themselves?



Mona Hatoum, Map (mobile), 2019. Glass and stainless steel, dimensions variable. © Mona Hatoum. Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis).

In Map (mobile) (2019), a deconstructed map of the world, from which countries and continents have been cut out, hangs like a crystal chandelier in the 9 x 9 x 9 space of the White Cube’s Bermondsey gallery. It is elegant and fragile, and it repositions border relations in ways that are geographically impossible. Maps and globes are a recurring theme in Hatoum’s work and the astounding Orbital I (2018) is one of the works that confronts us as we enter the main exhibition space. A globe made from steel reinforcement bars and clumps of rough concrete may not be the green planet we might expect, but that is surely the point.



Mona Hatoum, Orbital I, 2018. Rebar and concrete, diameter: 140 cm © Mona Hatoum. Photo © White Cube (Ollie Hammick).

Picking up on the exhibition’s title, the works Remains of the Day (2016-18), Remains (play space) (2019) and Remains (cabinet) (2019), installed together, are perhaps the most searing of the show. Badly charred wooden furniture is only just held together with rough pieces of chicken wire. Small pieces of charcoal are scattered around the objects and crumble beneath our feet as we walk perilously close to these objects that are at once repellent but draw us towards them.

Hatoum first made the burned-out domestic scene for the Hiroshima Art Prize of 2017. It, of course, references the horrific events of August 1945 when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The current installation is even more chilling, with the addition of Remains (play space) complete with child-sized chair and a toddler’s toy trolley

In Hot Spot (stand) (2018), Hatoum turns to the map once again to create a cartographic sculpture that points to historical and geographical global power relations, to unrest, war and climate change. The hot spot is the world itself and the red neon tube seems even hotter and more unstable where the circuits join and flicker relentlessly. She first made Hot Spot in 2006, but the subject remains vital and in this 2018 rendition it seems to sizzle and flicker without end.



Mona Hatoum, Hot Spot (stand), 2018. Stainless steel, neon tube and rubber, 172 x 83 x 80 cm. © Mona Hatoum. Photo © White Cube (Ollie Hammick).

If the Remains of the Day installation is intimate and domestic, Quarters (2017) is quite the opposite. The cold and impersonal steel structures suggest communal sleeping spaces of confinement. The starkness of the installation points to the harshness of the conditions and its open structure to the lack of privacy and, worse, the possibility for surveillance. What we see optically and what we experience corporeally are contradictory. For while there is a visual pleasure in observing the simplicity of structure and repetition, there is a bodily anxiety over what that structure might mean.



Mona Hatoum, A Pile of Bricks, 2019. Bricks, wood, metal and rubber, 95 x 171 x 61 cm. © Mona Hatoum. Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis).

As well as dealing with such serious issues, Hatoum likes to develop new work by looking to art of the past. A Pile of Bricks (2019) picks up on the scandal that erupted when Tate acquired Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (1966). Andre’s “pile of bricks” enraged publics and critics at the time. While Andre’s minimalist rectangle was made of two layers of regular fire bricks, Hatoum’s A Pile of Bricks uses rough, irregular red bricks balanced precariously on a small rickety trolley. It is a critique and it is humorous.

The exhibition as a whole is deadly serious. In a global climate of uncertainty and precariousness, politically and environmentally, it is difficult not to see this exhibition as a stark warning about both of these things. It is a timely reminder, if it were needed, that art and artists do not exist separately from the world and all its problems, but are an integral part of it, and vital when it comes to raising consciousness.



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