Article: Boundary Crossings: The Political Postminimalism of Mona Hatoum

Marja Sakari, PhD, Chief Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Helsinki

 

First published in Christine Van Assche & Clarrie Wallis (eds.), Mona Hatoum. Centre Pompidou, Paris, 24 June–28 September 2015, Tate Modern, London, 4 May─21 August 2016, Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Helsinki, 7 October 2016–26 February 2017. London: Tate Publishing, 2016, pp. 150–168. Transl. Silja Kudell

 

Investment in the look is not as privileged in women as in men. More than any other sense, the eye objectifies and it masters … In our culture the predominance of the look over smell, taste, touch and hearing has brought about an impoverishment of bodily relations.

Luce Irigaray[1]

 

Early minimalist art challenged the privileging of the gaze by foregrounding art’s relation to its surrounding space and the viewer’s corporeal experience.[2] Luce Irigaray’s critique of the privileged gaze is similarly subverted on many levels by Mona Hatoum. We can feel and hear her works – well-nigh even taste and smell them – and one of them literally even touches us. They are insistently corporeal, experienced viscerally within our guts. The materials she uses – cold steel, human detritus, dead skin, strands of hair, nail clippings, plastic, glass, soap and the like – play a highly potent role in the intricate signification process in which she embroils the viewer/experiencer.

The first time I saw her work was at the Centre Pompidou in the summer of 1994.[3] Earlier that spring, I had just seen a Robert Morris retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Guggenheim Museum SoHo in New York. Even though these two powerfully spatial artists represent different generations and genders, seeing their work in such close succession tempted me to draw parallels between them, particularly as both draw inspiration from the same traditions, minimalism and performance art. Many of Morris’s works in the exhibition marked an attempt to subvert the Western mind-body dichotomy, as Rosalind Krauss, the curator, stated in her seminal essay for the exhibition catalogue.[4] Yet, despite its powerful spatiality, its message was relayed primarily on an intellectual level, subordinate to the authority of the subject’s gaze. Many of Morris’s works occupied the gallery space as aesthetic artefacts, impermeable to our access.

A preoccupation with the Western mind-body dichotomy similarly pervades the oeuvre of Mona Hatoum.[5] Yet, her exhibition had a very different effect on me than Morris’s. With her work, my experience as a viewer was not just intellectual, but also physical and emotional. I identified with it viscerally, which compelled me to question how I relate to everything, from my own identity to world politics. How did she achieve such a powerful destabilising effect, and why did she move me in such a fundamentally different way than Morris, whose minimalistic art largely elicited feelings of aesthetic and intellectual gratification? Was it the political subtext that slowly unfolded through a complex web of associations, or was it that I am a woman and closer in age to Hatoum than I am to Morris? Many such questions filled my mind back then. Now, 20 years later, this essay offers a chance to revisit some of them – and perhaps to find answers.

[1] Quoted in Marie-Françoise Hans and Gilles Lapouge (eds.), Les femmes, la pornographie et l’érotisme, Paris, 1978, p. 50. Luce Irigaray is a French linguist, cultural theoretician, psychoanalyst and philosopher whose writings address the problem of the relation between man and woman vis-à-vis gender difference.
[2] Gregory Battcock (ed.), Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1995.
[3] See Mona Hatoum, exhibition catalogue, Centre Pompidou, Paris, June–August 1994. One of the featured pieces, Light Sentence, 1992, was later shown at the Ateneum in Helsinki in ARS 95, an exhibition organised in 1995 by the Finnish Museum of Contemporary Art.
[4] Rosalind Krauss, ‘The Mind/Body Problem: Robert Morris in series’, in Robert Morris: The Mind/Body Problem, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Guggenheim Museum SoHo, New York, 1994.
[5] See ‘Michael Archer in Conversation with Mona Hatoum’, in Mona Hatoum, London, 1997, p. 8.

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For more information on Mona Hatoum’s exhibition at Kiasma, visit

http://www.kiasma.fi/en/exhibitions-events/mona-hatoum/