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12 June 2008updated 06 Sep 2021 2:49pm

No way home

The work of Mona Hatoum, a Lebanese-born Palestinian, evokes exile and displacement

By New Statesman

An installation of furniture and household goods is framed by two metal street barriers. Two chairs, two rickety tables, a rolled-up mat and a suitcase are among the items placed neatly on the floor. Above these are wires on which towels hang, along with one cuddly toy and an inflatable world globe. The washing line, which is strung between the barriers, moves on a pulley at a barely perceptible pace, creating a subtly growing sense of destabilisation. Basic and old-fashioned, the displayed items suggest both meagre means and the first decade of Mona Hatoum’s childhood, the 1950s.

Like much of Hatoum’s work, Mobile Home II (2006) evokes an exile’s sense of displacement. It features in a one-woman exhibition now opening at the Parasol Unit in north London, “Present Tense”, which spans the past 12 years of Hatoum’s career. The exhibition’s title is taken from another installation in the show, which, like Mobile Home II, had never before been shown in the UK. Made during a residency in Jerusalem in 1996, the seductive floor piece features blocks of local olive-oil soap embedded with red glass beads that delineate the outline of the Oslo Agreement map setting out the borders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority lands. The map has become a recurring motif in Hatoum’s work.

Hatoum is a Lebanese-born Palestinian who has made London her home since arriving here as a student in 1975. She was unable to return to Beirut due to the outbreak of civil war that year. Latterly, she has divided her time between here and Berlin. But even before leaving Beirut, Hatoum carried a feeling of double displacement, both as a Palestinian in Lebanon, where, as she says, “As soon as you opened your mouth, your accent gave you away,” and as a minority Christian among the mostly Muslim Palestinians.

Edward Said, who became a friend not long after she was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1995 (the year that Damien Hirst won) greatly admired her work for its “show of sentiment and lack of sentimentality”. He argued that she, more than any other artist, conveyed the Palestinians’ sense of dislocation. Hatoum in turn cites Said’s essay “Reflections on Exile” as “a revelation”.

His work made her realise, she says, that she wasn’t alone in “feeling an in-betweenness, of being out of place and of not relating completely to where I am”. But Hatoum is also wary of presenting her works merely as conduits through which one can read only one political narrative. “I always try to make the work in such a way that it can include you and your experience as well as mine,” she says. “If I’m trying to convey a feeling of instability, I’m not doing it in a kind of documentary sense. I’m creating a work that you can experience physically – it’s not necessarily an illustration of a specific event.”

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She mentions a 1992 work, Light Sentence (not in this exhibition), and recalls being quite upset when someone told her it recreated what it felt like to live in a Palestinian camp. “Palestinian camps, which grow in a very organic, unorganised way, are nothing like this,” she explains. “The work is actually more about the kind of regimented western architecture created by the state to house people on low income.”

She is, of course, aware that no artist can control how their work is interpreted, but she is sensitive to how she might be perceived as a Palestinian artist. “People often don’t credit me with the intelligence to have an awareness of western art history,” she says. “They might assume that someone with my background doesn’t have the capability of being aware of what’s going on and making comments upon it. But for me that was part of my education and my culture. And what’s often ignored about my work is that I’m also making reference to [western] art and art history.”

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Sol LeWitt’s modular units have been a particular influence, she says, and that can be seen in many of her own cagelike structures. But unlike LeWitt’s cool minimalism, Hatoum’s work conveys menace: we live in dangerous times and the objects around us convey that danger. They also convey a sense of the uncanny, that unsettling experience of encountering something very familiar, such as a kitchen utensil, as something foreign and very threatening. One recalls her installation Homebound in 2000 at Tate Britain, where we were confronted, Alice-like, by a towering cheese grater and a sprawling, rather insect-like moulin à julienne slicer/shredder.

But even though Hatoum’s work is not rigidly narrative-driven, often her punning titles can direct our interpretation towards several narrative meanings at once. The titles can be seen as being as much a part of the work as the physical work itself. The word “homebound” suggests a fireside wholesomeness, yet the installation presents the idea of the home as a kind of prison, perhaps specifically a place of female enslavement. This befits someone who had an active involvement with consciousness-raising groups in the early 1970s, though Hatoum now admits that she was put off by feminists whose backgrounds were predominantly “privileged, white and middle-class” and who espoused concerns that reflected neither her own nor those of women outside a specific western setting.

Hatoum clearly enjoys the fact that the materials she uses in her installations present “contradictory aspects of the work”. The most recent piece in the current exhibition, Nature morte aux grenades (2006-2007), shows a collection of cheerfully coloured baubles arranged on a steel trolley. Look closer, and you will find that the delightful crystal confections are moulded in the shape of hand grenades. Violence, after all, has a seductive power.

“Mona Hatoum: Present Tense” is at the Parasol Unit, 14 Wharf Road, London N1, from 13 June to 8 August (tel: 020 7490 7373)