About the work

MONA HATOUM

ABOUT THE WORK


   MONA HATOUM
     Sous tension, 1999
Under tension
Mixed media
Variable dimensions
Translated verbatim the French title means 'under tension' but the meaning is actually 'electrified'. The artist thus emphasises the dangerous, current-carrying wiring in the work. Moreover the installation emits a loud, buzzing noise, a telltale sign of the electricity flowing through the objects.

The scattered articles seem to almost come alive: their shapes make them look like spiders, scorpions or other creepy-crawlies. It is as if they have jumped off the kitchen table themselves, on their way out into the room.

In addition the live wires fixed to the utensils spark so much life into the work that it becomes deadly to the touch.

Together these features imbue the work with downright unpleasant and frightening aspects despite the decorative appearance. On the other hand the work does possess a humorous quality, making fun of notions of a secure childhood in hearth and home or a happy family around the kitchen table.

THE UNHEIMLICH
In Sous tension relatively harmless kitchen utensils suddenly become menacing, seeming almost to come alive. Hatoum often utilises graters, coffee grinders and other instruments that are potentially dangerous, especially if undergoing change or introduced into a new context. For instance in Hatoum's universe the utensils can grow in size so that they no longer fit food but people rather.

Hatoum comments: - I see kitchen utensils as exotic objects, and I often don't know what their proper use is. I respond to them as beautiful objects. Being raised in a culture where women have to be taught the art of cooking as part of the process of being primed for marriage, I had an antagonistic attitude toward all of that. Spending any time in the kitchen is something I completely resisted.

THE HOME AS PRISON
Sous tension clearly reflects ambivalence towards the notion of home. One might interpret this as a comment on domesticity being a restrictive place for women and, given the artist's background, one can also extend this interpretation to Hatoum's complex relationship with her Arab culture in which the woman's role still is closely linked to the home. The work plays on the balance between the familiar and the horrifying, illustrating how the homely can become unsettling. Her works explore the relationship between the beautiful and the terrifying.

Sous tension was created during a stay at Creux de l'Enfer, a gallery in a disused knife factory in Thiers, France.

Mona Hatoum's art in general
Hatoum's works combine her interest in aesthetics with questions of a political and social nature. Her art deals with cultural and sexual identity and affinity – or lack of same. She works with familiar materials and objects which in her works are imbued with new meanings. Thus her art runs parallel with the work of the Surrealists who also explored the transformation of the familiar, resulting in the unheimlich. In a similar manner the kitchen utensils have animistic qualities, i.e. seeming virtually alive a striking similarity with the Surrealist penchant for just that.

Many of her works draw an analogous aesthetic and formal inspiration from 1960s Minimalism whose plain forms encourage the onlooker to relate to the work in a concrete and bodily manner. Hatoum utilises the physical space around her work in a way that prevents us from only relating intellectually to the art. We cannot help imagining what it will be like to get too close to the current-carrying wires or gargantuan parsley mincers.

A LIFE IN EXILE
Although Hatoum's background can seem a significant key to her works, she does not regard them as direct translations of her own life and experiences as a Palestinian refugee from the war in Lebanon. Her works are not only narratives of actual exiles as experienced by the refugees and immigrants of our time; they also deal with a more universal feeling of homelessness, loneliness, lack of security that most people of today can relate to. On the feeling of malaise and the disturbance of the familiar Hatoum has emphasised the significance of her own unstable situation; a situation that denies her from taking anything for granted and in which she mistrusts even the ground beneath her feet.

A PHYSICAL EXPERIENCE
Hatoum's works address our bodies and our senses. We can physically read the neurotic quality that her aggressive works give off in our bodily reaction to them. They are threatening and clearly to be kept at a distance. The works stage the cruelty of the familiar through aesthetic and more or less subtle alterations of our usual expectations to the objects: they are not as they ought to be. In this manner she is questioning the very core of our lives: our home, thus imbuing our entire existence with a fundamental unease and tension.

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