Twenty-five years ago, in 1997, The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago gave Mona Hatoum her first solo show in the United States. And now the MCA returns with “Mona Hatoum: Early Works,” an overview of her video and performance works made throughout the 1980s. The exhibit will bring together well-known works, such as “Measures of Distance” (1988), with less frequently exhibited pieces, creating a space dedicated to the beginning of this prolific artist’s career.
The early works make up a special period in Hatoum’s oeuvre, where the focus on performance and video lends itself to a particular relation with the artist’s body as both subject and medium. “It’s such a formative time and deserves to be explored,” says Bana Kattan, the curator of the show. “These videos are a really important part of her practice and they are connected to her larger practice even though the mediums of her later work are completely different—you can see that it is the same artist, and that conceptually it’s the same thought process.”
Hatoum’s work has been exhibited worldwide and she has won multiple awards, including the Ada Louise Huxtable Prize for Contribution to Architecture (2022), the Julio González Prize (2020), and the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale (2019). Born in Lebanon to a displaced Palestinian family with ties to Britain, Hatoum has always known a cross-cultural existence. While today she has a nomadic practice, preferring to take residencies and travel rather than hunker down in the studio, in 1975 she had less of a choice in the matter, when a short trip to London was extended after the outbreak of civil war in Lebanon.
While the particular sociopolitical life experiences of any artist are bound to appear in their works, Hatoum has always trod a delicate line, evading interpretations which would read her works as reductively biographical. “The key with Mona Hatoum is she is speaking about global marginalized communities,” Kattan says. “She is not speaking about a specific one.” While it has become common to make and analyze art with a transcultural eye, Hatoum’s work has always had these themes and issues in mind; this is evident in the exhibition.
Hatoum has never shied away from the political issues that face a warming and warring planet. If anything, she has outlined the continents in an ominous glowing red and presented it to us on a pedestal as “Hot Spot (stand)” (2018). The ways she has engaged these themes, however, have developed throughout her career. The early performance pieces tend to be more confrontational and visceral than the later sculptures and installations. “The Negotiating Table” (1983) and her 1984 performance “Variation on Discord and Divisions” directly address issues of war and famine, while videos like “So Much I Want to Say” (1983) and “Changing Parts” (1984) comment on gender disparity as well as the predicament of the migrant or exile.
The political content of her subsequent works is much less explicit, but present nonetheless in more formal and symbolic ways. Her sculptures and installations are known for their powers to evoke paradoxical sensations of attraction and repulsion, or fascination and terror. This play in the realms of the uncanny and dangerous inherent in the later works demands sensual and phenomenological experiences in her audiences, foregrounding their own experiences and bodies and cultural backgrounds.
The difference between the 1997 MCA exhibit, which included a number of her sculptures and installations, and the present one reflects the fact that Hatoum’s career took a sharp turn in the late 1980s. She changes mediums, she absences her body from the work, and she makes the overt social and political themes in her work less explicit, moving from visceral to uncanny, from exhortative to open to interpretation. This change is marked by the pivotal work “Measures of Distance.”
With the creation of “Measures of Distance”—the latest work in the exhibition—Hatoum deliberately engaged with the form of intimate personal narrative to a greater extent than any other of her works. The video is multilayered with photos of her mother in the shower overlaid with the letters her mother was sending to her in London; we can hear the two women laughing and chatting in Arabic as Hatoum reads an English version of the letters out loud. It’s a sensitive look at the temporal and spatial distances that separate her from her past, her mother, and the sights and sounds of Beirut. As the culmination and conclusion of her video and performance work, “Measures” delves into the personal narrative for the first and last time. Says Kattan, “After that she does a full 180-degree medium turn, she decided it would be her last video and she made it and that was it. It’s an extremely personal piece, not just as a narrative piece, it’s vulnerable and personal and emotional.”
Hatoum’s subsequent return to sculpture and installation demonstrates an artist acutely aware of the shifting grounds on which her work will be received. “People were reading her work too biographically and so she removed her body for that reason,” Kattan says. It’s as if so long as the artist’s body remained present in the work it was easy to attribute a biographical meaning to it, easier still when the artist in question is a woman, and perhaps even more a Palestinian woman born of exile and displaced by war. By taking her body out of her works and focusing on the formal aspects of the works, their innate sensory capacities, she evaded being typecast and let an openness into her works and her audience’s capacities for associative interpretation. Kattan says, “The newer work gives less leeway for people to impose certain language on to her, or certain reads onto her work. So I think she was smart in that [sense].”
Hatoum’s tactful awareness of the reception of her work is not only present in the change from video and performance to sculpture and installation, but also within her subsequent sculptural practice. She is constantly aware of and indeed relies on the multiplicity of symbolic associations entailed in the forms she is working with, be it a clever nod to another artist’s work—like “Socle du Monde” (Pedestal of the World) (1992-93) which was included in the MCA’s 1997 show and references the work by the same name made by Piero Manzoni—or the simple fact that she is using recognizable domestic objects such as furniture, kitchen instruments or carpets. She does not take forms out of their referential systems, but relies on those very systems to help generate associations as part of the meaning of the work.
Additionally, by absenting her own body, Hatoum’s art became more about the body or bodies in the universal (where absence provokes conceptual presence) and paradoxically more singular as the bodies of the viewers came to stand in for her own. All of this has had a bearing on the political quality of her work by implicating viewers, and their own interpretive associations as an integral part of the experience her work reignites—a sort of sensus communis where it is precisely in the unstable gowns of a shifting world that we turn to each other with questions that link the perceptual, the sensual, the common and the political.
The exhibit “Mona Hatoum: Early Works” is a chance for the museum to continue to support an artist they believed in twenty-five years ago. For the viewing public it is a chance to review the works which launched a global career with fresh eyes—review, knowing that it is not only her story reflected here, but that she already had her eyes on the world.
“Mona Hatoum: Early Works” at the MCA, 220 East Chicago, mcachicago.org. On view through March 29-November 26.