Thursday, March 17, 2011

Mona Hatoum at the Power Plant

“I’m interested in trauma,” she said, but not in “point[ing] a finger at the source of the trauma.”

Having gone a year and a half without making a cocoon sculpture until recently, I had to dig out some old artist statements and remind myself what they used to mean to me. The crux of the engagement has always been in establishing a contrast between seducing and repelling the viewer, a tendency I hadn’t heard another artist talk about at great length until Tuesday night. When feminist artist Mona Hatoum spoke at the Power Plant, this was a strategy she referenced repeatedly. It would be overly simplistic to call it a strategy, though, because that doesn’t convey the thrill of manipulating the viewer while simultaneously manipulating oneself.

Hatoum explained that she stumbled upon the combination of fear and fascination with her installation work, much of which recontextualizes familiar objects. One method of recontextualizing is playing with scale in sculpture, making for highly accessible works to even the most novice viewers. For example, La Grande Broyeuse depicts a food grinder, and looks enchantingly quirky (somewhat like a creature designed by Tim Burton, towering over the viewer). Similarly, a massive cheese grater (Grater Divide) has an appealing smooth, shiny surface. It would be easy to pass these works off as derivative of Claes Oldenburg’s oversized familiar objects rendered in soft sculpture if it weren’t for their menacing connotations. The grater’s protrusions and the grinder’s capacity to fit more than a morsel of food are disturbing indeed. Collectively, they create the sensation of a domestic environment that is no safer than the turbulent world outside, but is that reaction stemming from the fact that she is a woman representing objects from the kitchen, and from her personal history as a transnational artist born in Beirut to a Palestinian family? The question period at the end of her talk made it clear that she defies essentialist readings.

After taking a semester in Sheridan’s Crafts + Design program this past fall, I was particularly taken by Hatoum’s forays into the realm of craft: a historical map of Palsetine embroidered in hair on a pillowcase is as haunting as her grenades made of coloured glass. Sometimes it’s not the object itself that creates the push and pull of repulsion and seduction, but its positioning, whether it’s a series of barbed wires dangling above the ground precariously, or a world map made on the floor with marbles that threaten to dislocate. The latter work she described as possessing a “double aspect of fragility and danger”.

Although the “internal contradictions” she mentioned could be seen as referring to works that contain this duality, Hatoum actually used the term in relation to viewers. This concept is apparent in her description of the work, Incommunicado, a cradle with a base of only cheese wires stretched across; she noted that you could view it from the perspective of the victim or the abuser. I feel an affinity with this work in particular, as I spend a lot of time scouring second hand stores for baby clothing for my art. The kind of objectivity Hatoum demonstrates eludes me personally, as I seem fixated on the victim’s stance when making art. “I’m interested in trauma,” she said, but not in “point[ing] a finger at the source of the trauma.” Again, I felt a little stuck in my ways when I heard that, as I am an unabashed finger pointer. It will be interesting to see if this open-mindedness will come with time. Perhaps the lesson I should leave with is that balance is key. A visual reminder of that lesson is Plus and Minus. She described this kinetic work which creates and destroys lines as it rotates, as opposites co-existing side by side. It also seems like a fabulous metaphor for art history (and Hatoum did concede that she likes to make art historical references in her work). Art history is not a neat and tidy additive process. Maybe it doesn’t matter if one artist’s approach is different from another artist’s approach, whether it’s Oldenburg in relation to Hatoum or Hatoum in relation to this blogger. Their legacy is in the traces.

Please see for images.