“I am not trying to illustrate my personal experience”

Mona Hatoum was born in Beirut in 1952 and studied there at the American University. In 1975 she came to Europe on holiday and was stranded in London when Beirut airport was closed due to conflict. She studied at the Byam Shaw and the Slade and in 2003 won the Daad fellowship in Berlin. Along with the patient gestation of ideas and the genuine love for materials there is, in her art, the discipline of the geometry of the square, the cube and the circle. It is the unexpected beauty that Hatoum finds in the most unexpected and often modest materials, like grass and hair, that makes her work so evocative. Her latest show of 20 sculptures, works on paper and installations made over the past decade is at the Parasol Unit in London until 8 August.

The Art Newspaper: How long have you been working in Berlin?

MH: I am only in Berlin half the time, my husband is a musician and is based in London. I like the fact that Berlin is a large city but has more of a village pace. There seems to be more time and space here. It is much less pressured than London.

TAN: Do you always work in the studio?

MH: I normally prefer to work from home. I need quiet, reflective time on my own. I don’t like to have lots of assistants that I have to organise or the everyday routine of going to the work place like an office job, it would drive me crazy. Most of the large pieces that require specialised skills are made by fabricators in their workshops.

TAN: Materials, even electricity, seem to play a large part in your work. I saw your show in San Gimignano and saw the “cube” in the metal workshop outside of town.

MH: For 20 years or more I had noticed and admired these very chunky metal grids that are used on windows in medieval towns in Italy and Spain. I have always loved the way that the metal rods interlace. There is something very body-like about it. Sometimes you see a tree that curls around a fence and this has almost the same feeling. To me it is like medieval cage material and I did not think they still made this stuff. I came across it in this metal workshop in San Gimignano so I came up with the idea of Cube a couple of years ago and last year I made Globe with the same material and it was shown at the Sharjah Biennale. The globe is displayed tilted like the earth but looks like a spherical cage.

TAN: Why is the cage such an important symbol for you?

MH: These cages have a nice ambiguity about them. They can be seen in extremely hopeless and negative terms because there is no way out of them. On the other hand, they can be seen in positive and hopeful terms because there is no way in either. I like these contradictions.

TAN: I know you had problems with your early works at the Slade?

MH: It was the idea of running electricity, this invisible force, through everyday objects and making them dangerous—lethal. They were beautiful but dangerous pieces and I was not allowed to carry on with these works.

TAN: Did this lead into making performances?

MH: I was getting fed up with the restrictions so one day I wandered into the video studio where two friends were preparing for a performance work and they said why don’t you join us? So I made my first performance with a live video camera. I was scanning the audience and they could see images of themselves on a monitor in the performance area.

TAN: How did you move from performance to installation works?

MH: After a while I wanted to set up situations where people could experience certain things for themselves, directly and in a physical way. So in an installation like Light Sentence, 1992, the moving shadows destabilise the whole space and when you walked in you felt that the ground was shifting and therefore experienced first hand this feeling of instability and insecurity. It makes you feel shaky but it is also very beautiful and mesmerising.

TAN: That could be perceived purely as a political work but it also has a very powerful aesthetic.

MH: I am glad to hear you say that. What I am trying to convey is always expressed in material terms and through the aesthetics of the work. I don’t like it when people zoom in on content, especially when they tend to read everything in relation to my background without really appreciating that the work could be making a reference to recent art history or a comment on certain aspects of life here in the west. I come from a background of war and all that unconsciously feeds into the work but I am not trying to illustrate my personal experience. It is more abstract than this. It is about presenting the audience with a set of objects and materials that may have certain associations and may bring out general feelings of discomfort or uncertainty and this will be different for each person.

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