Mona Hatoum at Tate Modern: the art of war in our time

Lebanon-born artist tackles world politics but the intimate and the personal shine brightest


Frances Morris, the recently appointed director of Tate Modern, has made it clear from the outset of her tenure (and indeed, through the works she has been amassing over the past 10 years as director of international collections) that she will be putting a much greater emphasis on work by women and by artists from beyond the standard US/Western Europe axis than has previously been the case.

The Mona Hatoum show, which opened in London last week (4 May), ticks both of those boxes. Born in 1952 in Lebanon to Palestinian parents, Hatoum’s work is infused by her Francophone, Middle Eastern upbringing—from the poetry of Arabic language and script, to the horrors of torture and incarceration to which her work frequently alludes. Moving to London as war broke out in the 1970s (she studied art at the Byam Shaw and Slade), she also came to engage in radical and feminist politics. One of the best known of her pieces—Corps étranger (1994)—is included in this comprehensive survey of 30 years of work. A circular, closet-like space, it has a projection on the floor of a video of an endoscope exploring the inside of the artist’s colon. In the documentary fragment of another performance, Under Seige (1982), the artist can be seen trapped in a transparent cage, covered in and struggling with mud for seven hours. Filmed at the London Film-makers Co-op, the performance is watched, perhaps unsurprisingly to those who remember the art world of the early 80s, by a largely male audience.

Violence, and incarceration in prison or under house arrest, and the turbulence of world politics is a running theme—from the series of cages in Light Sentence (1992, on loan from the Pompidou) to Homebound (2000), an interior with every chair and lamp connected together with angrily humming, electrified copper cable. Hatoum can at times tip into the overly obvious—Murano glass hand grenades, tiny toy US soldiers, milled steel cages containing bursting red glass “cellules”, soap with maps of Palestine. But these are offset by moments of surprising poetry: her mother showering and talking longingly in the video, Measures of Distance (1988), or the simplicity of the mobile sand sculpture + and - (1994-2004), in which a rotor creates a Zen-like sand garden while simultaneously wiping it smooth.