x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

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Art Mona Hatoum's first retrospective in the Middle East showcases her genius for making art from and about the everyday, writes Kaelen Wilson-Goldie.

Mona Hatoum's <i>Still Life</i>, a collection of some 50 pastel-coloured ceramic grenades.
Mona Hatoum's <i>Still Life</i>, a collection of some 50 pastel-coloured ceramic grenades.

Mona Hatoum's first retrospective in the Middle East showcases her genius for making art from and about the everyday, writes Kaelen Wilson-Goldie.

Ali Maher is a jovial man with a booming voice and the physical presence of a bear. He traces his ancestry back to the Circassians, the first residents of modern Amman, who were pushed south into Ottoman lands after being expelled from the Caucasus. The self-styled "Mayor of Amman", Maher is a fixture of Jordanian cultural life - an artist, architect, member of the Royal Film Commission and former director of the Darat al Funun arts foundation. This term, he is also teaching courses at the University of Jordan. At the end of a class in mid-October, he thundered to his students "Go see Mona! She's like Zaha Hadid!"

The Mona in question is the artist Mona Hatoum - and "like Zaha Hadid", in this case, means a very big deal indeed. From now until January 22, Hatoum's work is the subject of a major exhibition at Darat al Funun. This is not, in and of itself, noteworthy: since the beginning of her career in London in the 1980s, Hatoum has averaged four museum and gallery shows a year, to say nothing of her ubiquitous presence on the international biennial circuit. She has published six monographs, each packed with essays, and her press file is the size of an encyclopaedia set. She has won a slew of awards, honorary degrees, fellowships and residencies.

Hatoum, who was born in Lebanon to Palestinian parents in 1952, is incontestably the most famous living artist from the Arab world - yet the Amman exhibition is important because Hatoum has had few solo shows in the Middle East, and she has never done anything resembling a retrospective in the region. The current exhibition features 18 works in a range of media and materials, including videos, sculptures, textiles, maps, paper cut-outs, ceramics, a chair, a bed, a rug, a spinning brass lantern and a barrier of sandbags sprouting shoots of grass. Hatoum often toys with the notion of the uncanny, and she has mastered the art of making the familiar strange. Warfare and conflict loom large in the show, but the delicacy and softness of the works - some made from tissue paper, cotton fabric or the dainty branches of a willow tree - upends one's encounter with the kind of hardware typically associated with invasion, occupation and regime change.

Many of the works are new and were created either alone or in collaboration with local artisans during Hatoum's one-month residency in Amman. The artist spent much of September producing new pieces in the run-up to the exhibition, but a few of the works also date back to the 1980s and 1990s, culled from the permanent collection of Darat al Funun, which has been actively acquiring Hatoum's work since 2004.

The show is only Hatoum's third solo outing in the Middle East - following a 1996 exhibition in Jerusalem and a show in Cairo in 2006. It is the first to put her career in perspective. And with the forthcoming publication of a bilingual catalogue, it is also the first to be accompanied by Arabic texts. But the real importance of the exhibition has little to do with who she is (a famous artist of Arab origin) and much to do with what she does (produces ruthlessly contemporary artworks that create meaning as powerfully through their physical presence and material form as through their intellectual or theoretical content). One can make a list of Hatoum's major works and divide them into certain themes - such as the body, intimacy, confinement, domesticity, Palestine and the horrors of war - but this doesn't really tell you what her work is like. One can categorise Hatoum's pieces by type - maps, kitchen utensils, furniture, small-scale models of institutional structures, weaponry, toy soldiers and hair, lots of hair - and this might give you a slightly better sense of how she works. But most telling are her tactics - the way she translates an object into an artwork and at the same time thoroughly destabilises its meaning. (You, the viewer, are likewise unsettled.)

Hatoum once made a welcome mat out of thousands of stainless steel pins, a wheelchair with knife blades instead of handles, two suitcases tied together with locks of hair, a string telephone set where the paper cups are replaced by carved marble versions labelled "east" and "west" in Arabic, the deep difficulty of communication between them quite clear. Hatoum also plays with space and manipulates the senses. One of her most famous works, The Light at the End, from 1989, looks like an ode to minimalism - a neat grid of light rods arranged at the end of a passage whose perspective is exaggerated. Only as you approach do you realise, as your body suddenly warms, that the lights are in fact bare heating elements that would burn you severely if you got too close. She has made a map of the world out of marbles arranged on a floor, which makes you feel childlike, then monstrous. As you step toward the piece, your movements inevitably wreck the contours of entire countries and continents.

Still, in many ways the critical reception of Hatoum's work over the past 20 years - largely positive but overwhelmingly preoccupied with the artist's origins - has been symptomatic of the art world's increasing fascination with identity politics in general and with Middle Eastern art after September 11 in particular. Countless reviews and interviews have tried to use the facts of Hatoum's biography and background to make sense of her work, despite her forceful insistence that this approach is misguided.

"I dislike interviews," Hatoum told the artist Janine Antoni in a conversation for the New York-based magazine Bomb in 1998. "I'm often asked the same question: What in your work comes from your own culture? As if I have a recipe and I can actually isolate the Arab ingredient, the woman ingredient, the Palestinian ingredient. People often expect tidy definitions of otherness, as if identity is something fixed and easily definable."

Even when Edward Said praised her work by writing that "no one has put the Palestinian experience in visual terms so austerely and yet so playfully, so compellingly and at the same moment so allusively," Hatoum responded by telling the BBC: "People interpret these works depending on their own experience, so his experience of exile and displacement is that of the Palestinians, so he read specifically the Palestinian issue in my work, but it's not so specifically to do with the Palestinian issue. It could be related to a number of people who are exiled, who are displaced, who suffer a kind of cultural or political oppression of any kind. The language of art is slippery and cannot speak in very direct terms. You cannot say this equals that. The meanings are never fixed."

Early in her career, Hatoum focused on performances and videos that were often either overtly political or extremely intimate in tone. Two of the works on view at Darat al Funun - Road Works, from 1985, and the mesmerising Measures of Distance, from 1988 - exemplify this stage in her work. The first is a video that follows Hatoum as she steps barefoot through a crowded street dressed in military gear with a pair of army-issue boots tied by the laces to her ankles. With each awkward step, she drags her boots behind her, a reference, perhaps, to the burden of a country's wars being carried by its citizens.

Measures of Distance consists of old colour photographs that Hatoum took of her mother taking a shower in Beirut in 1981. Laid over these pictures, which are washed in a warm glow of pinks and blues, are the Arabic-scripted, handwritten lines of letters that her mother sent her when she moved to London. As these evocative and elusive layers mesh and mingle on screen, one hears Hatoum's mournful voice as she narrates English translations of her mother's missives. Beneath this audio track is another: the original conversation in Arabic that took place in the bathroom seven years earlier. The primary narration and secondary conversation fade in and out, occasionally intersecting when the letters refer directly back to that day. Strangely beautiful and beautifully strange, Measures of Distance palpably influenced a generation of artists who came into their own in the 1990s.

"When I encountered Mona's work, it was the only modern reference coming from somewhere close to where I wanted to be," says Akram Zaatari, an artist from Lebanon who included Measures of Distance in a series he programmed for the Oberhausen film festival in 2006. "The impact of the encounter was huge," he says, "particularly with a work such as Measures of Distance, where the issue of the body, the personal, intimate banality and the medium that is video were all being challenged equally."

Reflecting briefly on her work while speaking among the ruins of a sixth-century Byzantine church on the grounds of Darat al Funun, Hatoum says: "I was trying to work through a string of metaphors." She ended up with the body as a metaphor for society - in one live performance, viewers pulled on a seemingly disembodied ponytail and heard Hatoum scream; another, titled Under Siege, from 1982, involved her spending seven hours squirming naked in a vat of clay. Such works, which depend on viewers empathising with the artist or on seeing themselves substituted in the body of someone else, had their moment in the 1970s, but they have rarely been effective, beyond producing shock value, since then. In her last major video installation, Corps étranger, from 1994, Hatoum inserted an endoscopic camera into her own body and recorded its passage through her intestines, as if she had reached an extreme but logical endpoint to a line of artistic inquiry.

Hatoum rarely makes videos anymore, and performances have dropped out of her practice completely. Her work now involves a seemingly endless schedule of residencies in which she immerses herself in a context and makes entire bodies of work informed by the local materials she discovers and the local artisans and craftsmen with whom she collaborates. In Jerusalem, she worked with soap manufacturers to produce a map of the Palestinian territories according to the interim Oslo agreements. In Cairo, she sought the expertise of carpet-makers and metal-smiths. Such efforts give Hatoum's work a restless and nimble, yet also rooted, quality. Moreover, they seem to feed her desire to escape the art world on occasion and enjoy a more hands-on approach to her work.

"I much prefer these situations, which are not fantastic for my career, for instance, like going to an obscure little gallery is Cairo is not going to sort of advance my career in any way, but that is the kind of situation that inspires me and maybe will make me carry on making new ideas and new works," she told the BBC in an interview. "I have to show my work in museums and I have to be in those big touring shows [but] I find those residencies in obscure little places much more exciting."

This approach has also given Hatoum the means to reconnect with the Arab world. "The first time I showed in an Arab country, after I went to England and really became an artist there, I sort of felt like I had alienated myself from the context of art in the Arab world," she says. "In Jerusalem in 1996, this was my fear: How were people going to react? Were they going to say: 'You call this art?'"

In Amman, Hatoum worked with the Iraq al Amir Women's Co-operative Society - a 10-year-old community development and economic empowerment project in Wadi Seer that encourages women to make, package and promote their own handicrafts - to create "Witness," a small-scale ceramic replica of two of the four Martyrs Square Statues located in the heart of Beirut, and Still Life, a collection of some 50 pastel-coloured ceramic grenades.

Hatoum's exhibition at Darat al Funun explores the imagery and iconography of war - toy soldiers in the installation Misbah, the tiny sculpture Round and Round and two untitled paper cut-outs; grenades in Still Life and Medal of Dishonour; barbed wire replacing bedsprings in the ghostly installation Interior Landscape; and bomb sites delicately replicated on maps of Beirut, Baghdad and Kabul in the series 3-D Cities.

But it is her stirring evocation of Palestine that probably gripped Hatoum's viewers in Amman most. The work Keffieh displays the iconic scarf, dramatically draped, with waves of a woman's hair woven into the pattern. Interior Landscape features a well-worn, slightly soiled pillow tossed onto that barbed wire bed, the map of Palestine stitched gingerly into the surface with more threads of hair, lending the work an aspect of extreme fragility.

"Millions of Palestinians have no hope of returning to Palestine anytime soon," says Ala Younis, an artist from Jordan who is also part of Darat al Funun's core creative team. "Yet still this dream of going back lives in our minds. Hair, tears and dreams are what we leave on our pillows, and I loved how she linked these things together in the hair-embroidered map." More than biography or background, personal experience or exploration of her own history, it is Hatoum's empathy as an artist, her ability to reach outside of herself and engage with others, that gives her work its power.

Before this exhibition, Younis notes, "few people knew Mona's work in Amman." A few days after the show opened, a young woman, possibly a student, poked her head into Darat al Funun's office and asked if there was any writing on Hatoum's work she could read. Younis looked up from behind a barricade of books and smiled.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports from Beirut for The National.