Visual Arts

Surreal Estate: "Mona Hatoum: Terra Infirma" at The Menil Collection

Installation view of Mona Hatoum’s La Grande Broyeuse (Mouli-Julienne x 17), 1999, at Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen (MUHKA), Belgium, 2000. CGAC Collection, Santiago de Compostella.
Installation view of Mona Hatoum’s La Grande Broyeuse (Mouli-Julienne x 17), 1999, at Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen (MUHKA), Belgium, 2000. CGAC Collection, Santiago de Compostella. © Mona Hatoum/Photo by Wim van Neuten/Courtesy MUHKA, Antwerp.
Mona Hatoum came to the attention of the art world with a video of her colon. Corps étranger, the artist’s phenomenal 1994 video, used an endoscope to explore the interior of Hatoum’s body. The video started with surreal close-ups of her eyes (giant eyelashes at first seemed to be a forest) but moved on to nasal passages, esophagus, vagina and so on. It sounds prurient or icky, but it was just fascinating, this alien world inside of us. It reminded me of the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage, in which a nuclear submarine full of scientists is injected into the bloodstream of a man to dispatch a blood clot. I saw it on TV as a kid and vividly remember watching them fight giant white corpuscles.

Hatoum’s work has an affinity for the surreal, and her exhibition “Mona Hatoum: Terra Infirma” at The Menil Collection fits nicely in with the Menil’s extensive surrealist holdings. Organized by Menil curator Michelle White, the show focuses on examples of the artist’s sculptural and installation work.

The Menil has a rich history of juxtaposing the work of contemporary artists with its permanent collection. The museum has done so to great effect with several of Hatoum’s pieces. Jardin Public (1993) is a curvy French metal garden seat with a perforated metal seat. At first glance it looks like a chair helpfully added to the surrealist gallery so that you can relax and stare directly at Magritte’s 1934 The Rape (Le viol). The painting depicts a woman’s long neck and bare shoulders, but her face is a nude female torso, breasts for eyes, navel for nose and a pubic triangle as a mouth. Can we say “male gaze”?

Jardin public, 1993
Courtesy of the artist © Mona Hatoum/Photo by Edward Woodman
But the chair is not what it seems. It has a triangle of pubic hair sprouting from the pores of the metal seat. The title, Jardin Public, puns on the work “pubic.” Hatoum has given you a merkin instead of a cushion. Sitting on the chair would be a highly intimate act.

There is more hair involved in Hatoum’s 1995 photograph Van Gogh’s Back, also on view in the surrealist galleries. The color photograph crops in on the landscape of a hirsute man’s back. But the artist has (we assume) soaped the hair into gestural swirls along the lines of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. It’s a really funny piece and you can imagine the artist playing around with a lover in the bath, becoming inspired and then photographing the poor tolerant bastard.

This early work is incredibly human and evocative, but later works that are larger-scale and bigger-budget are not. On view in the hall outside Hatoum’s main exhibition, Dormiente (2008) is an eight-foot replica of a cheese grater placed flat on its handles to evoke a bed. Shown alongside it is Grater Divide (2002), a pun-y, six-foot re-creation of a folding, tripartite grater and slicer. It is stood on end like a dressing screen.

There ought to be an aura of violence to these banal kitchen tools for slicing and grating food, re-created on a massive scale, but they feel tame. Nothing especially ominous is conveyed. Yes, you could lie on, or step behind, Grater Divide and your flesh could potentially shred. But they just seem static. They are made from steel and have an aged, bronze-ish patina, which is ironic but not especially evocative.

La Grande Broyeuse (Mouli-Julienne) is more effective. It is more than 13 feet tall, a massive reproduction of an aged food mill Hatoum found in her mother’s Beirut home. It has multiple round blades and a crank handle. A raised lever allows the user to force the food being sliced or julienned into the blades. This piece works better because it has a vaguely menacing, arachnid feeling to it, resting on three legs and with the raised lever reading like a scorpion’s tail. A selection of huge blades lay on the floor; you could conceivably mill a human in it. But the fabrication of all these sculptures has the same kind of formal soullessness as big, abstract steel sculptures by white male modernists like Tony Smith. While there is an intentional irony to making big, macho steel sculptures of cheap kitchen items from the female domestic realm, the idea of it is better than the results. They are just cold and too perfectly fabricated; there simply isn’t enough human edge to the work to unsettle you.

The same goes for Quarters (1996), a series of bunk beds modeled on those from Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, a prison based on the panopticon surveillance architecture designed by Jeremy Bentham in 1791. Hatoum has exaggerated the beds so they feel like multiple shelves for stacking and warehousing bodies. There are four bunk structures out of the original 12 on view, but I have seen an installation with all 12. It didn’t really make that much difference; intellectually you get the point of the work, but it is just too sterile and banal to engage you on an emotional level. It just feels like they were assembled from a giant erector set; there is no gravitas, no claustrophobia, no horror.

The fabrication of Misbah (2006-07) is more effective. “Misbah” means lamp or light, and Hatoum’s work is a pierced brass lamp like many others made in the Middle East. But instead of traditional decorative patterns, silhouettes of a man in fatigues holding a rifle have been cut into it, along with little, wonky starbursts like cartoon explosions. In the installation, the lamp spins like a magic lantern projecting a series of these figures on the wall and as it spins, the figures appear to raise and lower the gun. The movement of the light in the darkened room is disorienting and the armed silhouette is unsettling. I have seen children’s lamps that make projections in a similar way but with images like butterflies or ballerinas. Hatoum had it fabricated to her design by a craftsman in Cairo and it is well-executed, but with a very subtle aura of the handmade that I think contributes to its effectiveness.

There is a tendency to view Hatoum's work exclusively through the lens of her cultural and political identity. Her art is much broader and richer than narrow labels and classifications.

tweet this
Hatoum is a Palestinian from a Christian family exiled to Lebanon in 1948. She was born in Beirut in 1952 and was in London for a visit when the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975, and Hatoum was stranded. She would ultimately make the UK her home. Elements of confinement, violence, displacement and control are a part of much of Hatoum’s work, and have no doubt been a part of her life. But there is a tendency to view her work exclusively through the lens of her cultural and political identity. Her art is much broader and richer than narrow labels and classifications.

Silence (1994) is a replica of a metal hospital bassinet crafted from slender tubes of scientific glass. It is pristinely executed, but the fragility of the material generates a hum of anxiety. There is no mattress, just an open base. You imagine placing an infant inside and having her drop to the floor, the whole crib shattering into jagged shards over her.

Seamless fabrication is highly successful in the motorized sculpture +and- (1994-2004). It’s a shallow, 14-foot circular basin of sand with a motorized bar that continuously rakes and flattens the surface of the sand like some souped-up Zen garden. It is absolutely lovely and hypnotic. The smooth, soft white sand is grooved and then flattened, creating a yin and yang appearance with half the circle flat and half ridged at all times — perfection continuously created and destroyed.

The installations in the show that work the best incorporate real objects with a patina of age and use. Interior/Exterior Landscape (2010) is a room lit by grim, greenish fluorescent lighting, a dramatic contrast to the warm hagiographic glow of the Menil’s artful illumination. In the room is a bare metal bed frame. At its head is a pillow, its case embroidered with long strands of human hair, the harshness of the raw frame counteracted by snippets of humanity. Opposite the bed is a spare, worn wooden desk. A wooden chair has melded with it, the curved back rising from the desk’s surface like a shark fin. There is a single drawer partially open to reveal the faded cheer of flowered drawer lining paper. You wonder who chose it and carefully stuck it in place. The whole room seems to ooze a kind of frustrated yearning for freedom. There is a little wooden cage stuck to the wall with a hairball inside like a pet.

Homebound is the most dramatic installation in the show. Tightly stretched horizontal wires cordon off an entire room. Behind it is what looks like an abandoned room, littered with odds and ends of battered, cast-off and uncomfortable-looking furniture — a Formica dinette set, bed frames, a coatrack, wire garden furniture. Copper electrical wires snake over the floor, around the furniture and between scattered objects like a table lamp, a mesh sieve, a perforated colander, a floor lamp...the wires end in large clamps that look as if they belong on a jumper cable. From time to time there is the amplified hum and crackle of electricity and one of the electrified objects glows into life, casting a strangely homey light. Is this a makeshift home behind the wire of some camp? Is this an abandoned house, booby-trapped and lying in wait for the owner’s return? The fear is palpable; there is no comfort, no safety to be had in this domestic space.

When Hatoum’s work moves us, its power is impressive.

“Mona Hatoum: Terra Infirma”
Now through February 25, 2018. The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400,
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer