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Being Involved by Ursula Panhans-Bühler

You are still here (1994) is inscribed on a mirror, the letters outlined by subtle contours in which the light of the lettering breaks. You means ‘us’ - the visitors to the exhibition, both plural and singular, for the size of the mirror is that of a portrait photograph. There is something perplexing about this device; the moment we look at the writing, we are no longer looking at ourselves, and as soon as we look at ourselves, the letters appear on our face but are not read. Most perplexing of all is how surprised we are by the way the reflection seems, momentarily, to take on a life of its own when we look at the writing. We do not observe the gaze of the reflection directly. We become aware of it only in retrospect, with a sense of unease that translates into the following question: how much of the dramatically divided self have we left behind in that world beyond the mirror, where, as in Alice’s famous excursion Through the Looking Glass, nothing is quite as it seems.

In a 1984 video, Changing Parts, Mona Hatoum alternates black and white photographs of an old bathroom, atmospheric details over which the camera slowly pans, with shots from her 1982 performance Under Siege. It is a desperately extreme performance in which the artist struggles for seven hours to free herself from a container with semi-transparent polythene sheeting, repeatedly slipping and falling on the muddy clay that covers the floor. In the video, we find ourselves drawn inexorably towards the limits, even though this is now ‘canned’ footage. The screen seems to materialise through the opaque skin of the container and the dramatic tension between inside and outside appears increasingly direct. Between ourselves as onlookers and the young woman struggling to free herself - pressing her shoulders, cheeks and hands against the membrane of the polythene sheet, ‘dressed’ only in the slimy clay that cakes the film - the barrier suddenly becomes permeable. The fictional, in the form of the projection on the screen, and the material, in the form of the physical membrane, seem to change places in a perplexing alternation between wish and reality until we are no longer certain what or who belongs on which side, or even how.

In the late eighties, Hatoum abandoned performances as politically too direct and turned her attention instead to installations and objects, taking up some of the earlier ideas from her student days at the Slade School of Art in London. From now on, she put her trust in the kind of interactivity that lets the spectator become involved in the aesthetic experience without the presence of the artist herself as performer making her the focus of attention.

Her work, however, was no less radical for all that. Her installation The Light at the End at The Showroom in London in 1989 had a quite literal potential to shock: six vertical lines of light at the end of an ever narrowing, darkened room turned out to be unguarded electric heating bars mounted on a gate-like metal structure with bars. It posed not only a physical risk to visitors, but also an artistic risk to Hatoum, for the interest it generated threatened to turn her into a secular Saint Laurence of today, her creativity doomed to martyrdom on an aesthetically perfect virtual grill. For a while, in spite of having made a culturally electrifying point about desire, she suddenly found galleries and museums showing an interest only in this particular work, or clamouring for something similar.

So it was some time before she was invited to present her 1992 Light Sentence at Cardiff's Chapter gallery. Whereas, in The Light at the End, the electric glow actually involves the spectator physically, this time a single bare light bulb silently grasps at the shadow of any visitor daring to enter the U-shaped installation of office lockers (ordered readymade from a mail-order catalogue) piled six high, with casually opened doors. The light bulb that slowly descends and rises on its cable sets the shadows of the wire-mesh lockers in motion on the floor and walls in anamorphic distortion; as it reaches the floor and tips to one side, the shadows begin to tremble. On entering the strange, serial domicile, the visitor is drawn inexorably into this nocturnal danse macabre and, unable to resist the urge to try inhabiting the dizzyingly menacing atmosphere, loses all sense of balance in the moving sea of gridded shadows.

The wire-mesh lockers cast bizarrely three-dimensional shadows that dominate the room with their trompe l’œil effect, while the spectator caught in their midst becomes a flat silhouette, a shadow that does not even fit in at full length because of the discrepancy of scale between the room and those who enter it. The spectator's shadow, split over several levels, becomes a Gulliveresque giant, a telescoping Alice: off with its head, body parts cropped by the moving light. The installation becomes a grotesque shadow play, echoing the abyss of modern mass housing. Hatoum has woven a grim sense of humour into the very fabric of this installation.

The sombre 1996 installation Quarters is even more hard-hitting. Its component parts are made to scale, based on a photograph taken by the artist of a dilapidated cell in a Philadelphia prison. At first, the spectator can feel relatively detached, moving either physically or visually through the elegant geometry of the bed frames. However, as soon as one enters the axis of symmetrically aligned structures, there is an uncanny change of subject, as though the implacable gaze of another had gained the upper hand over one's own – there is a moment of nunc stanti, of simultaneous attraction and repulsion, generated by the suddenly frozen spatial order that makes viewers stop in their tracks, only to pursue them further as soon as they leave the axis and the spell it casts. It is a kinetic work that has a shocking impact on our perception, generated in part by the viewer's own casual meandering and abrupt halt. In spite of the recognisable prison beds and the structural references to Minimalism, the uncanny gaze of surveillance is neither illustrated nor is it projected onto Minimalism, whose serial structures did not have this problem. Intuitively discovered in the act of creating the space as a petrified relationship, it is merely a question of how the roles should be allocated or swapped. But let us be under no illusion: a necessary passage, it becomes problematic only when frozen. The installation, however, with regard to the spectator, includes both: the active and the passive.

A skeleton is invariably associated with flesh, either directly or metaphorically. For the moment, let us consider the skeletal process in the sense of a paring-down. Hatoum has addressed and electrified the kitchen situation in three different variations: in 1999 with Home and with Sous tension, then in 2000 with Homebound (a larger version with some added furniture), which was installed at Tate Britain in the Duveen Galleries and also shown at 'Documenta 11' in Kassel, Germany. At the centre is a formica kitchen table with folding leaves and chrome kitchen chairs, while at the side there are an elegant armchair, a bench, two children's chairs, a clothes stand, a trolley, a standard lamp without a shade - all postwar furnishings from an era when elegance, functionality and stackability were in demand. There is also a metal bed, a metal cot, two small metal boxes with mesh apertures and a birdcage. There is not one single cushion or mattress, nothing soft -just the bare bones. This is less surprising in the case of the kitchen utensils: funnels, sieves, several Moulis-Julienne (French kitchen devices for slicing or shredding vegetables), cheese graters, tea strainers, a mincer, a working table lamp with a shade, and finally - looking somewhat forlorn amongst all this - the locomotive from a child's train set. The tableau is electrified by beautiful copper cables that weave their way across the furniture and floor and are kept carefully out of reach of the visitors by taut metal wires. Earthed as they are, they could accidentally become conductors of energy. The computer-driven aleatory charges of energy are linked to loudspeakers, turning the whole installation into a son-et-lumière spectacle that crackles, hums and splutters in waves of sound that is menacingly pitched and raw. The title Homebound is sarcastically tongue-in-cheek, for this is anything but idyllic domesticity.

Kitchen devices are traditionally long-lasting. It was not until the late fifties that they, like shavers and dusters, became electric appliances with their working parts concealed in a casing. Before that, housewives had generally been deeply conservative - as was their cooking. The introduction of most of the kitchen devices featured in Homebound came during the great industrial age of the nineteenth century, when the all-purpose kitchen knife, the mortar and pestle, and the simple pot that was drained by tilting were ousted by a plethora of individually functional labour-saving items created in factories. Only the Mouli-Julienne appears to be an innovation of the fifties in France. Tinged with a nostalgic beauty today, all these things are the low-tech counterparts to more heavily high-tech industrial products that have made the commodified housewife into the 'low' derivative of the 'high' world of publicly respected business and representation. The installation of Home-bound in the Neoclassical elegance of the Duveen Galleries provided a witty take on this situation, visually and acoustically underlined by an evident sense of danger.

The nineteenth century not only introduced new forms of control over the bodies of things, but at the same time brought with it a cleaving of the flesh from the bones. The skeletons of modern architecture were painstakingly clad in the classical garb of anthropomorphic stone facades intended to reflect human proportions. Only in civil engineering structures was it permissible for the bare bones of iron structures to show. One exception to this rule was the glass house, where the 'flesh' was on the inside; palm trees and other exotic plants from southern climes veiling the naked structure like fig leaves.

Consider a device that also emerged from the sidelines of industrial mass production and whose origins can be traced back to this period: the bottle rack. A pure skeleton-frame structure, sheer nerve paths of energy, it was destined to become the enigmatic icon of an era, thanks to Duchamp's readymade, with the status of a cargo that defied any signifier.

Hatoum uses the 'assisted readymade' in the sense that she minimally alters everyday objects or reproduces them in unlikely materials or, in the case of a readymade enlargement, creates a shift of function or addressee. However, this does not apply to Homebound - an object installation in which the very austerity of the objects puts paid to any sense of cosiness. The bottle rack can help us here if we grant it some recognisable form as a simple bottle rack rather than as a readymade: it resembles the corset of a graceful lady, albeit with treacherous thorns, like a sombre signifier of nineteenth century literature's notorious tendency to despise and fear the feminine. In Homebound, Hatoum not only touches upon a biographical resistance to the traditional female role, but also addresses the unresolved power struggle between the private and the public, and, with that, the gender issue that is the other side of the same coin. It is the same 'current' that breaks through one way or another, electrically or emotionally. There is more than just a touch of dark humour here, depending on whether one actually feels threatened or enjoys the frisson of danger.

Against the towering Neoclassical columns, pilasters and vaulting of the Duveen Galleries, Homebound seemed positively Lilliputian. The electric and acoustic confrontation between Homebound and the surrounding space had its counterpoint in La grande broyeuse shown at the same venue. This sculpture, more than four metres high, whose title is a reference to Duchamp's Broyeuse de Chocolat, is a ready-made enlarged: a Mouli-Julienne scaled up to twenty-one times its original size and proportional to the accompanying heavy-duty. Malevolently destructive, it is capable of 'shredding' anyone who might stray too close. Looking up at La grande broyeuse, the Duveen Galleries were drawn into our gaze as well, and their ostentation seemed further heightened still, especially in the view through the columned portals. La grande broyeuse, by contrast, seemed comparatively small, but the spatial tension kept the architecture at bay, preventing us not only from identifying too closely with the sublimity of the space, but also from indulging in any other sense of awe. Thus, the spectator was caught between two fronts in a productive way. Intuitively, in both installations, the space became a crucial aspect of the constructed situation, and so, paradoxically, became 'involved' in the conflict.

Now to some assisted readymades in the form of objects with added flaws. Balançoires enfer (1999) turns a swing into a dangerous duet as soon as we notice the sharply honed edges on the inside. Divan Bed (1996) replaces the soft upholstery with implacably hard steel plates. Anyone aware of Magritte's paraphrasing of David or Manet, in which he replaces the female figure with a coffin, is likely to want to lift the lid of this sarcophagus. Incommunicado (1993), a tubular steel hospital cot, promises anything but tender loving care: instead of slats or springs, there are sharp, thin metal wires spanned across the base, suggesting that any baby placed there might be sliced mercilessly into pieces like a hard-boiled egg. This gloomy 'hard' version has a counterpart in the fragile glass, ethereality and baselessness of Silence (1994), and then there is Marrow (1996), a 'soft' version of flesh-coloured latex that chills you to the bone: instead of a child, it is the cot that sinks whimpering to the ground. A 'soft' object for adults.

Untitled (crutches) (1991-2001) leaves us with a rather comical feeling. The crutches imitate the gait or movement of a cripple leaning against a wall and slipping to the ground, and at the same time suggest a perplexing lack of support. More perplexing still is Untitled (wheelchair) (1998) in which a wheelchair is fitted with sharp steel knife blades instead of rubber grips. Whether it is the wheelchair user or their companion who is threatened by these remains a moot point. The objects bear witness to an atavistic terror that turns from catatonic rigidity to instability, from hard to soft. Whether it is about ourselves or others, about perpetrators or victims, or about both, and whether one is merely the flipside of the other, remains unclear. The answer is left to our own emotionally charged projections.

But beyond primordial reactions, between menacing rigidity and formless acquiescence, be it voluntary or forced, there seems to be no third way - the consequence of a tense relationship between reason and emotion, body and mind, and perhaps even between the western world and the unfortunate rest, when there is no longer any alternative to these extreme reactions. The industrial readymades, with their material and details altered, set a disquieting and ironic counterpoint to their formal perfection.

Two examples of the conflict between mind and passion are worth noting here. In Sweet Temptations, a play by Jan Fabre (1991), two identical naked men are seated in wheelchairs. One of them says hesitantly that he has recently read a scientific study claiming that owls are not birds - a claim that deals a shocking blow to our notion of reason embodied by the flight of the Owl of Minerva. Rebecca Horn's film Buster's Bedroom (1991) is set in the soporific tedium of a strange rest home by the name of Nirvana House. One of the patients sits permanently in a wheelchair, dressed in red - the colour of passion - concentrating her energies on training her immobility, and fuelled by a tumbler of whisky affixed to the wheelchair. The wheelchair itself becomes her downfall when, in pursuit of her rival, lashing out hysterically with a whip, she rises from the chair only to be knocked down by it as it rolls away and sent tumbling into the swimming pool, breaking her spine and drowning ignominiously.

With 'enlarged readymade' objects, viewers are offered a further physical dimension for their projections. In Cage-à-deux (2002) there is room for two to lie down and rest, with water basins as pillows for their grim nightmares - a strange bed indeed, apparently abandoned by the birds who have flown the cage through the large spaces between the bars. In Grater Divide (2002), a grater sealed-up to the size of a paravent, there is nothing to temper the sense of tension before or behind the folding screen. Moreover, it contains another aspect that was also present in Quarters (1996). The holes of the grater are eyes whose malevolent gaze meets the gaze of the spectator in a domestic variation of the publicly invasive and surreptitiously controlling gaze. Here, as in Homebound, there is no distinction between the public and the private; instead, the question is raised as to the extent to which they collaborate. It is a question also asked in Doormat II (2000-01) which beckons with the word 'welcome' only to reveal its hard metal pins.

Penetrating one's own body with diagnostic instruments is a risky borderline experience. Meret Oppenheim and later Isa Genzken had their skulls X-rayed in profile. Pipilotti Rist has had the inside of her body filmed endoscopically, though, as I see it, protected by the irony of the camera image. Hatoum's installation Corps étranger (1994) - a longstanding wish eventually realised at the Centre Pompidou - combines close-ups of the body's surface with intrusions into every orifice. It is in every respect a visceral journey: an excursion into the morphological unknown of the interior, complemented by sound recordings, an audiovisual journal of an inner beyond in which all symbolic detachment meets its limits. Here, I would just like to touch on the issue of the spectator's involvement. Once the camera eye - itself a corps étranger - has entered the body - another corps étranger - the spectator becomes an uneasy witness, caught on the narrow rim of a deepening crevice as though the floor itself had been shifted to the upper edge, and drawn into the circular projection of images of a body that, even as a corps étranger, is a physically tangible reflection of our own lives. This subject shift leaves us with the disturbing feeling that our own bodies are not unaffected by what is happening in the body of another. We are surrounded by quadrophonic speakers that make it difficult for us, standing there as we are with our own bodies in the midst of it all, to associate the sounds with the images, and each spectator experiences it differently, depending on whether this view into the body of the opposite sex - again, a corps etranger - or indeed into the body of another of the same sex is perceived as fascinating or repulsive, and also on whether anyone else -any other corps étranger- is present as a witness in the room. The feelings this triggers defy description. They are ineffable. Our sense of shock at discovering something beyond a symbolic order cannot be expressed or shared in words. The possibility of experiencing it without words and sharing it physically is provided by the carefully considered form of the installation, which is entered through two narrow apertures, axially aligned.

Hatoum has taken a similarly stringent approach of remarkable subtlety in a piece which forms the male counterpart to Corps étranger. In Testimony (1995-2002) there is no penetration. Instead, the view is from the outside and instead of looking down we look ahead. In a darkened room, a video projector on a socle casts a moving image on the wall at short distance. It is a circular detail of a scrotum, its skin reacting to minimal changes in temperature, set in shadow like stars seen in a gloomy night sky, with a simultaneity of proximity and distance that bears no relation whatsoever to a pornographic close-up. In Ancient Rome, men appearing in court would place a hand on one testicle when taking an oath. Hence the title Testimony, which subtly shifts this memory, to which we are witnesses.

Deep Throat (1996) without emphasising gender, blends humour with uneasiness: on a table set for one, the plate is used to serve up not food, but images from an endoscopic video of the digestive tract.

Hatoum's incredibly tender, ephemerally fleeting yet meditative objects do not stand in contradiction to the dangerous territory trodden by her risky, provocatively shocking and menacing works. On the contrary, I find them mutually enhancing as opposite sides of an alert and courageous mind.

On a small weaving loom similar to one the artist herself used as a child, she has woven pieces barely the size of a palm using human hair, sometimes her own: Unfitted (hair grid with knots) (2001) and Untitled (grey hair grid with knots) (2001). The ephemeral grid of hair, hardly a material easily woven, has been painstakingly fixed before being removed from the supporting frame of the loom, at which point its tautness relaxes slightly. The warp and weft of this unusual yarn can be followed with the eye, starting at the top right and ending at the lower left with a rolled-up or wavy hair that hangs down as though the fabric were a temporary interruption of a freefall through the endless void, as though this fragile something were borne along by nothingness. In an extremely calm and meditative installation at the Beguinage St. Elisabeth in Kortrijk, little balls of the artist's own hair, which she had collected over the years and shaped with great tenderness into tiny spheres, were loosely scattered on the floor like stellar constellations. They are shaped with such infinite care as though a mysterious breath of gentle wind had wrapped them like an ethereal shell around an empty core. In the sublimity of their transience and fragility, they bear an affinity with the woven hair. One year later, in Why not squeeze, Hatoum placed two of these almost weightless balls of hair in a birdcage. The title and the work itself are a reference to Duchamp's birdcage Why not sneeze, Rrose Sélavy, whereby the pun is more than just a witty play on words. Things so fragile tend to trigger destructive urges; it is the art of remembrance and the task of civilisation to resist these urges. To keep something of oneself in this way combines the intimate with the public, the fragility of self with the fragility of culture.

This intimate and meditative act of keeping something that has been removed from one's own body, and giving it a new form at a certain remove of time, harbours a chance: in the balls of hair and woven hair, a loss is transformed into the material moment of a symbolic presence. Self-erasing drawing (1979) with a rake revolving slowly on a circular field of sand can also be regarded in terms of this meditative remove. In 1994, Hatoum created a large public version of this work entitled + and - (shown in Japan and later destroyed). The current exhibition presents a reconstruction of + and - (1994-2004). It is installed in the atrium of the Galerie der Gegenwart, where visitors to the exhibition can look down on it from several floors up, but may also approach it directly. The slowness of the circular movement through the sand, slower still towards the outer edge, does not resolve the paradox of + and -, but expands it in time.

The same meditation on the transience or endangerment of form is found in Hatoum's recent drawings, created in 2003 for her exhibition in Oaxaca, Mexico: Hair Drawing, Skin, nail and hair, Blood Drawing, and Unfilled (brain) as well as Hand Made Paper. The first of these have hair, others have a shred of skin, a single fingernail and dried blood on little strips of paper mixed directly into the paper pulp. For the last two, Mona Hatoum developed a new technique of embroidering the screen. The drawing appears as a subtle relief, ephemeral as a watermark - albeit created by an inverse technique - on the paper that she has carefully peeled from the screen once it dried.

Many of Hatoum's works self-evidently address the dramatic situation of the Other with great care and keen observation. One work that springs to mind in this respect is Present Tense (1996), a field of soap bars, of the kind still made today from pure olive oil by Palestinian artisans in Nablus. The scattering of disconnected territories into which Palestinians were pushed by the Oslo Agreement is mapped out on the soap in tiny red beads. As we try to follow these dotted boundary lines like so many droplets, we lose track of them, and move along the fringes of islands as though on paths that carry the here and now along with them instead of cutting through it. In Routes II (2002) rounded segments have been shaded in between the curved lines of the flight routes abstractly spanned across countries and continents, bringing the airspace to life as though it were filled with gently billowing sails.

In Traffic (2002) we are horrified to discover two bunches of women's hair spilling onto the floor out of the two shabby suitcases that are standing close together. Shocked at seeing this hair 'in the wrong place', we are left wondering where these suitcases might be taken by customs officers, just what kind of traffic is involved here, and how the cases and hair came to be divided or duplicated in the first place. Another work that addresses the theme of the Other is Drowning Sorrows (2001) with its tenderly empathetic, clownishly tottering array of sliced-off tequila carteritas or flasks of the kind that some poor devils in Latin America still carry around in their hip pockets, albeit uncut and half full. So too does Every Door a Wall (2003), in which a fine voile curtain is printed with a newspaper report showing the X-ray scan of illegal immigrants smuggled inside a truck.

Hung in a corridor, where the work and the information it contains can be easily 'pushed aside' by the visitor, it illustrates the extinction of these figures, captured by an eyeless, technically invasive gaze and reduced to schematic negatives, before they are forcibly deported to their mandatory homeland.

Mona Hatoum: The Entire World as a Foreign Land - the title of the exhibition at Tate Britain refers to a remark by Edward Said, with whom the artist discussed exile and home. According to Said, 'The exile knows that in a secular and contingent world, homes are always provisional. Borders and barriers, which enclose us within the safety of familiar territory, can also become prisons.'1 I would like to take up this point in order to add a further angle to my theme of Being Involved. The Entire World as a Foreign Land: even 'home' is an exile, the first in which we are expelled from a mythical paradise that lives on in our collective or individual imagination. The second exile as a forced move to a foreign land opens up the wound of the first exile, but also provides a chance - admittedly an immensely difficult one - of confronting the issue, whereas the invisible wound of the suppressed first exile can have hauntingly unresolved and devastating consequences. The question here is how these exiles correlate in the depths of experience and whether they might even be linked to a third exile - the exile of gender or sexual identity, which might lead out a myth-making lack of differentiation by way of struggles that are anything but harmless.

Translation from the German by Ishbel Klett

Note

1 Edward Said, 'Reflections on Exile", in Grancu 13: After the Revolution, September 1984. Cited in exb. eat. The Entire World as a Foreign Land, London, 2000, p. 36.

© Ursula Panhans-Bühler and Hamburger Kunsthalle

First published in Mona Hatoum, exhibition Catalogue, Hamburger Kunsthalle et al, Hatje Cantz, 2004