Mona Hatoum: Dislocation, Materiality and the Uncanny

Stefan513593 - A3 - Representation and Interpretation no5 - developing A3

Mona Hatoum (b. 1952) works often in the realm of psychological encounters of the familiar, with common objects for daily use from home, with the experience of architectural structures. All that in order to instabilise experiences with reference to Surrealism and Freud‘s conception of the un-canny and the un-homely (White, 2017:19-25). 

She works with opposing materiality characteristics (e.g. Silence, 1994) or with opposing markings (e.g Frottage (Wee House 23 April 17) 4, 2017)

‘Mona Hatoum’s art is, therefore, difficult to bear and yet terribly lucid’ – Said, 2011

One aspect in her body of work fascinates me: the rather simple and reductive way she visually expresses her ideas, e.g. You are still here, 2013, a wall mirror with the title written on it, or the mentioned Frottage. Works that play somehow with the visual and it linguistic, one idea , one material, one surface, and the meaning in the space in-between, only there because of the viewer‘s thinking, reflecting and de-coding facilities. These works could be considered as artistic gestures, or as White described them as ‚anxiety-producing gestures‘ (p. 23). The engagement with her materialised gestures of uncertainty might then open up wider spaces of political and social conditions of uncertainty and homelessness.

There are two further aspects in her work that apparently informed her approach as well the audience response to her work. On the one hand, her biography as being grown up in a Palestinian family with a emigration to the UK after the outbreak of the Lebanon war in 1975. Alongside, the traumatic experience of dislocation. On the other hand, the conception of ‚Terra Infirma‘ (the title of her exhibition 2018 and the book) an analogy to the term ‚Terra firma‘ used at the time of Columbus for unknown, undiscovered solids landmass. But more in a sense of the post-modern description by visual culture critic Irit Rogoff when ‚we no longer believe in ..assumptions of authority‘ , loss of traditional navigational principles of mapping, and a sense of ‚unbelonging‘ that can open space for new meaning (in: White, 2017:28). I find the visuality of maps related to land, and the reversal of it that what was once known, or supposed to be known, becomes unstable and falls apart. Hatoum expressed this in her earlier works rather literally, eg. by using objects from the war region. Her later works became more reductive and possibly more linguistic, less didactic. Also with a broader sense of possible interpretations. The interpretation of a Palestinian displacement turns into ‚diverse conditions of placelessness.‘ (p.31).

Personally, I find those approaches that could open up wider spaces and different readings by the viewer more intriguing. Perhaps, because I went myself through various cycles of migration, loss, instability, and uncertainty. And a more psychological encounter with art works seems more fascinating (my art therapy practice coming across). It has also something to do with the way we as a viewer engages and read an art work, an object, an Installation: with the extreme ends of to easy to decipher or not to  be able to read at all (see my previous research on narrative ). And this certainly depends on viewer, the cultural setting, and mostly the prevailing social epistems as Foucault described the way we obtain and perceive knowledge (at times all works could be read from a Modernist high art, a post-structuralist, a racial, a feminist, or any other prevailing perspective).

‘Real art has the capacity to make us nervous.‘ – Susan Sonntag (1966) Against Interpretations and Other Essays, pp.7-8

I can see a relationship between e.g. Hatoum‘s Keffieh, 1993-94 (p.30)  and Angela de la Cruz Deflated (Green), 2010 or Self, 1997. A cotton fabric with hair installed on a chair on the one side, painted canvas displaced from a frame or context installed in space. Both do work with conventional connotations and deferred linguistic meanings. Both do use surface in its materiality. What is left aside is a quick read of content, even void of content in some way.

White described the approach to Hatoum‘s quite compelling as ‚physical sensations that rise the viewers‘ bodies as uncomfortable conduits for the formation of meaning. It is a visceral process that complicates distinctions between ‚us‘ and ‚them‘.‘ (pp.31-32).

It is this physicality and mental encounter with works that fascinates me and that I would like to embed in my own work. One question certainly how this could be achieved when most of the work I am doing in OCA coursework are screenbased, viewed online, virtually, as a digital reproduction? Would love to get some ideas and feedback on that.

‘For me, the embodiment of an artwork is within the physical realm; the body is the axis of our perceptions, so how can art afford not to take that as the starting point?‘ – Mona Hatoum, 2016

In that sense, I find her Corps étranger, 1994 (pp.34-35) very fascinating. It is an installation of a chamber to enter with an endoscopic video projection (through the artist’s orifices and inside the digestive tract) onto the floor where the viewer stands. A very visceral encounter with medical imaging technique, something to keep in my mind for my parallel project. Other works that embrace medical imaging technique and a relation to surveillance in reference to Foucault’s metaphorical use of the panopticon are: Don’t smile, you are on camera (1980) and Cells (2014) – (pp. 156-161). The first, combing with life feed video images of the audience mixed with x-ray and naked images leaving the viewer uncertain what is reality and what is visible. The latter a more metaphorical reference to the smallest  living units of human beings, in crimson red to connect with blood as the fluid of life, and placed in metal cages installed in the open gallery space, placing the viewer into a surveiller position. It is this playing with associations and connotations that give rise to unsettling sensations of displacement. 

If find these visceral encounters with material and its conventions very compelling, e.g. her work made of barb wire Impenetrable, 2009 (pp. 100-102) suspended from the ceiling but not touching the floor like a curtain inviting to go through with the awareness that it will hurt. I do sense that they are based in research of what is out there, and with ideas what could be different. A combination rather than a juxtaposition, a merging together rather than illustrating. 

I enjoyed listening to the insight of her practice (Tate, 2016) and how she engages and collects materials, objects when being either on art residences or when travelling to some places. Also an interesting aspect to hear that she replaced sketchbooks with notebooks, as she found sketchbooks ‘too heavy to carry around, too serious’. She carries now a smaller one, spiral bound in her purse.  Something, that I do, small and larger sketchbooks in my ‘mobile suitcase studio’. I am wondering how she differentiates between sketchbooks and notebooks, by size, by thickness of paper? And what if I would replace paper books with a digital tablet? By that decades of works that would fill my shelves could fit into one thing, with a constant weight. I am not sure that I am ready for it, certainly would miss the visceral experience of paper sketching (drawing, painting, note-taking). A nostalgia or the core of my practice?

Take away learnings

  • Combine conventions of materiality with new sensibilities and meaning.
  • Art as a visceral encounter opening up new mental images
  • Reductive versus literal approach in handling material
  • Collecting material as research 


  • Featured image: My painting in developing assignment 3, Representation and Interpretation no5


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  • Apr 4,2019 at 10:53 AM

    The hand image work is all interesting … my own course has asked for a series of 3 figurative self-portrait prints, and I’m ending up with my hands filling more of the space than my head.

    • Stefan
      Apr 5,2019 at 5:18 AM

      Isn‘t it? Hand is so emotional attached to being human .

    • Stefan
      Apr 25,2019 at 1:17 PM

      just looked at them – yes, hands seem to be an portalk, an entry point to a person

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