Mona Hatoum herself greets visitors twice to her show at the Centre Pompidou. The first is an unsettling welcome: a still freezes on a gagged Hatoum, tugging at male hands that conceal her mouth. A female voice-over repeats, “So much I want to say,” the title of the 1983 video. The second salutation is text-based: the billboard, Over my Dead Body (1988–2002) is a dual attack, one on gender roles and the other, Hatoum tells me, “to remind people that there were still conventional wars everywhere.”
This survey exhibition comes 21 years after Hatoum’s first at the same institution, when the Pompidou acquired several pieces by the Palestinian artist. That initial exhibition came about largely thanks to the eye of the museum’s curator, Christine Van Assche, who discovered Hatoum in the 1990s—some 15 years after she settled in London following the outbreak of civil war in her native Lebanon. “She was different. Her political engagement was interesting, especially as not a lot was known about art from that part of the world,” says Van Assche. In 1994, she commissioned Hatoum to create Corps étranger, “Mona’s portrait from the inside,” as she calls it. The work is an elaborate medical peek inside the artist’s body and was inspired by a fascination with surveillance. “Her work goes through all contemporary movements: performance, Minimalism, Surrealism, Conceptual art, and video,” says Van Assche. “Not many artists can do that.”
There is no overarching theme, concept, or chronology to the show, and overall, a handful of Hatoum’s seminal pieces are missing. Some were either on loan or refused to be loaned. According to Hatoum, the curator also angled the exhibition away from the sculptural side of her practice. Among the complete set of works by Hatoum from the Pompidou’s collection currently on view is the dizzying Light Sentence (1992) comprised of a single light bulb hanging between stacked wire mesh lockers.
Some of the preliminary highlights are the medieval, minimalist, and claustrophobic Cube (2006), and Present Tense (1996–2011). The latter is the first of perhaps too many maps in the show but is outstanding for its beaded outline of the 1993 Oslo Peace Agreement on 2,200 blocks of traditional Palestinian soap. (How very Carl Andre in its Minimalism and how poetic in its hopeful message that soap might wash away these borders of confinement.) Hatoum is loath to interpreting her work within the precincts of her background. Nonetheless, some pieces distinctly do so, such as the performances Under Siege (1982) and The Negotiating Table (1983).
The artist says she “resisted” presenting so many maps. Van Assche, on the other hand, was eager to present several because, “I want the public to see her as an international artist who cares about the world and not place her within one culture.” One show-stopping map whose location Hatoum visualized from the get-go is the grand and anxiety-inducing Map (clear) (2014) of clear glass marbles, an installation that takes up the largest space of the exhibition. “I knew I had to show it against the Paris skyline,” she says.
By the time one has arrived at Map (clear), a sense of intimidation has manifested through domestic objects-turned-human-apparatus in the graters, Grater Divide (2002) and Daybed (2008) and through Quarters (1996), where refugees or prisoners may lay stacked. Socle du Monde (1992–93), an homage to Piero Manzoni’s work of the same name, is arresting. Obviously minimalist, there is an air of gruesomeness about it, as though it reeks of something putrid, when in fact the monumental cube is covered with iron fillings that look intestinal. Its proximity to Quarters and Map (clear) poses an uncomfortable narrative.
The show’s energy is charged here through more pieces, such as Keffieh (1993–99), Hatoum’s take on a traditional male Palestinian headdress but sewn with female hair; and Hot Spot (2013), a steel globe whose continents are outlined in red neon to convey that the whole planet—and possibly the shared doom of global warming—is infernal. This is the physical heart of the show, where Home (1999) ironically resides; kitchen utensils buzz and light up from an electric wire. “I don’t like to build rooms, but we had to here,” says Hatoum of the space housing Home as well as a year’s amount of the artist’s fingernails in One Year (2006) (2007) and Silence (1994), a fragile glass baby cot made of laboratory tubes. Another baby cot, Incommunicado (1993), made in steel with wires in place of a mattress, is also shown in the same block.
One fears being swallowed by the tentacles of the giant floor piece, Undercurrent (red) (2008), which lays, notably, near the Surrealist Jardin Public (1993), a classic French garden chair with a triangle of Hatoum’s pubic hair on its seat. “Someone told me Victor Hugo kept his hair,” laughs Van Assche. It’s a light ending to a heavy show, easing off the pressure created by Hatoum’s other 109 works on view. They suck one in as fast as quicksand and leave one transfixed with thought.
Next year, the Pompidou show goes to the Tate, albeit in smaller scale, and a traveling show will kick off from the Menil Collection on a U.S. tour. Ahead of its travel, on August 26th, a show of works by Hatoum from the Barbara Lee Collection opens at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. (The artist notes that she was not involved with the exhibition.) These days, Hatoum is in the tranquil landscape of north Seattle completing a residency at the Pilchuck Glass School. “I’m in the forest in a cabin and I try to get back by 9pm every night—otherwise it gets too dark and everyone is afraid of hungry bears,” she laughed over the phone. That is funny for a fearless artist.