ARTS: THE INSIDE STORY

Despite displaying videos of her internal tracts at the Tate, Turner Prize nominee Mona Hatoum is a deeply private person. Marianne Macdonald was granted a rare interview

IF ONLY ONE could be a serious artist these days without having to talk to the press. Since Mona Hatoum was shortlisted for the 1995 Turner Prize last month, she has been besieged by requests for interviews. This may not pose a problem for her fellow shortlistee, Damien Hirst, who can be seen prancing across the September issues of both Vanity Fair and Esquire (in which he poses naked with his baby and girlfriend) - but it does for Hatoum. Thirteen years ago she swore she would never again talk to the press, and ever since she has stuck to her oath religiously.

Times have changed, however, and now that she is notorious for having fed cameras into her orifices for Corps etranger, the video work which the Tate is presently displaying, it has become impossible for her to refuse to do at least one interview. I know this, because a spokeswoman at the Tate explained it was a kind of quid pro quo - artists who get nominated for the prize come under fairly strict pressure to give an interview in return. So here I am, walking up Mona Hatoum's cracked concrete path in Clapton, east London, for her first ever interview.

Exhaustive searches through the cuttings have convinced me that Hatoum hasn't spoken to the press about herself before, and I am intrigued to know why. It turns out that she has never forgiven the media for the kerfuffle which attended virtually her first public performance, at Portsmouth in 1982, when she appeared naked - although she is at pains to point out that her body was barely visible - in a sort of transparent box, smeared inside with clay. This work was called Under Siege, and may have acted as a metaphor for her life at the time (she was constantly slipping over inside her box) - but the tabloids had a field day anyway. They ran all sorts of stories about naked, writhing women and Arts Council grants. This seems to me a fairly par-for-the-course approach, but for her the memory still sears. "The headlines were really awful, really obscene," she recalls, wincing with visible humiliation.

We are talking inside her small flat, which she has bought after years of living in the cheapest rented accommodation. The sitting room has stripped- pine floors, with not much furniture: a desk with a fax and telephone, a battered chest of drawers painted cream, and a kelim floor- cushion. However, as I walk in, Hatoum is careful to warn me not to touch what looks like a perfectly innocent prayer mat. This, like so much of her work, turns out to have a dangerous quality: the pile of the mat is made up of pins pointing upward, which she says took four weeks to insert. I am busy trying to imagine how tedious this task must have been when she whips down two cuddly toys that are sitting on her loudspeaker. "I had a child round here yesterday," she explains, adding to herself in a rueful sotto voce: "How embarrassing."

For someone who so avoids publicity, Hatoum has a surprisingly strong public image as a sort of harpy or Valkyrie. This is reinforced both by her work and the photographs which often accompany her reviews: she looks dark and defensive, her hair streaming down her back, her lipstick an uncompromising red. In person she comes across as quite the opposite: open and extremely charming, with considerable beauty. Her wavy hair glints with chestnut lights, her lipstick turns out to be crushed cranberry and on her feet she wears little leather sandals of the kind I always imagined Rider Haggard's She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed to sport. She also has a quality of serenity about her, which stems partly from meditation, partly from her happy relationship (with Gerry, a musician) and partly, she says, from an accident four years ago in which she broke her hip. "I used to think I was invincible," she says, "but when I had the accident I had to stay in bed for four months, and that changed a lot of my priorities. I've become a much calmer person."

She is certainly less driven than she was. Hatoum worked non-stop before her accident, on top of teaching and socialising (she tends to stay up late, although she does not drink). She says she "was bulldozing my way through life". Now she is aware of her mortality. "And age, as well," she reflects. "I'm not as young as I used to be."

She is in fact 43; her boyfriend, who lives with her, is 39 ("almost 40"). They met eight years ago when he was working in a gallery in Ontario; she says, in a flash of wicked amusement, that she thought him a provincial geek, and he thought her "a bitch from hell". She and Gerry managed over the years to meet somewhere in the middle - unlike previous boyfriends who had been unable to be gracious about her success. Now they have been together for two years, people ask whether they plan to have children. To this her answer is: "I'm a child myself - how can I?" Are you? I ask, and she says, endearingly, "Yes, I think I am."

It must be said that the evidence points the other way. Ever since Hatoum, who was brought up by her Palestinian parents in Lebanon, was stranded at the age of 23 in London while on holiday (she came in June 1975, just before civil war broke out in Lebanon) she has shown extraordinary discipline. Because the universities and airport in Beirut closed, she was unable to take the fine art degree at Beirut University she had signed up for. So she decided, faute de mieux, to study in London. She got herself a place at the Byam Shaw School of Art, found herself a bedsit and took numerous ill-paid jobs to pay the fees.

These included cleaning restaurants and baby-sitting; but the most surreal was her employment as a shop assistant at Top Shop in Oxford Circus. It is hard to imagine the intelligent and thoughtful Hatoum, now so feted by the contemporary art world, selling teenagers boob tubes and flares in that cavernous basement fashion store, but she did - for years and years. "Oh God, it was horrible!" she recalls, clutching her forehead.

In those early days she seems to have lived for her art, working obsessively, surviving on the income from Top Shop and, later, the dole. Meanwhile she was studying, first at the Byam Shaw, then at the Slade where, miraculously, she got a government grant. The Slade offered her her first taste of the English class system, because many of its students were (and still are) upper-middle class. Naturally they rejected Hatoum, so she teamed up with two other non-U northerners and ignored the snobs.

Throughout this rather unhappy period - while her parents were under constant fire in Beirut and in serious danger of losing their lives - Hatoum's mother Claire was writing to her. Hatoum used these letters seven years ago, in a video work called Measures of Distance. Extracts from them are read over stills and close-ups of her mother's voluptuously naked body. I watched this before I met her, when I was under the impression that she was a spiky and intimidating person, and my image of her underwent a sea change. "My dear Mona, the apple of my eyes, how I miss you and how I long to feast my eyes on your beautiful face," one begins. "When you were here the whole house was lit up by your presence."

Another describes a rather farcical episode when Hatoum's father woke from his afternoon nap to find Hatoum and her mother stark naked in the bathroom (they were taking the pictures for Measures of Distance). He was horrified. A later letter talks about Hatoum's first period. "I must say I am surprised you remember every word I said on that afternoon, although I suppose it's a very important incident in a little girl's life and it seems to have created an identity crisis for you," she wrote. Later she inquires: "I cannot understand this expression `lie back and think of England'. Do they believe that women are not supposed to enjoy sex?"

At one point in their correspondence Hatoum accused her mother of not being there for her during her childhood. This seems to be the result of her parents' horrific history. Just as Hatoum was exiled in 1975 in London, so her parents were exiled in 1948 from Palestine by the fighting which broke out between the Arabs and Jews after the creation of Israel. There were reports that the Zionist forces were massacring the Palestinians, so her mother - then pregnant with one of her sisters - and her father, Joseph, fled. They could never go back.

"You say you can't remember that I was around when you were a child," her mother wrote. "Yes, things were very difficult for you and your sisters because before we ended up in Lebanon we were living in our own land in a village with all our family and friends around us, always willing to lend us a hand. We felt happy and secure, and it was paradise compared to where we are now. So if I seemed to be always irritable and impatient it was because life was very hard for us when we first left Palestine."

Her parents' dispossession is a subject which has obsessed Hatoum, although she is hesitant to talk about it. "In Arabic there is a saying which means that for an Arab man the chastity of his wife and daughters comes before land," she says, "and the rumours were that they were disemboweling pregnant women. They were probably just rumours, I don't know: people have said it was a propaganda stunt to make a lot of Arabs forget about their land, forget about their property, forget about everything, just pick up their stuff and leave - "

She breaks off, and, without warning, begins to weep. "I'm sorry, can you - " she says, and I turn off the tape recorder. "I don't know why ... " she says. "I don't know why I am talking about this, I never talk about this with anyone."

HATOUM was luckier than many Palestinians in that she did not have to live in the refugee camps, but it was still a difficult childhood. Hatoum herself lived in a proper house because her father, who in Palestine had worked his way up from porter to a high position in the customs service, found work in the British Embassy. (He was a British citizen and was later made an MBE.) But even so, they had less money than the middle-class Lebanese girls Hatoum was educated with, and she was mocked for her accent.

She had other problems to contend with as well. One was that her parents were trying for a boy when she came along, five years into their exile in Beirut. (Her name - pronounced "Monna" - means "wish" in Arabic, which must have felt like a cruel reminder.) She seems to have felt she had to compensate, by becoming a tomboy and helping her father with his stamp collection. Later, Joseph was dead set against her becoming an artist and refused to support her through university. Hatoum recalls: "He was concerned he couldn't support me because he was retiring from his job, but it was an enormous disappointment."

One wonders if she resents the fact that her father did, however, fund her elder sister Rima's graduate study. Hatoum is such a nice person that she doesn't say so, but any child might have found such treatment hard. Now, Hatoum says, Rima is high up in the Florida State Department of Education; the middle sister, Leila, is a mother-of-three in Montreal.

It took Hatoum eight years to qualify as an artist, including the graphic design course she took in Beirut to please her father, and this quality of patience is apparent in her work. She had the idea for Corps etranger when she was a student at the Slade, but it was only when she put on her solo show last year at the prestigious Pompidou Centre that she managed to make it happen.

The idea was to video her internal organs, then project the resultant images onto the floor of a small temple-like structure with two slot- like doorways (as can be seen at the Tate). The Pompidou curator enthusiastically found her a doctor, and she sallied in high delight to the operating theatre. Most people are revolted by the idea of sticking cameras up their orifices, but Hatoum enjoyed the experience enormously, asking the doctor to go deeper and repeat the techniques when the pictures turned out wrong.

Career-wise, the Pompidou exhibition is equivalent to being shortlisted for the Turner, but one suspects she is more ambivalent about the latter. "I feel like I've been working in this country for 20 years, but I've had more encouragement abroad. This is approval from home," she says.

She adds that before the nomination she didn't have a clue who made the selections or how the winner was announced, and the thought of the televised presentation dinner (as she has discovered it to be) petrifies her. She claims she isn't thinking about whether she will win or not in November, but admits that the pounds 25,000 prize money would come in handy.

She works at the flat in which we are sitting, as well as at her studio over the road. Above the prayer mat I had avoided earlier sits a torso wearing a necklace made from balls of her hair. This, she explains, is destined for the window of Cartier in Bordeaux. "I like the idea of it being in the Cartier window with all the expensive jewellery around it, like the sacred and the profane."

Other works have sprung from common phrases - such as The Light at the End of six years ago, when she hung electrified bars in a tunnel-shaped gallery space in east London - and one suspects the rumours of disembowelment which so terrified her mother also inform her work. Aside from Corps etranger, examples include Changing Parts, a 1984 video in which dissolve shots of her parents' bathroom in Beirut, played to the sound of Bach's Cello Suite No 4, give way to bursts of static and disturbing images of Hatoum's body. "Often in my work there are two sides of the coin. On the one hand you have the body of a woman being debased. On the other hand the body bites back at you," she says.

As we have been talking she has relaxed noticeably, but now we start talking about herself again she suddenly gets defensive. "This is all extremely personal," she accuses me. "I have to bring this up. I have to. I just feel like I've revealed so much of myself. I think it's because you're nice. I'm talking to you about all these things and I forget it's going to be out in the papers." I ask her what she has said that she is concerned about, but she agitatedly lights a roll-up and cannot say. When I turn the tape recorder off half an hour later she looks at me in horror, and cries: "God! What have I said!"

! `Corps etranger' can be seen as part of the Tate's "Rites of Passage", SW1, 0171 887 8000, to Sun 3 Sept.

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