Art & Design: Blurred visions worthy of the Turner Prize

Mona Hatoum: The Museum of Modern Art, Oxford
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Mona Hatoum: The Museum of Modern Art, Oxford

YOU enter, by a slit at the side, this cylindrical chamber, which is like a little rotunda or space capsule. It's dark inside, and there's room for about six people, and you have to hug the wall, because at your feet there's a circular screen, a sort of magic mirror, showing one of the most eye-opening, mouth-opening video sequences you're ever likely to see. A camera is moving very close over the skin of a human body - a woman's it turns out - scanning every inch of its surface, probing its hollows, nosing into nostrils and ears, poking around navel and eyeballs, and then, when it comes to the major orifices, mouth, anus, vagina, suddenly plunging inside, tunnelling deeply, having a really good look round the caves and corridors of the digestive and reproductive systems, then coming out again and moving on to further explorations. Wow.

This is Mona Hatoum's Corps etranger (1994). It is the artist's own body to which a surgical endoscopic camera is being granted such generous access, and which we in our capsule are travelling over and into so giddily. The body is indeed estranged. The super-intimate, magnifying perspective takes you beyond any idea of an individual person, and beyond voyeurism too. You experience it, not as a body but as an enormous land, a planet - except that you lose too any sense of a physical object with outsides and insides. It becomes rather a continuous and endless surface, unfolding and enveloping. It's a sublime spectacle, and certainly the highlight of Hatoum's retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford.

It's about time she had one. Hatoum is mid-forties, a Palestinian born in the Lebanon, based in London since 1975. For the last decade she's been a growing figure on the art stage. She missed winning the Turner Prize three years ago, and probably will win it this year (on the strength of this show). That would be a perfectly OK decision. Her sculptures and installations often deal with flesh and instruments, with torments and beauties, but unlike some of the younger Young British Artists, she isn't any sort of wanker. She has a very serious and various body of work behind her. A good selection of it is here. She's definitely a proper artist. And in a moment I'm going to say "but..." Not quite yet though.

It can be tempting to read Hatoum's work by her biography - Palestinian in exile - with appropriate political references and commitments. But this is not directly to the point. True, some pieces do invoke power and imprisonment and torture. There's another, larger installation, Light Sentence (1992) which has a locker-room formation of iron cages in the middle of a room, lit by a single dangling bulb which rises and falls in the middle of them, casting an ominous lattice of moving shadows. But the thought is quite general, a possible association rather than any specific reference.

What's more, Hatoum's work is riven with ambiguities, revels in them, calculates them cunningly. I'm not sure whether this openness to interpretation is quite the strength it's sometimes made out to be. At any rate, it's quite possible to extract very `undesirable' meanings from these ambiguities - for instance, that being in prison is spiritually liberating or that being tortured is a turn-on - and the work does nothing to prevent it. It requires good will from the viewer not to do so. But that isn't the problem. Or it might be a problem, if there weren't a more basic one, which is simple but devastating, which puts all the potential virtues in abeyance. For the thing is with most of Hatoum's work here, in fact with everything apart from the amazing Corps etranger, well, you can see what it's up to, what it ought to be doing, what the idea is, and that it's probably a good idea - but the desired effect just doesn't happen.

Take two floor pieces, Entrails Carpet and Pin Carpet (both 1995). The first is a large silicon rubber mat, moulded in the form of a field of curling intestines. The other is a large tightly packed rectangular bed of thin nails.

Now evidently some quite complex meanings are in the offing, in the relationship between carpets, which may be comforts or things to be trodden on, and the stuff which these carpets are made of. You can see that, but you do need to feel it, too - feel that the entrail forms are yucky and vulnerable and that the pins are dangerous and frightening. These responses are essential ingredients - but absent.

Too often, the effect depends on something being disturbing, and it's not. Or, with Socle du Monde (1992), there's a technical surprise which steals all the show. This is a flattened cube, five feet high, again covered with a curly intestinal configuration, fashioned, it seems, from dark grey fur. But then you discover that this is no solid substance. It's the result of pure magnetism. A heavy coating of iron filings is held in this formation by magnetised metal plates - an extraordinary illusion it is, and an extraordinary trouvee, too, on the artist's part, to realise that magnetism can produce this form and this texture. But there the mind stops. The force of the illusion, the trouvee, the thought that you could pull the stuff away in handfulls, diverts any further reflection.

There's nothing wrong with the conceptions, with the vision, the themes. But every time, when it comes to the experience itself, one way or another, you're having to take the will for the deed. Worth seeing, to be sure. Probably worth giving the Turner Prize too. But a strange sort of phantom art it is, all the same.

Museum of Modern Art, 30 Pembroke Street, Oxford; until 28 June (closed Mondays); admission pounds 2.50 (concs, pounds 1.50).

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