Body of work

Why, for an artist who is infamous for using a fibre-optic camera to explore and display her entrails to an audience, does Mona Hatoum find it so hard to open up, asks E Jane Dickson. Photographs by Gautier Deblonde

E. Jane Dickson
Friday 31 July 1998 23:02 BST

Sitting up straight, elbows in, sandalled feet planted firmly on the floor, Mona Hatoum looks as earthed and relaxed as someone on an electric chair. "I have had a bad time with the press," she says, and it could be a supplication or a warning.

In 1982, Hatoum, best-known in those days as a performance artist, produced a work entitled Under Siege. Confined in a thick polythene, clay-smeared cell, the naked artist repeatedly slipped and stumbled. Conceived at a time when Hatoum, fresh out of college and struggling for recognition, "felt like every door was a wall", the work was intended as a personal statement. When, within days of the piece being presented, Israel invaded Beirut, Under Siege took on a note of prophesy for the Lebanese-born artist. Layers of meaning, however, were lost on the tabloids. "Nude has ticket to writhe," leered The Sun. "Taxpayers outraged."

"I never actually met an outraged taxpayer," says Hatoum, and you begin to suspect that under the stiff demeanour there is a teasing humour. Still, she's taking no chances. She has brought along her own pen and paper to the interview. She will, she informs me, like an officer reading me my rights, be taking notes. In fact, the sheet of paper which Hatoum grips like a shield in front of her, remains blank, but her gaze probes and sweeps like a searchlight. Outside her studio, an east London lock-up stacked with standard-issue metal army cots, children shriek like a reminder of innocence. It is an interrogation scene straight out of Len Deighton - you keep expecting a velvet-collared Mr Big to step out of the shadows - but it is not clear who is being interrogated.

"I like to put you in a situation where you don't know whether you're the jailed or the jailer," says Hatoum. Confinement and repression are dominant themes in the touring exhibition of her work, which opens today at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. In Light Sentence, a bare bulb swings menacingly, hypnotically, between banks of wire lockers. In Light at the End, the viewer is drawn down a tunnel-like structure by the promise of freedom, only to find that the "light" is, in fact, an electrical element capable of burning human flesh to the bone. Children's cots (cages?) are turned into allegories of comfortlessness, collapsing in on themselves or strung with razor-sharp a wire. It is tempting to refer these images of brutalisation straight back to the troubles in the Lebanon, but the truth, Hatoum cautions, is more complicated.

"I get upset when people call me Lebanese," she says. "I was born in Beirut. I lived there until I was 23. But I was never given a Lebanese identity card, and in that sort of society if you don't have an identity card, you don't exist."

The Hatoum family were Palestinian Christians, exiled to Beirut in 1948 when fighting broke out between Arabs and Jews following the creation of Israel. In the scramble of the stateless for some kind of tenure, Hatoum's father, who had worked for the British civil service in Palestine, managed to obtain a job at the British embassy, and British passports for his family. "He spent the rest of his life working for Queen and country, a country he would never see. He even became an MBE," says Hatoum with more exasperation than pride. Emotionally Palestinian, officially British, and bought up in a predominantly French culture, Hatoum recalls her "extreme sense of dislocation".

Visiting London in 1975, Hatoum found herself stranded when war broke out in the Lebanon. Cut off from her family, her deracination was complete. Maps make frequent appearances in her work, but the edges never hold. A map of the Oslo Agreement is drawn in soap. A floor map of the world composed of glass marbles is an invitation to a prat-fall, a literalist interpretation of global instability.

"I can't imagine how I would have been if I had grown up securely in a country that accepted me, stayed in that country and had all my childhood friends around me all my life," she says. Even now, the idea seems to have a lulling effect, like a favourite dream replayed. "But I'm not complaining about the way things have turned out. As an outsider everywhere, I will always have at least one more perspective on things than most people and that's no bad thing for an artist."

With nothing but time on her hands, Hatoum signed up for a course at the Byam Shaw art school. The women's movement was in full swing and Hatoum found her flexible perspective stretched to the limits by feminist orthodoxy. "The women's movement was very important to me, professionally and personally, but I never felt that I took on all their principles. I was always questioning and thinking: `OK, these people are fighting for abortion, but a woman in a Palestinian refugee camp wants to have the right to have as many kids as possible because she thinks her sons will be her liberation.' I'm not saying that I had direct experience of camp life, but, still, it's a part of my history."

Hatoum paid her way through Byam Shaw, and, subsequently, the Slade school with a combination of scholarships and badly paid jobs. The worst, she remembers, was the holiday job at Top Shop. "It was hell," she says, and never has the term sounded less figurative. Hatoum has "never been taken in" by religion, but her vision of Hades was clear enough: "Selling knickers six days a week, underground, in a heatwave, in this horrible, noisy place where you had to wear high heels and stand all day and endure all kinds of stupid comments. At the end of the working day, I would go up to the light and start crying because I had had the whole day without sun."

The world at the top of the escalator was scarcely more congenial. "I found - still find - the coldness of life here every difficult. People always think the repressive structures and violence in my work are references to my background in Lebanon, but it's really the experience I've had in the West of uncaring, bureaucratic institutions where people become like machines, constantly under surveillance, where they're talking to you with blank, emotionless, humanless eyes."

There are, however, compensations: "I like the fact that London is a very critical environment. You have to keep trying to surpass yourself. Having said that, London used to be more rigorously critical than it is now - I think the influence of Margaret Thatcher has changed it quite a bit. I don't want to get into making judgements about the Young British Art movement. Let's say that the younger generation have very different goals and attitudes."

She is too dignified to say it, but you suspect that Hatoum mistrusts the Damien Hirst tendency, with its schlock tactics and its shameless rapprochement to the old enemy, the media. Shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1995, she was pipped at the post by Hirst. Hatoum was hotly tipped for this year's prize on the strength of the current show, which garnered critical support at Oxford's Museum of Modern Art in April. The shortlist came and went, however, and Hatoum is mightily relieved to be out of the running. "You have to go on television," she says. "You are expected," she goes on, dropping her voice like a scandalised aunt dismissing trouble "down below", "to make yourself available".

This squeamishness is in extreme contrast to the actual matter of Hatoum's work. Her most celebrated piece is undoubtedly Corps Etranger (1994), in which she opened herself, quite literally, to inspection. Using the latest fibre-optic technology, a tiny video camera explored the contours to the artist's body, nosing and burrowing like a lover or a maggot, before plunging at breakneck speed down her throat and up through her vagina and anus, taking the viewer on a white-knuckle ride of Hatoum's glistening, gurgling guts. The image was projected onto the floor of a cylindrical chamber entered by a narrow slit. Women found it fascinating. Some men said it felt like rape.

"It didn't hurt at all," says Hatoum, airily. "I had a drug that dulled the pain and I remained completely conscious, directing the video. It was something I had wanted to do for so long - ever since I was a student - but I'd had a lot of trouble finding a doctor willing to do it. You're not supposed to operate on a healthy body or something. Eventually, the Pompidou Centre in Paris used their clout to waive the formalities and the `intervention' was done in France."

The English, says Hatoum, are seriously lacking in bodily awareness and a sizeable part of her oeuvre over the years has been devoted to "confronting the facts of our physicality". During her experimental stage, she would collect her pubic hair and mix it, along with nail clippings and bodily fluids, into a pulp to make paper. "I was fascinated by human discards," she explains. "I wanted to take this thing that is despised in Western culture and make something out of it."

Latterly, her interest in discards has been confined to her works made with human hair. For an installation in a Belgian beguinage (a kind of lay community of women), she set up a hand loom with cloth woven from her own hair, scattered hundreds of hairballs about the floor and draped single hairs knotted together over beams. The idea was to create a kind of obstacle course, whereby in picking your way through the hairballs to get to the loom, you would find your head and shoulders strafed by ghost-train cobwebs of hair.

"The hair thing was getting out of hand," admits Hatoum. "I'd been collecting my own hair from combs and plugholes for six years and making hairballs which I kept under the bed in shoe boxes. My husband, Gerry [a Canadian musician], was getting fed up; hairballs kept escaping and turning up all over the flat. In the end, the only way to stop it was to cut my hair short."

The preoccupation with viscera, however, remains. One of the highlights of the Edinburgh show ("please don't call it a retrospective, it's more of a mid-career survey") is Entrails Carpet. Held within a rectangular frame, yards and yards of pinkish opalescent latex tubing are looped and coiled like the aftermath of a massacre. Hatoum has previously suggested that her obsession with entrails goes back to rumours her mother heard about Zionist soldiers disembowelling pregnant women, but it is not something she wants to pursue. "I don't want to look like I'm capitalising on someone else's experience," she says scrupulously.

It is a strange aesthetic that forbids disgust but defies celebration. Like much of Hatoum's work, Entrails Carpet is perversely enticing. "You should want to walk on it with bare feet," prompts Hatoum, but the idea is no sooner voiced than it becomes repulsive.

"I like to play with paradox, to provoke," says Hatoum. "There is a naughty little girl in me that has never really gone away." It is surprising statement from a woman whose gravitas verges on the monumental. "It is very, very, strange," she says, without a trace of cuteness, "to get to be old without ever getting to be adult"

`Mona Hatoum', is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art until 25 October. The exhibition is sponsored by BMW Financial Services Group

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