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mona hatoum: terra infirma

27 january 2018

Mona Hatoum: Terra Infirma is the catalog of the exhibition at Houston's Menil Collection in the winter of 2017-18. Author Michelle White explains that Terra Infirma, like many of Hatoum's shows, was "site-specific." In particular, the artworks that comprised Terra Infirma were not necessarily grouped into their own rooms. Many were placed here and there in the permanent galleries, in dialogue with the Menil's world-class collection of Surrealist art. Hatoum stayed at the Menil for an extended period, conceiving and building her exhibition, tweaking some of the conceptual pieces to the dimensions and style of the Menil's spaces. As a result, I would reckon that many visitors to the show missed some of the works. I know I did: some were hiding in plain sight in rooms I never got to that day.

White, and the other contributing authors to this catalog (Anna C. Chave, Rebecca Solnit, and Adania Shibli), stress the upsetting, unnerving qualities of Hatoum's art. The title Terra Infirma suggests "an inherently unstable reality," as White puts it (19). Intricately in dialogue with classic Surrealists like Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and René Magritte, Hatoum's pieces partake of their destabilizing of reality. Two teacups fuse together and pose a problem for their drinkers. Two hats do likewise. There are beds you can't sleep in (because they are enormous kitchen graters that would cut you to ribbons) and a chair (actually built to a Magritte design, 118) permanently stuck in the middle of the desk it sits under.

In the hands of the early Surrealists, such gimmicks could be apolitically insouciant. White, however, stresses that Hatoum's work always has a political edge, reflecting her double exile, first from Palestine and then from Lebanon. Sometimes this edge is extra-obvious, as with a gurney full of hand grenades – pretty, multicolored glass hand grenades, but grenades all the same. Pieces at the Menil this winter included an impression of a war-ravaged statue, insistent images of toy soldiers, weirdly warped maps that suggested bombardment, and a phalanx of barbed wire. Particularly upsetting was an entire room full of innocent kitchen equipment wired together as if to electrify the whole assemblage, and then cordoned off from viewers. Hatoum's installation ("Homebound," 109) was highly stylized, but reminded me of Gregory Green's hyper-authentic mockup of a terrorist's workbench, installed this past summer at the Tampa Museum of Art – or maybe Green's work should have reminded me of Hatoum's, which predates it, but I saw them the other way round.

Sometimes the politics was harder to make out. A massive circular layer of marbles called "Turbulence (black)," for instance, is seen by White as "dangerous" (141). Which I suppose it is, if you could imagine yourself stepping onto it: you would indeed go every which way. But museum-goers are rarely in danger of stepping on the art: even if there are no ropes or rails, savoir faire forbids. To me "Turbulence (black)" was much more pretty than it was dangerous.

In fact, the site-specific nature of the whole show at the Menil tended to drain the objects of danger, diverting them towards playfulness and prettiness. The Menil is a place of contrasts. From the outside, Renzo Piano's building, which dominates several blocks of a sleepy Texas residential neighborhood, looks like the world's largest doublewide. It's both homey and a little downmarket, understating its creators' immense wealth; but inside, it is tasteful and ultraclean, almost sterile. The Menil is a great showcase for Surrealism, but photos in Mona Hatoum: Terra Infirma show that many of Hatoum's works have succeeded in much rawer and less comfortable spaces. Perhaps that was part of the message, though. Here in fabulously rich Houston, itself recently turned into a disaster area by Hurricane Harvey, images of violence and exile look overly pretty – which is precisely their irony. Even Hatoum's barbed wire forewent the impression of rust and tetanus that should have made it threatening; its polished strands hung down like tinsel.

As a result, the first comparison I thought of when looking at Hatoum's gigantic food mill ("La grande broyeuse," 68) was to Claes Oldenbourg's similarly outsized gadgets. White prints an image of Oldenbourg's "Soft Dormeyer Mixer" (59), too, but by way of contrast; Oldenbourg, in her estimation, is far more playful, because far less woke – he was never in danger of being trapped in a perpetual relationship with kitchen appliances in quite the same way that a woman artist might have been. White includes an image of an earlier installation of Hatoum's "Grande broyeuse" in Thiers, in 1999 (70), cramped inside a much more threatening industrial space. In a big clean white room at the Menil, the huge food mill lost some of its power (or perhaps, again, gained power via irony).

Craft is completely elided in Mona Hatoum: Terra Infirma, as in much commentary on contemporary art. For her pretty/dangerous gurney, "Hatoum made dozens of lustrous grenades," according to White (128), but there is no account of how she made them. Terra Infirma included massive metal sculptures and smaller metal objects, kinetic devices, glass in all sorts of forms from marbles to test tubes to handblown blobs, works in wood and porcelain and paper, photographs, drawings, weavings, found objects, mixed-media installations – I'm forgetting lots of media, I am sure. The objects were finished to a very high degree; messiness does not seem among Hatoum's values.

And so I wonder, and I truly don't mean to sound accusatory: how many apprentices or contractors does an artist like Hatoum employ in the making of these items? They span several decades, and it is entirely possible that Hatoum continually retrains as a metalworker, glassblower, weaver, machinist, and other craft identities. But it is also conceivable that she conceptualizes these pieces and then commissions their fabrication. The rhetoric of art insists on a single creative maker, as I've noted in the case of Frank Stella. Some master artists, like Stella, cultivate this impression, while others like Jeff Koons don't even pretend to "make" things, and still others (like Sol LeWitt) did their utmost to reveal the corps of craftspeople who execute their designs. As to Hatoum, I honestly have to say that I do not know, at least from White's book, because the entire question is behind the veil. The only image of Hatoum at work in the book shows her placing the marbles for "Turbulence (black)" on the Menil floor. Did she "make" the marbles? It is fine if she bought them, mind you. Arranging them was still her idea. But it's interesting that even in the hypercollaborative and process-conscious 21st century, the rhetoric of the Artist as sole maker persists.

White, Michelle. Mona Hatoum: Terra Infirma. Houston: The Menil Collection / Yale University Press, 2017.