To mark the opening of M+, Hong Kong’s new museum of visual culture, ArtReview has selected highlights from the museum’s collection as part of its ‘Work of the Week’ series. Mona Hatoum’s Kapan Iki is the final instalment of ArtReview’s weekly focus on the background story of a single work
In a 1973 essay titled ‘Named for Victoria, Queen of England’, the late Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe points to the anti-colonial movement in 1940s British West Africa as a formative time, having ‘brought about a mental revolution, which began to reconcile us to ourselves’. Achebe was not saying that liberation is a matter of mindset. Rather, he was stressing how political struggles entail psychic shifts, too: the work of unlearning what a colonial hegemony had told you about your history, skin colour or mental faculties is a component of resistance to oppression. It is to this psychic element within the political and social struggles in our world today – from migration and displacement, to state violence and surveillance – that Mona Hatoum’s body of work, and her sculpture Kapan Iki (2012) in particular, speaks.
Born in Beirut in 1952 to parents who fled Palestine in the wake of the Nakba in 1948, Hatoum’s practice has been influenced by an intersecting variety of concerns that range from the gendered body to geopolitics, the visceral to the invisible. Studying art in London as the Lebanese Civil War raged on in the late 1970s, Hatoum later recounted in a 2016 interview with The Guardian, the feeling of both being stranded in a place where ‘if [she] dropped dead, no one would come to look for [her]’, and fortunate to finally be pursuing her dream. This state of duality and contradiction continued at the Slade School of Fine Art, where her experience of institutional ‘coldness and rules’ existed alongside her growing political consciousness, igniting Hatoum’s early video and performance art. In works like Under Siege (1982), the naked artist struggled for seven hours inside a transparent container, slipping in wet clay as audio snippets of news reports from the Middle East played on a loop. Corps étranger (1994) was a literal journal through her internal cavities via an endoscopic camera. The pervasive sense of threat to the psyche from the conditions of the outside and physical world in these and other installations seem to evaporate the boundaries between the two altogether.
Hatoum’s pieces continue to thrive on the power of juxtaposition and the enmeshment of the interpersonal with the structural. Now, her practice more often features domestic items instead of the artist’s body: graters, household furniture, cheese wires and knives are manipulated into uncanny sizes, uses and settings. A particularly haunting example, Remains of the Day (2016-8), features an innocuous dining room set-up – a table, chairs, a toy car forgotten after play – constructed out of chicken wire and wood, and displayed after the application of intense heat. The charred and stripped remains lets the viewer imagine the worst. Her four decades of award-winning installations, sculpture, video, photography and drawings conjure uncomfortable, sinister and ambivalent states of mind, body and place, gesturing towards some of the artist’s experiences of exile, patriarchy, displacement and conflict. With an economy of material and visceral flair, Kapan Iki (2012) distills several of these themes down to a restrained range of shapes, textures and colours.
Meaning ‘trap two’ in Turkish, Kapan Iki was created for Hatoum’s major 2012 retrospective at ARTER in Istanbul. Using steel rebar (a material commonly used to fortify concrete in buildings) to create five cages of various heights, the work’s first appearance is severe and unforgiving; the slightly tilted orientation of each cage, however, injects the structures with a touch of instability and vulnerability. A familiar trope in all of Hatoum’s work, meanwhile, is the strong sense of the uncanny. The cages evoke forms of violence – whether it be the metal bars of incarceration or the border fences of refugeedom – but the addition of blood-red glass objects, which appear melted into the base of the cages, jolts the viewer with their aesthetic proximity to human organs. If the polished steel may suggest the sanitised efficiency of those punitive practices that states today deploy to safely ‘manage’ our world’s dispossessed and impoverished, then the malformed red shapes speak of the blood on their hands.
Kapan Iki gestures towards several kinds of ‘traps’, inviting a multitude of interpretations – from the physical to the mental, the domestic to the structural – via its combination of particular forms, textures and moods, provoking unease, disquiet and mild horror in the viewer. Appraisals of Hatoum’s art have read her skilful abstraction and lack of didacticism as some kind of exemplar of post-political artmaking (too often, the implicit suggestion in such praise is that referring to real-world events somehow demotes an artwork from the loftier representational goal, that of the individual artist’s psyche). But works like Kapan Iki confront this as a false dichotomy. Far from ‘transcending the local’ (as described in a 2016 review published in It’s Nice That), Hatoum triangulates the personal, the regional and the global. The non-English titles of works like Kapan Iki and Sous Tension (shown in 1999 in Thiers, France) suggest the artist’s deliberate self-immersion into the contexts of their making. Indeed, Kapan Iki’s meditation on state violence looks inseparable from the events of 2011–12 in Turkey, which saw tens of thousands of Kurds protest against the repression of one of the most integral parts of a people’s sense of themselves: their language.
There is no psychic state that exists within a vacuum, unrelated to outside forces, or, say, the violence of the intersecting power inequities which we find ourselves navigating. The body seeps through; the mind reconciles or resists. Hatoum, like Achebe, reminds us that our psyche and our bodies are also sites awaiting freedom: freedom from the trap of seeing ourselves and others through the dehumanising lens of power.