Interview with Mona Hatoum

"The Idea Is What Matters!"

Palestinian-British artist Mona Hatoum has the gift of visualizing the uncanny in the accustomed, the ludicrous in the banal. Now she was awarded the art prize of the Haftmann Foundation. Urs Steiner and Samuel Herzog spoke with the artist

​​Given the political dimensions of your artistic work, it seems natural to begin with a political question: You have an English passport, but you were born in Lebanon to Palestinian parents. What does Yassir Arafat's death mean for you?

Mona Hatoum: I'm not a politician, and I need to stay away from such charged issues. I don't want to comment on the politics of the Middle East; the subject gets me very confused. I would much rather talk only about my work.

You say that even though the issue of menace is omnipresent in your work.

Hatoum: Yes, but it is a very general feeling of menaced, a sense of discomfort, also of suppression. The feelings my work inspires cannot be localized so unambiguously; it is never about a specific situation. Instead, these are general statements which everyone can understand in their own way.

For example, if I talk about incarceration, about being shut up in a home, there may be women who relate this to their own situation as prisoners of their household. In any case, issues like this can be associated with an everyday trauma that doesn't have to have anything to do with Palestine. I like keeping my work so open that it can be interpreted on different levels. Art can't be compared with journalism; it can't discuss concrete issues.

But there are artists who want it to do exactly that. Just think of all the attempts to come to terms with the catastrophe of 9/11 using art.

Hatoum: I'm not one of those artists. Art shouldn't preach. I don't want to be didactic.

All the same, you repeatedly pick up themes with very strong political associations. For example, there is "Keffieh", from 1998 to 2000, where you took one of the scarves which has become a symbol of the Palestinian struggle for freedom and embroidered it with human hair.

​​Hatoum: In my work I often take familiar, everyday things and defamiliarize them, reveal their uncanny side. "Keffieh" is a good example of this – the pattern is embroidered on the cloth with a woman's long hair. But the work has a number of different levels.

When I made "Keffieh", I was initially thinking about anger. I pictured women tearing their hair out from sheer rage. With the embroidery, I transferred this rage to a piece of clothing which of course is a potent symbol of the Palestinian struggle for freedom.

So the work is a kind of covert protest. At the same time, however, it is also an uncanny object: you hardly believe your eyes when you realize that this scarf is embroidered with human hair. In addition, there is also an animistic aspect which can be menacing as well: the hair makes this thing alive; hair continues to grow for a while after the body is dead.

Taken as a whole, "Keffieh" is an object filled with contradictions. These scarves are usually worn by men – as a symbol of the struggle. The women's hair gives the men's scarf a feminine note. But in Muslim countries many women also cover their hair with a scarf, because hair is associated with sexuality.

In the case of my "Keffieh" the hair has broken the barrier, growing through. So you see how complicated things are in my works! When I was working on "Keffieh", I didn't specifically think about Arafat – but of course he is still present in the work somehow. I love playing with things like that. I want to locate my work within these multiple fields of meaning.

In "Keffieh" the political implications play an especially strong role.

Hatoum: There are actually a few works of this type. In 1996 I did a work for a show in Jerusalem thematizing the local situation. When I was there I found a map of the Oslo Pact showing all the pieces of land which were supposed to be put under Palestinian control. The map was from 1993, and I had never seen it before.

So I traced its outline on a bed of white soap I found at the market. I covered the floor with over 2000 pieces of soap and traced the land that was supposed to be given back to the Palestinians with pieces of colored glass. This work did have a lot to do with the local situation.

Works like "Marrow", from 1996, are quite different in that respect.

Hatoum: "Marrow” is a children's hospital cot out of rubber which looks like a body that has collapsed – a body made of marrow without the surrounding bones. Works like that speak strongly of the fragility, the transience of the body – which no longer has anything to do with Palestine. It doesn't bother me if people think my work has to do with my specific background.

At the beginning of my career, when I was doing mainly performances, my works made unambiguous references to political issues, such as the invasion of Lebanon. But in the early nineties, when I began to shift more toward installations, the themes became more implicit, indirect. That's why I don't like it when people try to pin me down to particular meanings – even if some of my inspiration comes from the political sphere.

Is that also true of "Map", the work with the marbles which you showed in 1998 in Basel? You created an enormous map of the world on the floor of the atrium in the Kunsthalle using marbles.

Hatoum: In contrast to the map in Jerusalem, that was a world without any borders. But the map was very fragile: as soon as one set foot on the parquet, the marbles on the floor started moving. At the same time, the work was very menacing. I like it when things are attractive and forbidding at the same time – both seductive and dangerous. The marbles made the floor hazardous, because you could slip on the glass balls and fall down. I've done quite a few works which destabilize the ground you walk on.

You work in a wide range of media, producing things such as videos, installations, objects, sculptures, etc.. When a painter starts working, he knows that he's going to produce a painting. But what do you have in mind when you think about your next work?

Hatoum: It really is exciting, because each work is a new risk for me. Traditionally, artists work with certain materials and spend their lives perfecting their skills. But when you work with ideas, what matters above all is the goal – what you want to achieve, to provoke with a work. The effect you want to create, the phenomenology of the space dictates the materials you have to work with.

So you always proceed from an idea, not from the material.

Hatoum: I wouldn't put it that broadly. Sometimes I let the space inspire me, too. And in the end, the form the work takes also depends on the material that is available to me at a given location. Sometimes it's the other way around, I have an idea first and then search for the material with which it can best be realized.

The stimulus for a work can also come from a word – for example, in the work "Jardin public", which plays with the fact that "public" and "pubic" stem from the same word. But I like to leave things open; I have a very experimental attitude toward art.

In 1995 you were nominated for the Turner Prize, worth 20,000 pounds. Now you are receiving the Haftmann Prize, with a much larger monetary value, 120,000 Swiss francs. Yet from an international perspective the media effect of the Turner Prize is much greater. What is more important for an artist: the money or the media attention?

Hatoum: The Turner Prize is important for an artist because it is a very popular event. The nominees are exhibited in the Tate Gallery, and everyone comes to look – sometimes the rooms even have to be roped off because of the crowds. For me the nomination alone brought me a great deal of attention in the English and the international art world. The Turner Prize made the broader public aware of my work.

In England you can even place bets on who will win the prize. But I was nominated along with Damien Hirst, and from the outset there was no question that he would make the running. He's a local hero, and besides he had already been nominated before. If he hadn't won the prize, there probably would have been riots!

Before you the Haftmann Prize has been won by Walter de Maria, Maria Lassnig and Jeff Wall – all of them internationally renowned artists. What does this Zurich prize mean for you?

Hatoum: It's simply overwhelming: being recognized on such a high level, that's the most important thing. I'm happy to take the money, too, but that's secondary.

Your name is often mentioned in connection with the so-called "Young British Artists" (YBA). Do you feel comfortable with this label?

Hatoum: I'm not that young anymore … And my flight path, if I can put it that way, is quite different from that of the YBA. In 1988, when Damien Hirst organized the legendary "Freeze" show in London, I was Vancouver. If I'm mentioned in connection with the Young British Artists anyway, it's probably because Saatchi has bought works of mine. I've sometimes exhibited together with young British artists – one time in the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg. Back then someone asked me: What is YBA? And I said: It's a kind of mad cow disease, but it only infects artists.

Interview: Urs Steiner and Samuel Herzog

© NZZ/Qantara.de 2004

Translation from German: Isabel Cole

This article was previously published in the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher.

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