fri 18/09/2020

Mona Hatoum: Bunker, White Cube Mason's Yard | reviews, news & interviews

Mona Hatoum: Bunker, White Cube Mason's Yard

Mona Hatoum: Bunker, White Cube Mason's Yard

Blasted cityscapes from the Beirut-born conceptualist

The latest exhibition from Beirut-born, sometime Turner Prize-nominee Mona Hatoum – best known for sending a camera through her inner tubes and projecting the results – explores themes of displacement and geographical and political tension. I know this because since I signed up to review it a fortnight ago, invites and reminders concerning this exhibition "exploring themes of displacement and geographical and political tension" have been hitting my mailbox with hectoring insistence.

It isn’t that White Cube are particularly aggressive in their marketing (they’re reticent by the standards of these things), more that where once contemporary art refused to explain itself or delighted in obfuscation, now every exhibition feels obliged to proclaim its profundity in soundbite summations that feel two parts cultural studies to three of brand speak.

While it could be argued that behind-the-scenes PR machinations are of little concern to the average gallery-goer, it’s a fact that the majority of visitors to contemporary art galleries now read the same detailed rationales as the critics, with talk - in the densely packed page provided here - of transforming "the gallery spaces into sites of heightened tension, where global geographies are abstracted and condensed, and themes of mobility, belonging and displacement explored". The point isn’t whether this is good or bad writing, but that its very lucidity and prescriptiveness threaten to take over from the experience of the work itself. Or as one leading dealer put it to me recently, "If it can be justified in the discourse it doesn’t matter if it’s in the work or not."

If none of this is, necessarily, the responsibility of the artist (indeed, it’s one of the conceits of curatorial elucidation that the artist isn’t involved), Hatoum’s exhibition only partly succeeds in transcending the limits of explication.

HATOUM_1_2Suspended (pictured above) fills the large ground-floor gallery with red and black-seated swings hanging at right angles to each other – a schematic map of a randomly selected capital city incised into the seat of each. The impact of the spinney of ropes all moving slightly in the air currents created by passing visitors is elegant and attractive. But if you’ve read the curatorial description with its reference to "a floating archipelago of islands suspended from the ceiling", the way the "sense of geographical dislocation (alludes) to the constant flux of migrant communities... that shape the contemporary urban experience", you hardly need to actually see it. Too much explanation has squeezed the sense of poetry, the possibility of surprise or spontaneous personal interaction, from the work.

Bunker (main picture) in the basement takes on more of a life of its own, recreating 23 bombed-out Beirut buildings in stacked sections of rectangular mild steel tubing – a material that looks anything but mild in this context. The cuboid Modernist structures spattered with bullet hole-like borings, gougings and serrations create a brutally ominous cityscape in the specially dimmed light. The forms are large enough – at up to 15 feet high – for you to walk among them feeling at once oversized and overwhelmed, as though through some blasted model village. From some angles these structures look almost transparent, from others oppressively dense and massive, their less-is-more geometry evoking not only the hammering of once-elegant Beirut, but some graveyard of the Modernist spirit – alluding perhaps to that movement’s manifest failure to create a more humane world.

The much smaller 3-D Cities at the bottom of the stairs feels at first slightly glib: maps of Beirut, Baghdad and Kabul into which concentric incisions have been made at apparently random spots and depressed to create crater or hummock-like disruptions to the surface. Yet as you study these apparently bland topographies, noting in Baghdad, for example, the location of the Baath Party Museum, the Werde-Foreigner Supermarket and partly built Great Mosque ("biggest in world – if and when finished" runs the cryptic legend), you realise how little you know of these troubled cities that have dominated the world’s news for decades. Ten minutes here will tell you more than hours of news reports.

This is a potentially powerful exhibition that dulls its impact by telling you what to think when you’ve barely got your foot in the door. It’s time to give the responsibility for an imaginative response to art back to the viewer.


The benefit of critical notes is that they can give you a framework and an insight into the artist's intention - otherwise you can be left completely cold. I know it's po-mo doctrine that the intention doesn't matter, but I don't think most people are uninterested in that.

Great descriptions of her works, really gave me a sense of the pieces. Definitely want to head along to see it!

@Josh Spero - The problem with critical notes, is that most are written in the same pompous artspeak, and they are so bloody dull.

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