Hatoum was born in Beirut to Palestinian parents who were living in exile because of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In 1975, as a young woman visiting London, she was herself exiled from her homeland when war broke out in Lebanon and she was not able to return for many years. She attended art school in London (Byam Shaw School of Art 1975-79; Slade School of Art 1979-81), making work informed by her experience of living away from her home and family as well as by the political conflict in the Middle East. Themes of dispossession, displacement, claustrophobia and controlled violence are common in her work. After making video and performance pieces which focused on her body and identity in the early and mid 1980s, she began to make sculptural installations in 1989. In these, she uses metal grid-structures to suggest fences, cages, compartments and racks. Works such as Light at the End 1989 (Arts Council of Great Britain, London) and Light Sentence 1992 (Musée nationale d'art moderne Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris) contrast the sparse, clean lines of metal grids with elements which bring light and warmth, generating ambiguous combinations of harshness with comfort, containment with entrapment, political ugliness with aesthetic beauty. In Hatoum's work the formal device of the metal grid, with its 1960s Minimalist associations, operates frequently as a metaphor for the ordering and control of states of extreme emotional violence and distress, rendering their expression more acute.
Incommunicado is a sculpture made of an altered infant's cot. The springs have been replaced by tautly stretched, fine cheese wires. Here the grid is suggested by the cold, hard, metal form of the cot which, unpainted and unpadded, has been honed down to its most bare and chilling structure. The potentially lethal wires anticipate acute pain and, in this context, the sadistic violence of a parental torturer. The title, which suggests a place where speech is no longer possible, is echoed in a work Hatoum made the following year titled Silence (Museum of Modern Art, New York), a cot made of glass tubing. Incommunicado offers a reminder of an infant's inability to articulate its needs by any means other than a scream, one which, in this scenario, presumably falls on deaf ears. It provides a metaphor for the plight of many political prisoners who are incarcerated and tortured in places where their voices cannot be heard. Here a relationship of 'parent' state to citizen-'child' is presented as cruel and abusive rather than warm and loving, murderous rather than nurturing, the terrifying perversion of many modern Third World democracies.
Hatoum has said: 'I see furniture as being very much about the body. It is usually about giving it support and comfort. I made a series of furniture pieces which are more hostile than comforting.' (Quoted in Mona Hatoum 1997, p.20.) Untitled (Wheelchair) 1998 (Tate T07497) is another piece of adapted hostile furniture made by Hatoum.
Mona Hatoum, exhibition catalogue, Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Castello di Rivoli, Milan 1999, pp.17-19, reproduced (colour) p.8
Michael Archer, Guy Brett, Catherine de Zegher, Mona Hatoum, Mona Hatoum, London 1997, p.20, reproduced (colour) p.22
Frances Morris, Rites of Passage, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1995, pp.102-5