Summary

Untitled (Wheelchair) is one of a series of works Hatoum has made by adapting the forms of furniture and household objects. Her adaptations generally replace parts conferring comfort and support with elements of potential torture. In one of her earliest works in this series, Incommunicado 1993 (Tate T06988), Hatoum replaced the mattress of a baby's cot with tautly stretched cheese wires. In Untitled (Wheelchair) she has replaced the handles of a wheelchair with knife blades. She 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.) Here the wheelchair itself provides a harsh alternative to its normal counterpart, since it is entirely made of polished metal, replacing surfaces which are normally padded and soft with chill steel. The knife blades transform it into a vehicle of perverse torture which will lacerate the hands of anyone foolish enough to take a hold of it. The potential relationship of love and support, for which the wheelchair is a metaphor, has become one of abuse in which both parties are the victims. In the scenario it suggests, the person who needs care and who is dependent on another in order to move is forced to injure the person who helps him.

Hatoum has used the Minimalist structure of the grid in sculptural and installation works as a metaphor for the social and political structures we are all dependent upon. Cold, bare and hard-edged, they reflect the themes of displacement, dispossession and anxiety which stem from the artist's experience of living, first in Lebanon (as a child of Palestinian parents) and then in Britain (as a young woman), as a racial and cultural exile. The formal beauty of her works, together with elements bringing warmth, light and containment, operate in opposition to structures which suggest fences, cages and racks and speak of cruelty and isolation. The body, either overt in the artist's performance and video works of the late 1970s and early to mid 1980s, or implicit in her later pieces, is frequently placed in a situation of separation and alienation from what it needs in order to survive. Her works reproduce 'the feeling of not being able to take anything for granted, even doubting the solidity of the ground you walk on … you feel as if the ground is shifting under your feet' (Hatoum quoted in Mona Hatoum 1997, p.134).

Further reading:
Mona Hatoum: The Entire World as a Foreign Land, exhibition catalogue, Tate 2000, reproduced p.14
Mona Hatoum, exhibition catalogue, Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Castello di Rivoli, Milan 1999, p.19, reproduced (colour) p.33
Michael Archer, Guy Brett, Catherine de Zegher, Mona Hatoum, Mona Hatoum, London 1997

Elizabeth Manchester
June 2000