‘I want the work in the first instance to have a strong formal presence, and through the physical experience to activate a psychological and emotional response.’ — Mona Hatoum

Born in Beirut to a Palestinian family in 1952, Mona Hatoum settled in London in 1975 after civil war broke out in Lebanon while she was on a visit to Britain. Drawing on her expansive career, this exhibition reflects thirty-five years of poetic and radical thinking.

Hatoum is well known for her large-scale installations and sculptures which challenge the visual language of minimalism and surrealism to expose a world characterised by conflicts and contradictions. The vulnerability and resilience of the human body are central to her work. Her studies at the Slade School of Art between 1979 and 1981 coincided with developing ideas around gender and race and she began to explore the relationship between politics and the individual through performance.

In the late 1980s she began to make installations and sculptures in a diverse range of materials. These often use the grid or geometric forms and make reference to systems of social and physical control. Her works featuring modified household objects explore the fine line between the familiar and the uncanny, and between domestic and hostile environments. By bringing together opposites, such as beauty and horror, she engages us in conflicting emotions of desire and revulsion, fear and fascination.

The works are not shown in chronological order but rather as a series of juxtapositions that demonstrate the variety of ways the artist challenges our assumptions about the world. This guide focuses on a selection of key works from the exhibition.

Socle du Monde 1992–3

This sculpture reimagines a work of the same title made by Piero Manzoni in 1961: a metal cube, inscribed ‘Base of the World, Homage to Galileo’, which the artist placed upside down outdoors to suggest the entire earth was an artwork displayed on this plinth. Hatoum doubles the size of Manzoni’s cube and covers the entire structure with iron filings that adhere to hidden magnets. This creates an organic-looking texture, reminiscent of intestines, hair or fur – a subversion of the clean, industrial and machined surfaces of minimalist sculpture.

Mona Hatoum Performance Still 1985–95

This photograph records a performance Hatoum carried out for Roadworks, a Brixton Artists Collective group exhibition organised by Stefan Szczelkun in 1985. Set against a background of London’s inner-city race riots, the performance consisted of Hatoum walking barefoot through Brixton with Doc Marten boots (associated with both police and skinheads) attached to her ankles by their laces.

Corps étranger 1994

Corps étranger means ‘foreign body’ in French. This installation developed from performances Hatoum made in the early 1980s which focused on ideas of surveillance. Specialist medical imaging procedures were used to probe and explore the artist’s body, with the resulting video footage projected onto the floor. The camera acts like a scientific eye that surveys the body and invades its boundaries, mapping internal and external surfaces to the point where they become abstracted and unfamiliar.

Don’t smile, you’re on camera! 1980

This video documents an early performance where Hatoum surreptitiously mixed live shots of audience members with images of naked bodies and x-rays, making it appear that the camera could see through layers of clothing. This was part of a series of works that dealt with issues of surveillance and being observed.

Performance Documents 1980–7 / 2004

This series of ten framed panels brings together rare archive material documenting some of Hatoum’s early performance works created in gallery settings or in the streets. These include sketches, notes, descriptions and photographs. As many of these live actions were only performed once, this material gives a vivid insight into a formative moment in Hatoum’s career.

Grater Divide 2002 and Daybed 2008

Furniture and other household objects feature prominently in Hatoum’s work, often modified to explore the unsettling within the everyday. Grater Divide is based on a Victorian foldout cheese grater that has been scaled up to the size of a room divider that cuts aggressively across the space. Similarly, Daybed is based on a vegetable grater enlarged to the size of a bed that promises discomfort and pain.

Jardin Public 1993

This classic French garden chair sports a triangle of pubic hair that seems to grow from the holes in the seat. Its title hints at the link between ‘public’ and ‘pubic’, both connected to the Latin word for adult. Hatoum’s light-hearted combination of an everyday object and the female body conjures up the surrealist spirit and wit of the artist René Magritte.

Light Sentence 1992

The installation is made up of square wire mesh lockers which have been stacked to create a three-sided enclosure above human height. They resemble animal cages, and also relate to uniform and box-like architecture. The single lightbulb that hangs in the middle of the structure moves slowly up and down like a search light, casting constantly moving gridded shadows that create a sense that the room itself is moving. This is one of Hatoum’s earliest installations. Subverting the clean lines, industrial materials and grids of minimalist art, Light Sentence introduces traumatic and political themes. The title plays on the idea of a lenient term in prison.

Measures of Distance 1988

This video is constructed from images of Hatoum’s mother in the shower of the family home in Beirut. The Arabic writing overlaying these images like a curtain or veil represents her mother’s letters from Beirut to the artist in London. The soundtrack consists of an animated conversation between Hatoum and her mother overlaid with Hatoum’s voice reading a translation of the letters into English. For Hatoum, as much as the work portrays the emotional intimacy of the relationship between mother and daughter, ‘it also speaks of exile, displacement, disorientation and a tremendous sense of loss as a result of the separation caused by war’.

Present Tense 1996

First created for Gallery Anadiel in Jerusalem, Present Tense is made of 2,200 blocks of olive oil soap, a traditional Palestinian product from Nablus, a town north of Jerusalem. The drawing on the soap blocks, created by tiny red glass beads pushed into their surface, depicts the map of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accord between Israel and the Palestinian Authorities. The beads delineate the territories to be handed back to the Palestinians but they appear like hundreds of separate islands with no continuity or territorial integrity between them.

Works on paper

Works on paper are a key part of Hatoum’s practice, and often incorporate elements also used in her sculptures. In several drawings, such as Skin, Nails, Hair and Urine 1979 (left), materials from her own body are mixed with hand-made paper pulp to form random patterns and compositions. In others, lines are created by burning, cutting or sewing hair into the paper. An ongoing series is made by pressing wax paper against graters and colanders to make tactile impressions of their perforated surfaces.

Homebound 2000

Homebound consists of a combination of kitchen utensils and household furniture, connected to each other with electric wire, through which runs a live electric current. A programmed dimmer switch makes the bulbs flicker and fade up and down. The crackling, buzzing sound is the amplified hum of the fluctuating electric current which adds to the sense of threat. A barrier of steel wires protects the viewer from potentially lethal electricity and also creates a caged-in environment. The title plays on ideas of domestic confinement or house arrest.

This room displays some of Hatoum’s smaller sculptures and editions along with notebooks, samples, models and source materials. These give a glimpse of the diverse working methods and media she has adopted and how particular concerns recur and interconnect.

Quarters 1996

The title suggests official, institutional lodgings such as army or prison quarters. Each unit has five bunk beds that look more like shelves or racks than places for people to sleep. The implicit idea of layered bodies links them to urban architecture in which people live above one another. Their layout echoes the Panopticon, a prison design in which inmates are always subject to surveillance from a central viewing position by an unseen guard, which philosopher Michel Foucault used as a metaphor for a disciplinary society.

Hot Spot 2013

The term ‘hot spot’ refers to a place of military or civil unrest. Using delicate red neon to outline the contours of the continents, this sculpture presents the entire globe as a danger zone – what Hatoum describes as a ‘world continually caught up in conflict and unrest’.

+ and – 1994–2004

In this kinetic work, a rotating motor-driven arm sweeps slowly over the surface of a large sandpit, simultaneously creating and erasing circular lines in the sand. It represents the interplay between two opposite forces, making and unmaking, building and destroying in a continuous cycle.

Turbulence (black) 2014

Thousands of differently sized black glass marbles have been amassed together in the shape of a circle. It appears like a shadow or black hole and suggests a force field of energy, barely contained within its tight, circular form. Light bounces off the undulating surface to create the effect of instability, hinting that chaos and turbulence are never far away.

Keffieh 1993–9

Based on the traditional Arab headscarf with its distinctive black and white pattern,Keffieh has been embroidered using long strands of human hair, creating a surreal object. The scarf’s associations with masculinity are questioned here by the feminine connotations of its material and the use of embroidery.

Interior/Exterior Landscape 2010

This room-size installation contains altered household furniture including a bed frame threaded with hair, a hair-embroidered pillow that depicts flight routes between the artist’s most visited cities, a conjoined table and chair, and a birdcage housing a single ball of hair. Hanging from a metal coat rack are two circular wire hangers that frame wall drawings of the Eastern and Western hemispheres and a market bag constructed from a cut-out print of a world map.

This work was made in Beirut where Hatoum grew up and its iconography is full of personal resonance. While the installation’s cell-like dimensions and utilitarian furniture suggest restricted movement or even confinement, the references to flight routes and maps point to a wider world and the possibility of travel and exploration.

Impenetrable, 2009

Impenetrable is a hanging three-metre cube, a light and airy structure that hovers just above the floor, as if levitating. On closer inspection, however, this simple form, which appears so delicate from a distance, reveals its materials: rods of barbed wire, heavy with connotations of conflict and exclusion. In the title Impenetrable, Hatoum makes reference to the Venezuelan artist Jesús Rafael Soto’s series of Penetrables, hanging cubes made from colourful rubber tubes.

Cellules 2012–13

This installation consists of a group of eight cage-like structures made from steel rods. Inside each unit are one or two amorphous shapes made from deep red hand blown glass. The upright structures are slightly tilted giving them a sense of instability and the glass shapes, which look like bodily organs or ambiguous creatures, appear to be oozing or squeezing their way out. The title plays on the several meanings of ‘cell’, suggesting at once confinement, isolation and biology.

Mona Hatoum with Inaash

Twelve Windows 2012–13

These twelve pieces of embroidery are the work of Inaash, The Association for the Development of Palestinian Camps (a Lebanese NGO founded in 1969 to provide employment for Palestinian women in refugee camps in Lebanon). Rigorously planned by Malak Husseini Abdulrahim, each ‘window’ represents a different region through its motifs, stitches, colours and patterns, meticulously embroidered by Inaash’s experienced craftswomen. The aim of the project was to preserve a traditional skill, at risk of extinction because of the dispersal of Palestinians across the region. Hatoum created an installation in which the ‘windows’ are displayed in a space criss-crossed by steel cables, making a visual metaphor for this divided territory.

Undercurrent (red) 2008

Hatoum’s interest in craft and textiles, often explored in smaller-scale work, is realised dramatically here in a combination of traditional technique with unexpected materials. A square mat, woven from red electrical cable, forms the centre of this work. A long fringe snakes across the floor. At the end of each cable a 15-watt light bulb brightens and dims at what Hatoum describes as ‘breathing pace’, suggesting the object has a life force of its own. It hints at a malevolent presence underfoot.

Jardin Suspendu 2008–10

Sand bags are often used as temporary wartime architecture. Here the implication is that – in a context of ongoing global conflict – they have been around for so long that plants have begun to take root. The sprouting grass also suggests the possibility of renewal and hope. Hatoum’s title refers to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, a tiered arboretum that was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Over My Dead Body 1988

This billboard was commissioned by Projects UK as part of a series of artworks to be displayed on advertising hoardings on the Tyne & Wear Metro and in Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Derry, London, Glasgow and Middlesbrough. Hatoum depicts herself in profile glaring at the toy soldier on her nose. Playing with scale, she reverses conventional power relationships, in her words, ‘reducing the symbol of masculinity to a small creature, like a fly, that one can flick off’.