Present Tense 1996 is a floor-level sculpture made up of 2,200 square blocks of Nablus soap into which Hatoum has pressed tiny red beads. These create what initially looks like an abstract arrangement but is in fact an outline map of the Middle East. The beads delineate the map drawn up at the Oslo Peace Agreement of 1993 between Palestinian and Israeli authorities, to demarcate land to be ‘returned’ to Palestine. Made of pure olive oil, the soap is a traditional Palestinian product. This major industry originated in the city of Nablus in the tenth century and has continued to this day. Dotting this layer of creamy and semi-transparent soaps, Hatoum’s cartography highlights the ephemeral state of recent territorial re-mapping, while on the other hand reflecting the persistent and lasting history of the Palestinian people.
The work’s title reinforces both a sense of constantly shifting territories and the tensions arising from differing political agendas in the region. Curator Nina Zimmer has explained how the title unifies a number of contradictory aspects within the political situation: ‘It is capable of aptly characterising the relationships between the two parties. Not only does it play on the grammatical term “present tense” for the present, it also points to the prevailing “tense” situation. Furthermore, there are the associations with “present” which means both to give a gift and to present arms.’ (Nina Zimmer, ‘Epiphanies of the Everyday – Materiality and Meaning in Mona Hatoum’s Work’, in Mona Hatoum, exhibition catalogue, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg 2004, pp.70–1.)
Hatoum has explained:
It’s really a map about dividing and controlling the area. At first sign of trouble, Israel practices the policy of ‘closure’; they close all the passages between the areas so that the Arabs are completely isolated and paralyzed … The Palestinians who came into the gallery recognised the smell and the material instantly. I saw the soap as a symbol of Palestinian resistance. The map looks like hundreds of little islands with no continuity or territorial integrity amongst them.
(Mona Hatoum interviewed by Michael Archer, in Mona Hatoum, London 1997, pp.26–7.)
The sculpture was one of a number of works Hatoum exhibited in 1996 at the Anadiel Gallery, a Palestinian gallery in the Arab part of Jerusalem.
Maps make frequent appearances in Hatoum’s work. Present Tense is an early example, which reflects the artist’s preoccupation with boundaries, borders and issues of containment. The work deals with political concerns within the Middle East, a fact reinforced by Hatoum’s personal history: the child of Palestinian parents living in Beirut, she was subsequently exiled by the outbreak of civil war while on a visit to London in 1975. However, the sculpture does not impart a single political message but rather explores the ambiguities and contradictions of power and oppression.
The use of the grid, the cube and the rectangle as formal devices underpins much of Hatoum’s art (see, for example, Incommunicado 1993, Tate T06988). In the case of Present Tense, the grid reflects Hatoum’s interest in employing the formal symmetry of minimalist language and yet ‘unlike minimal objects, they are not self-referential’ (‘Mona Hatoum in Conversation with Janine Antoni’, Bomb, no.63, Spring 1998, p.57). Counterposed to the strict linearity of the grid of soap, the meandering line of the map introduces an organic or representational element, which gives the work its layers of association and ambivalence.
Mona Hatoum: The Entire World as a Foreign Land, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2000.
Mona Hatoum, exhibition catalogue, Hamburger Kunstalle, Hamburg 2004, pp.70–1, reproduced pp.68–9.
Jaleh Mansoor, ‘Mona Hatoum’s Biopolitics of Abstraction’, October, vol.133, Summer 2010, pp.49–74.
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