Mona Hatoum is a Palestinian artist, now based in London. The exile, the theme of belonging to different cultures and, at the same time, to none of them, are some of the ideas she explores: a contributing factor is, for sure, her life and her continuous movements around the world. At the same time, however, it is interesting noticing how not one of the works she creates is explicitly autobiographical.
She was born in Beirut in 1952 and she has never considered herself as Lebanese due to her Palestinian origins – she was never granted the national ID and, for this reason, she has never identified herself as Lebanese. During a short stay in London in 1975, the Lebanese civil war broke out and Mona is unable to return home. She settles down in the UK, attends the Slade School of Fine Arts, and in this context she starts being more and more interested in British politics: she lives the Winter of Discontent, worker strikes and the election of the Conservatives with Margaret Thatcher. Because she could not get hold of materials to work with, she starts focusing on performances and videos: with a clear reference to Body Art from the ’60s and ’70s, she considers her body as an instrument for feminine self-expression in the context of the political happenings of those years, taking inspirations from other ‘exiled’ women artists such as Marina Abramovic. One of her last videos, Corps Étranger (1994), is a journey in the inside of her body: with a small camera, she films her internal organs and projects them on the floor of the gallery. Visitors are invited to step on the figure, which becomes so objectified that it looses its living features.
Starting from the ’90s, she realises installations and sculptures, this time referencing the language of Minimalism: the simplicity of her works is what leaves the visitors stunned, it forces the audience to confront the themes she explores with direct brutality. Despite the fact that, as already introduced, Hatoum investigates topics concerning global society, she explores them with such estrangement to cause a real discomfort in the viewers. For this reason, her practice is not autobiographical: on the contrary, it refers to events that characterized not only her life, but also an enormous amount of other people and communities forced to a, voluntarily or involuntarily, exile. Hatoum always has the intention to engage the audience in her installations, but not as one would expect: it is not active participation, but emotional. One of the most destabilizing works is Light Sentence (1992), consisting of a construction made with wire cupboards. In the center of the installation, a simple light bulb swings back and forth, creating disorientating shadows. Again, the simplicity of the structure and the basic materials create a sense of sinister suggestion, evoking the theme of reclusion and imprisonment inside a restricted space.
From the 2000s, her artistic practice has been internationally acknowledged – in 1995, she exhibits at the Venice Biennale in the Italian pavilion -. Almost obsessively, she keeps exploring the theme of exile, of forced displacement and of materials and immaterial borders between countries and communities. Because of her capacity to balance the specific and the general, Mona Hatoum is one of the most interesting voices of contemporary art.