A Contemporary Menil Master

Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum comfortable fit among Surrealists

“Impenetrable” by Mona Hatoum

The Menil Collection opened in 1987 to display the collection of John and Dominique de Menil whose taste in Surrealism, American abstraction and indigenous art (amongst other pursuits) exposed a Houston audience to important works in art history. Contemporary exhibitions at the Menil not only show important artists making work today, but also positions them in a similar vein of art making as the modern masters in the collection’s permanent exhibits.

Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum’s exhibition “Terra Infirma” touches on Surrealism, abstraction and the performative to create a body of work which explores conflicts and contradictions in society.

Before even entering the main gallery with Hatoum’s exhibition, her work appears in the Surrealism cabinets alongside works by René Magritte and Marcel Duchamp. The spirit of Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images” (1952) resonates in works like “Jardin Public” (1993). The artist takes a found object — a chair that could be found a public park — and forms a triangle on the seat with pubic hair in a tongue-and-cheek reference to the idea of public garden. “Hair Necklace” (1995) plays with the abject even more, forming a necklace from rolled up clumps of hair, while “One Year” (2006) (2007) freezes nail clippings in a cube of polyester resin. Such practices in using the abject in artwork stemmed from practices in feminist art produced in the 1970s to dismantle previous understandings on how a woman’s body is and how it should be seen in the context of the visual arts. Hatoum uses hair strands and fingernail clippings, normally considered bodily waste, to form these ornamental objects. Such juxtapositions not only surprise viewers, but also serve to question previous assumptions about these materials and their relation to the corporeal.

Larger sculptural works also play with ideas from the nascent years of the Surrealist movement. “Grater Divide” (2002) presents a larger-than-life standing cheese grater, raising questions such as what such a device could possibly grate at that scale and the uncanny feeling that it could be used on something human-sized. Another grater, called “Dormiente” (2008) uses the Italian word for sleep because of its lateral position resembling a mattress, but its sharp holes for grating discourage such a function. Another utensil that could be used in the kitchens of giants in our nightmares is an egg slicer called “Marble Slicer” (2002) that could fit a balled-up human in its basin. Such devices, with their explicit uses in the kitchen for cooking, warn of the dangers of keeping women in the kitchen — cooking was a skill that needed to be learned in the art of marriage and pleasing one’s husband. One of Hatoum’s works on paper, “How to turn your ordinary kitchen utensils into modern electrical appliances,” (1996) conjures this sense of danger in confinement of women to the kitchen by instructing users to connect live electricity to their metal colanders, a technique that is demonstrated in the installation “Homebound” (2000).

“Grater-Divide” by Mona Hatoum

Ideas from artists working in abstraction is present in Hatoum’s two-dimensional works. “Projection (velvet)” (2013) presents a reproduction of a world map using velvet to outline the countries and patches of blank fabric for the ocean. The projection of the map appears to be skewed, with countries appearing much longer than on their paper cartographic counterparts. “3-D Cities” (2008-10) are maps with cities presented either convex or concave into the recesses of the table holding the work, showing spectators political consequences of designating such borders. Such works bring to mind Jasper John’s Flags series, which presented the familiar symbol of the American flag with the grit of collage underneath the painted stars and stripes. Such deviations from the expected only reinforces Hatoum’s aim for viewers to question their previous understanding of a world map. The use of a medium such as heat invokes a kind of art produced by Minimalists in an aim to focus on the material, illustrated in her “Drawing Heat” series (2017), where lines are made into parchment paper with heat. “Impenetrable” (2009) is another Minimalist-inspired work, with strands of barbed wire meticulously hung to form a three-dimensional and impenetrable grid.   

Hatoum’s kinetic works borrow both from 20th-century performance art and indigenous works. “+ and –” (1994–2004), the only kinetic sculpture in this exhibition, has a motorized bearing which combs half of a tub of sand while simultaneously smoothing the combed lines of the other half of the tub. The use of sand in such a repetitive action brings to mind the Native American sand rituals that Jackson Pollock cited as his inspiration for his drip paintings. However, it isn’t a human hand performing such a shamanistic act — rather it is a machine.

The expression from which the exhibition takes its title, “Terra Infirma,” originated in Salmon Rushdie’s novel, “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” loosely based on the myth of Orpheus and his wife Eurydice, who was swept away to the Underworld when he looked upon her after her return to Earth after her unexpected death. Rather than terra firma, or solid earth, “Terra Infirma” suggests shifting ground and instability — which is in contrast to the human longing for sense of belonging and roots in a chaotic world.

Mona Hatoum’s work follows in the tradition of other important artists collected by the Menils throughout the 20th century in its handling of uncanny subjects while also positioning itself in a larger art world narrative of works questioning norms concerning women’s roles in contemporary society.

“Terra Infirma” will be on view until Feb. 25. For more information, visit www.menil. org.

Caitlin Duerler, ISSUE staff writer