Mona Hatoum: Uncanny Space

Mona Hatoum, Impenetrable, 2009, black finished steel and clear monofilament

Mona Hatoum, Impenetrable, 2009, black finished steel and clear monofilament, 300 x 300 x 300 cm. Installation view in 2010–11 at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Purchased 2011. © Mona Hatoum Photo: NGC

From a distance, the vertical lines appear like black yarn or strands of human hair. Perhaps fine chains, or beaded strings. They also resemble a three-dimensional drawing, or a frozen shower of acid rain. Perceived together, while circling around the cluster, the stripes that constitute Mona Hatoum’s 2009 work Impenetrable also reveal a familiar shape: a cube. A closer look is unnerving. The ruled volume begins to dissolve, and those lines can be seen in sharper focus. Each is a thin spiked rod, as though a straightened piece of barbed wire.

Despite the use of such a menacing material, the work is rather graceful. Its intricate form is taller than a standing human body, and it levitates a few centimetres above the ground. The rods dangle from clear threads, which meet the ceiling in a precise grid, aiding the illusion of a cube suspended in mid-air. The scale is carefully calibrated to create a specific encounter with the viewer: the form is small enough to be perceived as a relatively cohesive object, yet large enough to feel like an environment that one could possibly walk through. With surrealistic undertones, contradictions abound.

A cube is typically solid and heavy, but this one floats. It feels light and ephemeral, due to the permeability and delicacy of the parallel rods. The grid exudes order and exactitude, but the gauzy form is ambiguous and evasive. With movement, the work shimmers optically, generating a spectrum of rippled patterns; longitudinal and diagonal avenues appear, disintegrating the cube-like form. The rods also bring to mind blocked passages, and barriers to flow and access, often employed by authorities to segregate people or safeguard strategic sites. These dialectics only increase the tension.

Mona Hatoum, Impenetrable, detail, 2009

Mona Hatoum, Impenetrable, detail, 2009. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Mona Hatoum Photo: NGC

Materiality is key. Like other works by Hatoum, Impenetrable is produced using industrial materials, with a certain degree of rigour, which conjures up architectural or infrastructural systems. Through surfaces, textures and details, the artist orchestrates a palpable suspense, built into aesthetically seductive works that point to unsettling conditions. Here, the barbed wire is a readymade, in a Duchampian sense, a product that also comes with ready-made connotations: a charged material that predominantly signifies military sites, or the concomitant landscapes of war. Unlike other kinds of materials used for barricades, however, it is designed to inflict immediate bodily harm – to literally rip through flesh. It induces visceral reactions: fear, revulsion, pain. But the tactile work also entices viewers to imagine what it might be like to touch its components, perhaps even to enter its domain, despite the obvious risks.

As a conceptual artist, Hatoum often makes witty commentary by imbuing her work with multiple connotations. She utilizes paradoxes as tools to evoke specific meanings. With Impenetrable, curious viewers, drawn to the mysterious form, suddenly recognize the threat of those tiny spikes, which make the work anything but penetrable. That realization aside, the title also calls forth, while negating, another work of art: an installation by Venezuelan artist Jesús Rafael Soto, who created a series of immersive environments, Penetrables, which encouraged viewers to touch and walk through supple translucent or colourful PVC tubes. Hatoum’s rendition is the antithesis of Soto’s playful embrace.

Mona Hatoum, Cube (9 x 9 x 9), 2008, black finished steel

Mona Hatoum, Cube (9 x 9 x 9), 2008, black finished steel, 180.34 x 181.61 x 181.61 cm. The Ethel Morrison VanDerlip Fund. Minneapolis Institute of Art. © Mona Hatoum Photo: Courtesy of MIA

Hatoum's work also makes a nod to, and simultaneously disavows, another artist’s work, which can be detected in a possible precursor to Impenetrable. In 2008, she created Cube (9x9x9), a human-height volumetric grid made of barbed wire rods, nine units in each dimension, resting on the ground. The graceful form parodies the sculptures of Sol LeWitt and fellow Minimalist artists, with their usually polished aesthetics. Hatoum’s materials enable her work to convey divergent meanings – in this case, eliciting a treacherous or troubling encounter – that clearly do not exist in the original reference. Both of these works heighten the body’s awareness of its relationship to the form and deploy the grid toward manufacturing spatial entities where hazards lurk.

In her reflections upon grids, art critic Rosalind Krauss argues that these geometric frameworks declare the autonomy of art, while simultaneously affirming a logic that transcends their immediate form. In other words, the regulated repetition of the grid implies a continuity beyond the structure, suggesting that what can be seen is only a fragment of a larger invisible assembly, which extends in multiple directions. Krauss contends that there has always been an inherent paradox to grids – often material and physical in nature, they are also symbolic, standing for meanings outside the work or even the discipline of art.

Grids feature in several of Hatoum’s works – from organizational devices to graphic motifs – and they are crucial to Impenetrable, although perhaps not as evident. In this work, the seriality of the modular elements, arrayed across a uniform grid, implies a condition that surpasses the field being perceived. The grid may seem rational and controlled, but the materiality signifies chaos and friction: a combination typical of urban environments, and perhaps more amplified in so-called conflict zones. This incongruity might speak to how the regimentation witnessed in modern cities holds within it disorder and turmoil, often turning their grounds into fatal traps for humanity. Or, it might address the artist’s personal experience.

Born to Palestinian parents but raised in Lebanon, the artist’s career was launched when she was stranded in London in 1975, unable to return to her family due to a raging war. Her work has often been interpreted in relation to her identity, to the reality of Palestine specifically, or to Southwest Asia (the region known as “Middle East”) more broadly. She has frequently challenged stereotypes about Arab populations and problematic mischaracterizations of these geographies, which continue to grapple with the violent legacies of colonialism, intransigent totalitarian military or theological regimes, and various unresolved conflicts, often driven by a desire to control the region’s lands and resources.

Themes of exile and longing, as well as reflections on the nature of warfare, were commonplace in her early works, while sporadic references to various aspects of her culture can be found throughout her career. In Impenetrable, there is a possible commentary on how barbed wires denote the divisions of territories in her ancestral homeland, and how such fragmentation impedes movement across degrading checkpoints, oppressive separation walls and ominous watchtowers. The overall form could evoke the perils and confusion of living under such circumstances, in a constantly surveilled, contested and inaccessible terrain, with a perpetual lack of resolution and ever-decreasing prospects of peace.

Mona Hatoum, Balançoires, 2010, sandblasted glass seats and stainless-steel chains

Mona Hatoum, Balançoires, 2010, sandblasted glass seats and stainless-steel chains. Gift of Michael Audain and Yoshiko Karasawa, Vancouver, 2021. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Mona Hatoum Photo: NGC

But Hatoum’s observations oscillate between the personal and the universal, as can be seen in various other works. In Balançoires (2010), she borrows the familiar form of the swing. Her seats are glass, however, unable to accommodate anyone. They are engraved with a split map of Beirut, underscoring the fragility of the city's often precarious sociopolitical situation. The artist also relies on contradictions in Kapancik (2012), where steel rebar cages, possibly denoting modern buildings, enclose red blobs of hand-blown glass, reminiscent of human organs, eliciting the confinement of bodies within rigid structures. In Projection (velvet) (2013), Hatoum tackles how cartography shapes perceptions of global geography, entrenched by immense power differentials. She eschews the distortions of conventional maps and laser-etches an accurate projection of the world’s land mass onto a sheet of plush silk velvet, suggesting humanity’s detrimental footprint, which misrepresentations only exacerbate.

Mona Hatoum, Projection (velvet), 2013, silk velvet and mild steel

Mona Hatoum, Projection (velvet), 2013, silk velvet and mild steel. Gift of Michael Audain and Yoshiko Karasawa, Vancouver, 2021. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Mona Hatoum Photo: NGC

Hatoum’s work resonates widely precisely because of the range of her concerns – some of which planetary in scope – as well as the pertinent themes she tends to explore. Indeed, one of the strengths of her practice has to do with how her observations appeal to viewers from different backgrounds, who can recognize how humanity’s struggles are shared rather than exclusive or endemic to a particular country or region. Impenetrable, for instance, sheds light on an aspect of reality to which many remain oblivious: spaces that may appear safe, or even attractive, but that harbour tremendous dangers. The work speaks to how violent systems are normalized, holding humanity captive under their totalizing spell, in a world that accepts hostile borders, forbidding enclosures and insurmountable barriers.

Ultimately, the potency of Impenetrable lies in the uncanny space it creates. Hatoum has confessed her interest in the Freudian concept of the uncanny, particularly how everyday objects can suddenly become unfamiliar or even threatening, generating alienation and fear. The artist turns the uncanny spatial, confronting the viewer with a deliberately deceptive realm – where a tempting space cannot be entered, at least not without serious harm. She presents the spectre of a prison, a mirage of an illusory space that does not actually exist, yet is firmly based in reality.

The uncanny becomes a domain that Hatoum urges us to contemplate, as though a fish taken momentarily out of its bowl and afforded a rare glimpse of its environment. The uncanny space of Impenetrable is a jolt, a warning against inhabiting that cube, against accepting the pervasive savagery of this volatile world. The work invites us to regard, from a lucid distance, the spaces humanity has created for itself, to consider the choice of refusing to enter into a catastrophic state of affairs.

Through her works, Hatoum nudges viewers to consider alternative possibilities, by making them stop and question their bearings and the position they find themselves in– from the intimate spaces of domesticity to the cruel battlefields of global geopolitics.


Recent acquisitions Balançoires and Projection (velvet) by Mona Hatoum are on view in Room B104 in the Contemporary galleries of the National Gallery of Canada. Currently not on view, Impenetrable was acquired in 2011. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.

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