Mona Hatoum, Fundación Proa, Buenos Aires

Fundación Proa enlisted the help of Mona Hatoum herself in the curating of this small exhibition that sees the coming together of a selection of her works from the 1980s to the present day. The installations have been placed spaciously and without excess information or labels on the walls allowing you to move around the objects, reflect and come to your own conclusions without having your eyes bombarded with information from the gallery.

Such freedom feels of particular importance when it comes to viewing and experiencing the works of Hatoum as both body and mind wander through the complex themes she explores. The power of the exhibition relies on our presence and interaction to a great extent, as the artist brings to our attention the strangeness of the human body; its vulnerability, the violence it is so often a victim of and the movement of bodies across the globe. The billboard style piece by Hatoum sums the exhibition up nicely, for the words Over My Dead Body (1988) exude the recurring issues that entwine in this exhibition: strength, violence, playful irony, vulnerability and the body. A visit to this exhibition feels a little like kindergarten gone wrong; childlike reactions kick in, making a person want to play, pick things up or walk over them and yet, on looking closer at many of the objects, there is often something sinister lurking behind.

The eclectic mix of media ensures the senses are activated and a heightened awareness of the body and self incurs. A work such as Hair Grids with Knots (2006) hangs delicately and it is only on leaning in to see the work more closely that the viewer realises they are looking at strands of hair intricately weaved together. The sense of “otherness” or disgust at a lone hair is suspended as we reflect on the delicacy of the piece and the artist’s touch. That said we are still looking into a grid, a meshed barrier, which, alongside the knots in the hair, create an obstacle or blocked pathway for someone.

Grids are repeated on a larger and more menacing scale in works like Cube (2008), a huge 3D grid made up of intersected steel wire that contain twists similar to those of barbed wire. Once again, the viewer must move in close to the work for these undercurrents of entrapment and blocked access to be revealed. In Globe (2007), the geographical comes into play as well as the feeling of being trapped. Big enough to fit a human being inside, this cage-like sphere tilts to one side, mimicking the position of the earth.

The earth is a space of liberation for some and a prison-like zone for others- where we are born has a significant impact on the course of our lives. It is difficult not to think of Hatoum’s experiences of global movement and statelessness given her Palestinian heritage and the holiday to London that quickly became more permanent in 1975 with the outbreak of civil war in Lebanon. Maps and traces of territory appear in richly varied ways whether subtly and randomly via oil and red pen on a fast-food cardboard tray (Clouds (18), 2008), or more explicitly on blocks of olive oil soap from Nabus, Jerusalem, to map the territories that were meant to be given back to the Palestinian authorities under the 1993 Oslo Peace Agreement between Israel and the Palestinians (Present Tense, 1996).

Just as in these works where soap and fast-food would normally signal comfort but are made to reference the dark political and tragic events surrounding territorial losses, Daybed (2008) and Paravent (2008) play with our familiarity and feelings of safety regarding bedroom furniture. The bed is no longer a place for rest and lovemaking, but rather a gigantic steel structure resembling a grater. Such monstrosities are blown up to human scale sparking nightmarish thoughts and making us sharply aware of our own physicality in the room.

The way texture is highlighted in the exhibition creates a dynamic oscillation between wanting to touch surfaces as our bodies are steered around the works and at the same time an instinctual response to cower back in repulsion or trepidation. Hatoum reminds us of the strength and vulnerability felt at different moments in the human experience, at both the violence and fragile beauty that surround us. This powerfully pertinent exhibition at Proa manages the difficult task of displaying the complexities of being human at the heart of Hatoum’s richly varied work and it does so in the limited space of only four rooms.

Mona Hatoum, until 14 June, Fundación Proa, Av. Pedro de Mendoza 1929, La Boca, Caminito, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Joanna Bathgate

1. Over my dead body, 1988-2002 Sobre mi cadáver Fotografía. Tinta inkjet sobre PVC. Copia de exhibición 204,5 x 305 cm. Colección particular © Fotografía: Everton Ballardin.