Art, Politics & Society

Mona Hatoum: Provocation and Engagement

Measures of Distance', Mona Hatoum, 1988 | Tate
Mona Hatoum – Measures of Distance (1988) ©Mona Hatoum

Offering a thought-provoking interpretation of our world,Mona Hatoum engages the viewer in his own contradictions and complexities. Her poetic and political oeuvre illustrates profound diversity (both in their support and content). 


Let’s take a look at the impressive works of the artist and see what her 35-year career has to teach us in a ‘frozen’ world full of uncertainties. 


Mona Hatoum, Performance Still 1985–95 | Tate
Mona Hatoum – Performance Still (1985) ©Mona Hatoum

Born in 1952 in Beirut from a Palestinian family, the artist settled in London at the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War of1975. 


“Like the majority of Palestinians who became exiles inLebanon after 1948, they were never able to obtain Lebanese identity cards. It was one way of discouraging them from integrating into the Lebanese situation.When I went to London in 1975 for what was meant to be a brief visit, I got stranded there because the war broke out in Lebanon, and that created a kind of dislocation, [which] manifests itself in my work…” Mona Hatoum (1998)


Challenging the movement of minimalism and surrealism,the artist became widely known in the 1980s for her performances and video series on one’s relationship with one’s body. Especially, with her formal training at the Slade School of Art, Mona Hatoum explored the relationship between society and performance as well as intersectional inequalities between race and gender. 


Ranging from installation to photography as well as video and sculpture, the artist does not cease to challenge our deep-rooted conceptions up to this day and especially reflecting on our current systems of control and approach to the ‘other’. 


Famously, her work “Measures of Distance” seems to engage the viewer in unusual emotional intimacy. Hatoum’s mother is presented in her shower in the family home in Beirut. The image is veiled by transparent letters she wrote to her daughter exiled in London. This profoundly touching video illustrates not only one’s relationship with the body but also one’s feelings of displacement in the context of war and violence. More than 30 years later,this work raises new questions on the relation to physical touch, distanced bodies, numerical contact, and feeling of absence. Once again, Mona Hatoum illustrates her profound enduring relevance and talent – not set in stone but evolving simultaneously with its audience. 


‘I want the work in the first instance to have a strong formal presence, and through the physical experience to activate a psychological and emotional response.’ — Mona Hatoum


Juxtaposing beauty to horror, Mona Hatoum also seeks the conflicting emotions of the viewer ranging from fasciation to anxiety, desire,and revulsion. In today’s context, her widely acclaimed work ‘Hot Spot’ (2013)takes a very particular stance. As a place of civil and military unrest, her red neon globe illustrates continents and a danger zone in a restless world.Showing the instability and precariousness of the contemporary landscape, this piece reminds us of the profound interconnectivity of plural forms of violence including henceforth inequalities in health provisions and lack of global cooperation. 


« The power of Hatoum’s work is her ability to transcend local and personal issues and make them universal and it’s why she remains oneof the most important artists in her generation. »

Rebecca Fulleylove, It’s Nice That, 2016


While museums are mostly closed around the world, you can look for Mona Hatoum’s works on the websites of Tate Gallery London, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Israel Museum inJerusalem, and the Kunsthaus in Zürich. 



Contributor’s tips:

Mona Hatoum – Catalogue by Christing Van Assche(Paperback - 196 pages)


Mona Hatoum & The Centre Pompidou/Muée Nationald’Art Moderne (2015) – A film by Alyssa Verbizh (20 minutes)

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