Mona Hatoum’s “Measures of Distance” is a reflection of our global life


Mona Hatoum

The 2016 exhibition at London’s Tate Modern of the work of Mona Hatoum surprised and intrigued me. I knew little of her work before I saw this show, yet was sure it would be interesting and thought-provoking, as her life and ideas are of interest to me in my own work.

The artist’s biography is marked by exile: Hatoum is a British artist, born in 1952 into a Palestinian family exiled in Lebanon. For over three decades she has been creating works which ask us to re-consider how we see and understand the world, and its “notions of territory, fragility, humanity, scale and power” (Smith, 2016).


Mona Hatoum: Homebound 2000


Mona Hatoum: Hot Spot 2013

To say that Hatoum’s work is “electrifying” is perhaps a bit corny, given the literally electric component of much of her work, but I think it is completely apt. Indeed the electric current ran through Mona Hatoum’s whole show at Tate Modern. Ever present, like a now distant, now nearer threat, the crackle and droning hum could be heard almost everywhere, emitted from Homebound: furniture and objects arranged behind a barrier of taut steel wire.

Produced in 2000, this domestic arrangement of tables and chairs, kitchen utensils, lights, cots, toys, a birdcage, are all wired-up so that an audible current surges round the room, with objects lit up in turn, “the aggressive sound amplified for our pleasure and disquiet. With Hatoum, the two are almost always twinned.” (Searle, 2016)


Mona Hatoum: Grater Divide 2002

Homebound is just one of several “anxious interiors” in an exhibition that shows Hatoum’s oeuvre. Her 2013 piece Hot Spot presents the entire globe as a danger zone, with the term ‘hot spot’ referring to a place of “military or civil unrest”; here red neon outlines the contours of the world’s continents, showing what Hatoum describes as a “world continually caught up in conflict and unrest”(Smith, 2016).

Much of her work is darkly disturbing when you may think it will be at first glance. The over-sized, scaled-up domestic appliances of Grater Divide and Dormiente, using items such as graters and other kitchen utensils, useful and homely at their regular size, take on sinister characters hinting at torture implements when larger than human-scale.


Mona Hatoum: Dormiente 2008



Mona Hatoum: Dormiente (detail) 2008


A key piece for me is Mona Hatoum’s film Measures of Distance. It speaks to me of the inter-connectedness of familial relationships across space and time. In the film, the artist’s mother is shown in close-up, in the intimacy of her shower. Fragments of Arabic script from their handwritten correspondence form a visual barrier over the image; like barbed wire, the script conceals and reveals the body speaking simultaneously of literal and implied closeness and distance, simultaneously expressing the painful distance of displacement and the longings for closeness that mark the artist’s experience.


Mona Hatoum: Measures of Distance 1988 (film still)

In this work I was also trying to go against the fixed identity that is usually implied in the stereotype of Arab woman as passive, mother as non-sexual being… the work is constructed visually in such a way that every frame speaks of literal closeness and implied distance.
(Quoted in Mona Hatoum 1997, p.140).


Mona Hatoum: Measures of Distance 1988 (film still)

The film graphically highlights the difficulties of communicating across the geographical divide: Hatoum’s audio track reading of the letters in both Arabic and English shows the dual identity through language that a migrant or exile experiences and takes on board:  language both expands and limits expression, here the dual language also serves to bring audiences of both languages closer together.

Exploring themes of home and displacement from the perspective of the Palestinian exile, Mona Hatoum’s works, from the last thirty years and today, continue to be relevant in this “age of migrants, curfews, identity cards, refugees, exiles, massacres, camps and fleeing civilians” (Said, 2000).

Further reading

Gallery websites featuring the artist’s work



Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at Tate Modern

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs
Tate Modern: Exhibition
17 April – 7 September 2014

If you haven’t seen “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs” at London’s Tate Modern yet, I encourage to you to so as soon as possible. I plan to visit at least once or twice more as I found it inspirational and surprising: as is so often the case when images are familiar from books and magazines, the scale and intensity of colour “in-the-flesh” was astonishing – Matisse’s cut-outs are BIG, much bigger and bolder and brilliant in colour than I had anticipated; and the fluidity and speed at which he wielded large shears to cut out the shapes with the confidence of a lifetime’s mastery of shape and colour was astounding.

Henri Matisse is widely regarded as one of the giants of modern art. In this landmark show at Tate Modern, the final chapter in Matisse’s career is explored: when he began “carving into colour” and his series of spectacular cut-outs was born.

The focus is on the period of his life when Matisse was in his late sixties: a time when ill health first prevented him from painting, when he began to cut into painted paper with scissors to make drafts for a number of commissions. “In time, Matisse chose cut-outs over painting: he had invented a new medium.”

“This exhibition marks an historic moment, when treasures from around the world can be seen together. Tate’s The Snail 1953 is shown alongside its sister work Memory of Oceania 1953 and Large Composition with Masks 1953 at 10 metres long. A photograph of Matisse’s studio reveals that these works were initially conceived as a unified whole, and this is the first time they will have been together in over 50 years. Matisse’s famous series of Blue Nudes represent the artist’s renewed interest in the figure.”

This exhibition is a perfect example of why I love living in London, it is a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to see so many of Matisse’s work in one place, to “discover Matisse’s final artistic triumph”:

“From snow flowers to dancers, circus scenes and a famous snail, Tate Modern’s unique exhibition brings together a dazzling array of 120 Matisse pieces from around the world. Bold, lively and often large scale, the cut-outs are a joyous celebration of colour and shape.

“A giant of modern art, this landmark show explores the final chapter in Matisse’s career as he began ‘carving into colour’ and his series of spectacular cut-outs was born.”

Unfortunately I can’t make it to a participating cinema on Tuesday 3 June 2014 at 19.15 to catch “Matisse Live from Tate Modern” but I’m sure it will be an extremely interesting show. I hope Tate will allow it to be shown on free-to-air TV or streamed via their website at a later date.

This promised “intimate, behind-the-scenes view of this blockbuster exhibition with presenter Francine Stock and Tate Director Nicholas Serota” will include a “breathtaking new performances by Royal Ballet principal dancer Zenaida Yanowsky, and jazz musician Courtney Pine” and a British actor whose voice I love, Simon Russell Beale, will bring “insight and emotion to the words of Henri Matisse himself” with the actor Rupert Young providing the film’s narration. All this will be “complemented by interviews with art experts, friends of the artist, and rare archive footage of Matisse at work.”

If you miss it in London, after September the exhibition will travel to New York at the Museum of Modern Art, after which the works return to galleries and private owners around the world.

(text in quotes is from the Tate Modern website)