Houston Palestine Film Festival: Films of Mona Hatoum

Aïda Eltorie, Event Speaker at The Menil Collection

Exhibition: Terra Infirma, Mona Hatoum solo exhibition

Under the auspices of the Palestine Film Festival, Houston, Texas

The Western video art movement in the 1970s and 80s were combined with installation, sound and performance art, and simply put, the birth of contemporary art. Video art though started at the brink of the 60s, experimented with well into the 70s, but magnified in the 80s as the concept of physicality took more weight over the lightness of experimentation and video works like those of Gary Hill,  showed a free-style of videography and single-channel tapes that then played off of interactive installations. His works held a novel role in the moving image as it occupied an entire space and not only a TV screen.

A socio-political narrative adopts that short-lived screen. The aesthetics are not about being beautiful, but being bold, true and in those aspects of boldness and truth for Mona Hatoum’s work may an ugly truth appear. Gary Hill and Mona Hatoum had an exhibition together in Cairo, Egypt in 2006 in a show called Kairotic, curated by German-Egyptian artist, Susan Hefuna. The word Kairotic in Greek means “the right moment.” This was my moment with two giants. One from the United States, another from Palestine, and both architects in the relevance of intense engagement.

Two things that highlight our discussion tonight are the figurative and symbolic illustrations captured in the video works of Mona Hatoum. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t co-exist in her installations and performances but are adapted to fit the needs of the moving image, and as Latif Adnane will digress into further, a regional cinematography.

Mona Hatoum’s work juxtaposes the concept of an endless paradox. A struggle versus tranquility, a conformity versus an insurgency. My favorite works of art are captured in such parodies. It is where I come from. A constant grappling with reality, and in her case surreality and then locating the placement of the self and the identity in relation to such transformation.

Notice here how I have placed the self and identity as two separate meanings. A maverick of meanings, Hatoum’s work subtly disguises itself in the familiar, only to draw attention to the known and bruise the knowledge when realization identifies something concealed, disturbing, and true. The truth is what strikes the most with her work, even though this is her take, her surreality, but it’s never the less, the truth. A visual truth, an unspoken truth, a repressed and silenced truth. The taboo of knowledge is to speak of what you know. Her knowledge is very personal, socially conscious, and very much a result of the psychology of displacement and reoccurrence.

In 1984 and 1988 she did two video production residencies at the Western Front Art Center in Vancouver and created the works; So Much I Want to Say, Changing Parts and Measures of Distance over a span of 6 years. Her work, Roadworks was originally part of a street performance she had done in Brixton in 1985 that then evolved into the video piece that then again evolved into a series of Performance Stills illustrating that hour-long movement through the street, barefoot and heavy with boots of resistance dragging behind her. Hatoum had frozen moments of her displacement in these visual narratives. Only moments, observed as lifetime experiences, presenting the intimacy and isolation of each encounter the artist experiences with an object or the body.

In the case of So Much I Want to Say, she uses her self again in this process of being through a transmission, silenced by male-domination, in an attempt to eliminate her physical presence, but only accentuates it more. In Measures of Distance, her mother is the object, the subject and the frozen still of literal distance, isolation and displacement. The script of a mother writing letters to her daughter who is held away from her because a war broke out, is further illustrated with stills of Hatoum’s mother showering, bare, exposed, an Arab woman, bare and exposed in the most intimate way, a mother bare and exposed to her daughter, to the world. Wrapped with words, a letter she writes to her daughter of her difficulties, the change, the harmony, and disruption, that come off as barriers of distance, like the barbed wire hanging in Impenetrable, her bond with her mother, the privacy that occurs between them is quite confidential, as her father is barely illustrated in the letter, a  discretion; resisting the colony and the patriarchy, and yes, also fighting the distance with those words.

In Changing Parts, another video you will see tonight shows a static and long slow movement focusing on one location of tiles, offering a stalemate, a no man’s land, whilst Bach’s Cello Suite #4 plays in the background. A poetic simplicity united with a minimalist layout is presented in this hors-d’oeuvre of emotions. Listen, but do not feel. Feel but do not try. Taste, but do not touch, touch but do not occupy. Occupy but do not take over and so on and so forth. And Bach continues to illustrate the dislocation of romanticism. Something so minute contrasted up against something quite massive, and potentially disturbing, that you no longer feel the need to taste, but only trap, occupy, antagonize and repeat.

What does that say about distance and orientation? A subtle, aesthetically pleasing violence lurks behind the most simple and mundane. A table display of decorative glass-blown hand grenades, a hair necklace, and boots of resistance dragged by bare feet. Her placement is so definitive that it breaks the labels of her ethnic and gender identities, hence the success of freedom and truth at the constant wake of social and cultural relevance.

Aïda Eltorie

November, 2016

The Menil Collection

Houston, Texas

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