Saturday, 21 May 2016

Don't smile, you're in an art gallery.

Mona Hatoum was born in Beirut to a Palestinian family in 1952. Whilst on a visit to Britain in 1975 civil war broke out in Lebanon. So she stayed here. Since then she's moved steadily from the fringes to a point near the centre of the conceptual art scene. Now she's got a 35 year career spanning retrospective at the Tate Modern so if she hadn't 'made it' before she certainly has now.

The press release, for which Hatoum herself, it is to be assumed, is not responsible, is peppered with zeitgeisty cliches like 'challenging', 'important', 'intense', 'radical', 'dangerous', and 'mesmerising'. What we can ascribe to her is her claim to be looking for a 'strong formal presence' and to 'activate a psychological and emotional response'.

Well, we'll see about that. If anything these haughty claims serve to alienate, patronize, and generally piss off the viewer. We don't need to be told to have an emotional response. You need to make art good enough to give us one. With this in mind the first few rooms were endured rather than enjoyed.

I witnessed the minimalist and surreal influences but failed to see what had actually been done with them. Instead of being laid out chronologically the curators had gone for a series of 'juxtapositions' demonstrating how she challenged our (but not her own as well?) assumptions of the world. This was a good way of doing it if nowhere near as pioneering as was insinuated.

There's a re-imagining of a Piero Manzoni work (a metal cube covered in iron filings that look a bit hairy), there's a room you stand in and watch film of a probe inside someone's body (which apparently has something to say about surveillance), and there's a video documenting an early performance, Don't smile, you're on camera! (1980) which mixes images of audience members with those of naked bodies and x-rays.

So far, so much 'cold mechanical, conceptual bullshit'. I don't want to come across all Kim Howells but the guy had a point. It's not just the concept of the conceptual that grates (more grating later) but the fact the supposed originality isn't that at all. It just makes you shrug or roll your eyes.

Even the best stuff borrows heavily. Present Tense, one of the finest works here, re-purposes Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII (the pile of bricks) as a political statement and, on the whole, it works. Made of 2,200 blocks of olive oil soap, a traditional Palestinian product from Nablus, a town north of Jerusalem. Drawn on the soap blocks, in tiny red beads, is a map of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accord between Israel and the Palestinian Authorities. The beads delineate the territories to be handed back to the Palestinians. It'd be interesting to know if this happened. It'd be interesting to get some political background on this. At the very least it lifted my cynicism and I was able to enjoy the rest of the exhibition much more.

Great Divide (below) and Daybed also demonstrated Hatoum's occasional propensity for appropriation. Taking Claes Oldenburg's pop style of enlarging quotidian artefacts exponentially and giving it a horror twist. Imagine scraping your Cathedral City on this monster:-

For me she works best this way. When she raises the everyday into the extraordinary, the mundane into the marvellous. Finding weirdness and wonder in the workaday. The well meaning political installations can be too dry. Plain dull in places. Developing ideas on race and gender is all well and good, important too, but unless it catches your attention it's a dead end.

There are photographs and text corresponding to performance art staged in the early 80s. Some of it was 7 hours long! Who's got the time for that sort of shit?

Maybe I'm an example of shortened attention spans and the quick fix/easy gratification culture that has had such a corroding effect on our present times (though, writing this blog I'd counter I'm probably not) but I prefered the neon globe (Hot Spot, 2013) and the room full of lockers with a swinging lightbulb (Light Sentence, 1992) to the worthier work. I even had a little chuckle at Jardin Public. A  classic French garden chair sporting a triangle of pubes. A nod to both Magritte and a 12 year old schoolboy. It was silly but I like silly - and no-one expects you to look at it for seven hours.

Time won't be a concern if you come to this though as looking at hair, cheese graters, iron filings, and, for some reason, a photograph of a ram's dismembered bollock hanging up in a Jerusalem butcher shop won't detain you for long.

You can spend as much time as you want watching the strangely spellbinding +and (1994-2004), a kinetic work that uses a rotating motor-driven arm to sweep slowly over the surface of a large sandpit, simultaneously creating and flattening a circle in the sand. Me and my friend Shep once spent a little too long watching detritus bounce around at the bottom of a small waterfall on the Miljacka river in Sarajevo. It was strangely transfixing and utterly pointless. As was this.

Equally pretty, and thankfully lacking in high concept, was Turbulence (black) from 2014. Thousands of marbles amassed in a circle with the light bouncing off them. I wanted to touch them but the security guards don't let you do that.

So those last two works were mesmerising but what of the other adjectives we spoke of earlier? Possibly some of the political stuff was important (if a bit boring). None of it was intense or particularly radical. It certainly wasn't dangerous. It's art for fuck's sake. Not tightrope walking or black ops. As for challenging? That's the thorny one. Initially it only challenged my patience and my resolve not to get drunk after. Later it challenged another of my resolves. The resolve to be positive when writing up my experiences.

I don't think that's the kind of 'challenging' they were aiming for though. So it failed to do what the press release promised but I won't go hating on Hatoum for that - not least for reasons outlined earlier. I had a nice evening and, despite earlier caveats, more than 50%, but not much more, of the art worked for me.

It's just frustrating that it could've, should've, been so much better. That, I guess, is a 'challenge' for the future.

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