These last several months as Houston has endured and survived, we have also perhaps become acutely aware of the importance of home, as a real physical structure — the roof over our heads — but also as a concept of safety and sometimes self. In a chance of scheduling, the new exhibition at the Menil Collection, Mona Hatoum: Terra Infirma, also ruminates on concepts of home and its place in our lives and imaginations.
Though it took five years to organize the exhibition, the art within seems almost clairvoyant in its relevance to Houston today.
Born in Beirut of Palestinian parents, the now London-based Mona Hatoum has explored questions of place, displacement, and what makes a home, throughout much of her career. Her great affinity for the surrealists also makes the Menil Collection the ideal institution to organize the first major U.S solo exhibition of her work in 20 years.
While not a retrospective, as it would take an entire museum to attempt such an exhibition, Terra Infirma serves as a selection of Hatoum's sculptures and installations beginning in the '80s and '90s through this year that introduces new audiences to the artist, explained Menil senior curator Michelle White during a media preview of the show that included Menil director Rebecca Rabinow and Hatoum herself.
Walking through the museum’s special exhibition galleries, visitors might feel like they are trespassers in a giant’s funhouse, finding themselves both enchanted and disturbed by the objects they find.
“One of the things that Mona is known for in her work is taking familiar objects and tweaking them so that they change, a riff in some ways of the Freudian idea of the ‘uncanny,’ where something very familiar becomes menacing or frightening,” Rabinow said. “This speaks to this idea of placeless-ness, global and environmental placeless-ness.”
Some of that tweaking involves changing the scale of the ordinary, as benign kitchen equipment such as a cheese grater (Grater Divide) or egg slicer (Marble Slicer), fabricated to human-size, suddenly resemble medieval torture devices.
Other works turn the deadly into the divinely beautiful and vice versa. Yet we might not see the danger until it’s too late. The allure of loveliness brings us so close we fall into Hatoum’s artistic trap that plays upon our anxieties and fears. For example, a table of delicate colored glass (Nature morte aux grenades) draws us in to wonder until we realize those objects are glass reproductions of hand grenades. Or a floating cube (Impenetrable) of vertical lines calls us to walk through it until we see those lines are created from barbed wire.
An Unstable World
White described how Hatoum uses a variety of materials in her work — sand, marbles, velvet, hair, steel and even light and electricity — then juxtaposes those material to play with “ideas of violability, instability” to create “unstable environments.”
“She’s thinking so much about what defines home: Is home a safe place or is it a scary place? What does home mean politically?” explains White. “Her works revolve around ideas and questions about what defines home in an unstable world."
Perhaps two of the most powerful yet disconcerting installations in the exhibition are ones which build that sense of instability and danger into seemly ordinary rooms of a home. In Interior/ Exterior Landscape, appropriately located in the Surrealism gallery, a mostly spartan bedroom filled with maps and globes — dreams of travel — also seems like a cell.
Deep within the special exhibition galleries, Hatoum takes open-concept interiors to a shocking level by connecting a hodgepodge of furniture and appliances together by a live electric current. The room loudly crackles and sparks, and though a wire border separates art and viewer, it draws a visceral reaction, if only in the form of goosebumps from all the electricity in the air.
Hatoum herself explained she wants viewers to wonder about the absent residents, perhaps a family, when experiencing the Homebound installation. “Have they been driven out of their home or kept away for their own protection?” she asked of viewers, while explaining the title plays with those questions and expectations.
Dreams of Home
While many of these “uncanny” pieces evoke anxiety, they also hold a playfulness and humor that might call up a nervous, but genuine, laugh. A bit of human hair left on a chair (Jardin public) and positioned in the Surrealism galleries across from Magritte’s Le viol is so packed with puns, allusions and body and art history connections we can’t help but utter a giggle.
Terra Infirma plays with our fears and insecurities about the stability of the ground beneath our feet and the places call home. It also reminds us it is imagination, the ability to picture those scary possibilities, that fuels our own anxieties, yet the ability to dream of the future also drive us to wonder, wander and create.
Mona Hatoum: Terra Infirma remains on view at the Menil Collection through February 25, 2018.