In the Chapman brothers’ staggeringly good recreation of hell at White Cube – if you haven’t seen it yet, consider yourself spanked by head teacher Januszczak – there’s a strange and sad little figure living in a cabin on a hilltop outside all the action. He’s some sort of backwoodsman or forest crackpot, pottering along merrily in an unreality of his own making, completely oblivious to the mayhem and murder that surrounds him. In fact, he represents the Chapmans’ idea of a typical artist. With his goofy hat and his fondness for nudes, this fool on a hill is probably showing his work in a gallery near you, right now.
The brothers are being extremely unfair, as you’d expect from this thoroughly unreasonable pairing. There are, indeed, artists out there who live in a parallel universe, like the lonely goofball, but there are plenty of others who get involved. Who care. Who stand up. Among those I would single out Mona Hatoum, whose work manages to combine accusation and poetry with a masterly deftness. Hatoum turns Hamas slogans into lullabies. The gentleness of her work lulls you into quiet drifts and daydreams – until you realise with a start what is actually being said. The Chapmans attack cultural innocence by guffawing at it like a pair of cocky schoolboys. Hatoum sits at the back of the class and dreams up sticky cultural traps that entangle you like a spider’s web.
She’s really good at addressing your nerve ends before she addresses you. Let me explain. Nerve ends don’t think. They just respond. Put something in front of them that they recognise and they will invade your consciousness with appropriate responses. Listen to chalk being scraped on a blackboard and you can’t help but feel your teeth on edge. Pick up a photo of a departed loved one and you will invariably go gooey and warm. Different sounds, different textures, different smells impact differently on the nervous system. Lots of art tries to sneak in through those channels. Little of it succeeds. Hatoum usually does.
For instance, in the Barbican’s ridiculous recent attempt to create a “Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art”, Hatoum stole the show with a tiny piece of fetishistic jewellery: an unsettling necklace in which every pearl-shaped bead was actually a ball of female hair. Something in this eerie sight intrigued, worried and enticed the nerves. Memories of a lover’s hairbrush? Of a bathtub after a soak? Hair has a long history, in art, of triggering unsettling sensuous responses. Not for nothing did so many Renaissance artists paint so many Venuses combing their cascades. Lockets, meanwhile, were invented chiefly to carry the curl of your beloved. Our conscious selves may have forgotten all that, but the nerves cannot and never will. Hatoum’s cannibalistic jewellery spoke the same language as those Islamic reliquaries that are claimed to contain strands of Mohammed’s beard. Sensuous truths were spreading rational lies.
That’s how she operates. Her art worms its way under your cultural defences and proceeds to toy with your opinions. A new show at the elegant Parasol Unit, featuring work from the past decade or so, adds up to a mini-retrospective. It seems on first entry to be a quiet selection, containing nothing as scary or impactful as Hatoum’s unforgettable contribution to the 1995 Turner prize: remember the glistening video journey she arranged for you down the middle of the human reproductive system? This show releases its secrets more delicately. It takes a fair bit of looking and fretting to recognise the forlorn lament on the state of the world that has been mounted here.
Hatoum was born in Beirut in 1952 and marooned in London by the civil war that broke out in Lebanon in 1975. You wouldn’t expect her to be a cheeky monkey after a story like that, and her melancholy sculptures and doomy installations can be characterised as a sob for the Middle East, a tear for the dispossessed. It’s most obvious in Mobile Home, a rather clunky installation made of two large safety barriers between which washing lines have been hung with an assortment of domestic oddments – a kid’s chair, some home embroidery, a suitcase, a table. Clever mechanics hidden inside the metal barriers keep these objects constantly moving up and down the washing lines. The plight of the international refugee has been imagined and précised in sculptural form.
Mobile Home is untypically literal. I preferred the broody steel menace of what appears to be a set of prison bars, bent and curved into the shape of a geography globe. The crude, earth-shaped cage that results could hold an angry rhinoceros. Present Tense, made in Jerusalem in 1996, is another piece of poetic agitprop. Hundreds of squares of soap have been marked with a busy pattern of beads. Each pretty little patch, and there are uncountable numbers of them, represents a Palestinian village or territory granted self-rule by Oslo II, the Israeli-Palestinian agreement backed by Clinton in 1995. Oslo II tried to design a nation on a model better suited to a selection of confetti. No wonder it led to nothing.
I liked the show more when it eschewed obvious moments in international politics. An engrossing piece called Static consists of a grubby chair across which a giant spider has woven a huge red web. The web is too large to be the result of shoddy housekeeping or historical neglect. Its strange and insistent presence seems somehow to stand in for the chair’s missing occupant. Hatoum has explained that she made the piece in response to those immovable old men you find dotted about the edges of eastern bazaars, sitting there all day, doing nothing. The sculpture seems to accuse them of plotting and scheming, but that could just be me. Because Static disguises its true ambitions as mysteriously and worryingly as a coded phone call to Al-Jazeera.
A favourite trick of Hatoum’s is to compare terror with beauty, the sinister with the gorgeous. On closer inspection, the red spider’s web turns out to have been delicately fashioned from strings of tiny red beads. At the other end of the room, a creepy, brutal hospital bed, made of harsh grey steel, is covered with glowing pieces of coloured glass, like a hardware store decorated with fairy lights. Examine the multicoloured baubles more carefully, however, and you soon recognise a sinister assortment of pretty glass grenades.
All this is smuggled into you with immense sculptural cunning. Nothing is blurted out. Everything is implied, whispered and hinted at. It’s a masterclass in political insinuation by the Mata Hari of contemporary sculpture.