Review of 2 ‘political’ artists exhibitions – Mona Hatoum and Peter Kennard
Addressing issues of conflict in art is often contested territory. Do you say it loud and with absolute conviction, or do you create a space for reflection – to think and start a conversation? With this issue in mind I visited two ‘political’ artist’s exhibitions: Peter Kennard at the Imperial War Museum and Mona Hatoum at Tate Modern.
I had been reminded of a tale Mona Hatoum tells of early on in her career, when she made an artwork with stones, a clear reference to the stones thrown with catapults by Palestinian children and young people. In retrospect, Hatoum felt that the meaning was too fixed; visitors either disagreed or agreed, making up their mind based on previous knowledge, rather than anything the artwork attempted to reveal. Hatoum talks of it being the last time she’d made a literal artwork. Since then , her work has attempted to poetically create a space for the conversation to be had through revealing an idea, that the visitor potentially can take in all manner of directions.
At Tate Modern’s retrospective, rather than following a chronology, artworks from various decades are brought together through form, colour and on occasion, a theme. This raises your curiosity and forces you to look, encouraged by a playfulness that has a lightness of touch. An enlarged cheese grater is displayed next to rubbings of kitchen utensils such as forks, colanders and sieves. A delightfully hairy back lathers up into Van Gogh sky like swirls, resides near a garden chair with a clump of pubic like hair in the middle of the seat. ‘Jardin Public’. ‘Pubic’ and ‘public’ come from the same Latin stem, apparently. Puns abound throughout the show. ‘Light Sentence’, an eerie installation made up of mesh lockers that are stacked to look like cages and prisons. At the centre a light bulb moves slowly up and down, creating the most extraordinarily beautiful shadows. I thought of Syria and how many people there have described themselves as feeling caged. Their oppression becomes a mental prison as much as anything else that’s thrown at them. Of all the works in the show, this was the one that allows you the space to pause and think such thoughts. Thank you Mona.
Similarly, a room of delicately suspended metal rods pulls you in and it’s only on closer inspection they are revealed to be made of barbed wire. A sense of trauma and heightened awareness of potential danger is never far from the surface. We see this again in artworks with a feminist root, such as her installation of a kitchen, where everything is wired up to electricity and buzzes menacingly. The house is not quite such a safe haven as you might hope. Hatoum once said that she moved from performance to these threatening installations so that viewers could experience for themselves the feelings of danger, instability and uncertainty through the physical interaction with the work.
While this transfer of danger is effective, there is something about the immediacy of the early films that allows them to steal the show. Her bare footed solo procession, with Doc Martin boots dragging behind her through Brixton suggest the pain of each step, while Measures of Distance (1988) reveals the impact of enforced separation. Mona was stranded in the UK unable to visit her parents in Lebanon as their civil war raged, only able to converse through letters, which are now appear like a shower curtain over intimate photos of her mother washing. I was struck by the dialogue between mother and daughter as they discuss so much that’s important to them, including their homeland, as her mother tells us, “we were living in our own land, in a village with our family and friends around us … It was paradise compared to where we are now.” As Mona Hatoum says of this film, “it speaks of exile, displacement, disorientation and a tremendous sense of loss as a result of the separation by war.”
I enjoyed Mona Hatoum’s show hugely. It revealed the fragility of the human condition and gave me the space to think about politics and the impact of war on the civilians inevitably caught up in it all. It has authority and is clever and witty. I still have a nagging doubt that while the dividing up of Hatoum’s work for aesthetic reasons forced you to look, it also put the emphasis on form and colour, rather than the political intent behind the work. This came through, but you often had to search it out. Moreover, not every artwork was strong and I have to admit to gaining very little from her larger, grandiose artworks. I wonder if the big commission is for every artist? Think of Francis Alÿs’ ‘When Faith Moves Mountains’, helicopter in background as University students move a sand dune near to a shanty town in Peru. No, doesn’t do it for me, unlike so much of his work that can be supremely thought-provoking. I think it’s with Alÿs’ work that we are asked to consider “the politics in poetics and the poetics in politics”. This is equally apt with Hatoum’s works – and when she is at her strongest, she does both.
Peter Kennard has produced some striking images, particularly from the anti-nuclear campaigns of the 70s and 80s – a hand crushing a nuclear missile with the strap line ‘Nuclear weapons – No Thanks’ stands out, while his mounting a nuclear missile in the middle of John Constable’s Haywain was a moment of genius. But let’s be clear, this is no John Hartfield. During the pre WWII Weimer Republic days, Hartfield and his contemporaries took the meaning of an image from one context and cut and paste it into another – clever stuff in the right hands. Kennard gets this absolutely right with his Haywain montage, but otherwise, they are rarely as acutely intelligent or witty. The IWM exhibition reveals Kennard’s ability to make a striking poster, but little else. This would be fine if this was all it was trying to do, but the exhibition introduces us to Peter Kennard the artist. We are shown a display where newspapers with torn pages in pseudo stained, rough wooden frames say very little, while at one end of the gallery a corner has been turned into an installation/board room of sorts that is too small and domestic in scale to be authoritative. Think of a sitting room in your average terrace house. Posters we had already seen in the show are repeated and began to look tired. The business cards of all the companies that contribute to making weapons get lost in all the noise. A life time of work had been laid out before us and it became more about Peter Kennard than the content; with the very issues his work raise, somehow subdued. I wonder if the premise of the show meant it was doomed to fail from the start? If the activism had come before the artist, it might have stood a chance. A display that put his work in a context – of the 1970s nuclear campaign, the Cold War, the Thatcher years and the slow sliding away of Ronald Reagan’s sanity, rather than crafting it into an artist’s show, might have served him better.