When Mona Hatoum videoed a private moment
To pee or not to pee? The artist recalls inviting visitors to a gallery toilet to make an alarming choice
Born in Beirut into a Palestinian family, Mona Hatoum paid what was meant to be a short visit to London in 1975, only for civil war to break out in Lebanon. Unable to return home, she ended up settling in the UK, forging a career as an artist specialising in performance and video art.
Although her work refers indirectly to the political strife that created such a schism in her own life, it’s also frequently concerned with the human body and the way it is subject to social control. The results of this often have a humorous dimension.
On arriving in Britain, Hatoum noted how divorced people were from their bodies, in contrast to her home country, where there was no straightforward divide between body and mind. Some of her earliest works such as her 1981 performance Look No Body! went even further than Marcel Duchamp's placement of a urinal in an art gallery. She invited her audience to drink glasses of water so that they might go to the toilet, where a live camera was installed, conveying footage to a video monitor installed in the space. Over this, Hatoum read out a detailed account of the act of urinating, or “micturition” as it is more scientifically known.
Says Hatoum in her interview with Michael Archer, “I was considering the body in terms of its orifices, and how some of the orifices and the activities associated with them are considered socially acceptable and some are not.”
Hatoum also made a proposal for the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London along similar lines, involving a live camera trained on the two cubicles in the toilets on either side of the bookshop. The ICA flatly turned her down; this was a taboo too far.
As well as the interview with Archer, this excellent and comprehensive Contemporary Artist Series book also offers critical appraisals of Hatoum’s work from Guy Brett, Catherine de Zegher and Nancy Spector, ranging across her career from early works such as a “Welcome” mat made entirely of pins to more recent works in which Hatoum's use of maps as a recurring motif reflects her family’s sense of displacement through geopolitical upheaval, as well as her own. Find out more about our Mona Hatoum Contemporary Artist Series book here.