Goliath, contradictory forces are at work in the world today. We’re inundated with news, both positive and negative, of the political and cultural movements that are consuming our American (if not global) society.
And in that tumult of looming entities that seem to be manipulating, changing or evolving our world, it feels apt that Mona Hatoum’s “Terra Infirma,” an exhibition that articulates the gargantuan, while celebrating minutiae, should be on display.
The artist’s first major solo exhibition in the United States in 20 years “Terra Infirma” at the Menil Collection in Houston where it continues until Feb. 25.
“Terra Infirma” is housed at the Menil’s main museum building, and Michelle White, the exhibition’s senior curator, centers the show both in its own gallery spaces, while also interspersing pieces throughout the museum’s other galleries, including the surrealist room, contemporary collection, and Art of Africa collection. The exhibition spans Hatoum’s career and captures her at every medium: illustration, sculpture, photography, and installation.
(Audiences should seek out the inclusions of Hatoum’s work within the Menil’s permanent collection, as White has done an exceptional job of pairing Hatoum with other work that either touch on the same themes or serves as a counterpoint to the pieces of “Terra Infirma.” Personal favorites include “Van Gough’s Back” and “Jardin Public,” both of which are housed in the surrealist space.)
In “Impenetrable,” a suspended cube composed of 400 vertically oriented barbed wire strings, Hatoum studies both imprisonment and the aspiration of freedom. The barbed wire lines punctuate the space and create a dizzying effect that disorients but does not obscure the audience’s view.Walking around the piece, pockets of aligned barbed wires emerge and clear paths within the cube become apparent. “Impenetrable” exploits the aggression of the medium while creating a layered visual experience that shifts focus from capture to potential escape.
Similarly in “Silence,” an infant’s crib made of fused glass tubes, both maternal ease and visceral danger exudes from such a precious, volatile construction. The sculpture, which includes only the crib’s bottomed-out frame sans mattress, feels suspended in a moment right before destruction.
We see this same forceful rendition of discomfort in the show’s “Dormiente” and “Grater Divide.” The two industrial-sized constructions of cheese graters, imagined instead as a bed and room divider, easily inspire a kind of inflicted gore that could turn a stomach.
One of Hatoum’s notable strengths (and a well-explored theme in the exhibition) is the ability to frame ideas of comfort with sinister, or in the very least subverted, perspective. The motorized sculpture “+and-“ articulates this philosophy expertly. A toothed metal bar skims a circular bed of sand, at once smoothing and mark-making. It’s hypnotic and soothing, a rare element to be found in an exhibition that can, at times, feel like a tradeshow of torture devices. The construction of many of these sculptures feel both industrial and commercial. Their cold façades elevate their menacing and alien characteristics. But just as deftly, Hatoum is able to take what is incredibly fragile and make it powerful, especially in her work with hair.
“Hair Mesh” requires such attention to detail it’s almost impossible to conceive the execution of such a delicate, perilous piece. Hatoum weaves variations of light and dark hair into squares that together make a quilt which is suspended from the gallery wall. Occasionally, the foot traffic in the gallery causes enough movement for “Hair Mesh” to wave slightly.
Hair pops up several times in “Terra Infirma” capturing a sense of the artist’s identity that otherwise feels overlooked. Unlike their looming sculptural counterparts, the hair works bring a natural softness to the collection that largely navigates around manufactured motifs. It’s in this duality that Hatoum’s work is so impactful — she masters the experience of charging forward with intention and manipulating expectations.
And while “Terra Infirma” hopes to capture this oscillating artistic vision and the personal backstop of Hatoum only one of these narratives is fully realized. Hatoum’s work is an exploration of home, displacement, and violence, drawn from her personal background as a refugee and immigrant. As a Christian Palestinian born in Lebanon, Hatoum was stranded in London in the 1970s when civil war broke out in her home country. Her work speaks to fragmented cultural identities and often manifests in coarse mediums that act as stark reminders of the violence and hostility imposed on marginalized citizens.
But that lived experience feels lost in “Terra Infirma” as a whole.
The exhibit’s design fluctuates so rapidly in its curation that it’s hard to get a grip on what Hatoum is communicating. Even the compelling “Homebound,” an installation depicting an abandoned room with various household items that, bound together by copper wire, become electric booby traps, comes across as distracting in an exhibition that feels somewhat rudderless in its execution.
Hatoum is a prolific artist and her work navigates topics of intimacy, gender and the human condition masterfully. To see these themes of her work explored without any exposition or breathing room erodes the exhibition’s focus and places the onus on the audience to fill in the pieces. If you have no previous experience with Hatoum’s work, you may miss her subtleties in a show that feels anchored by work that physically commands your attention.
“Terra Infirma” is a strong exhibition, one that feels extremely timely both for a city that’s still recovering from a storm that left so many displaced and for a country confronting its racism and xenophobia. But at a curatorial level, “Terra Infirma” is incomplete in creating a holistic portrait of Hatoum’s aesthetic and identity. For a show that takes on such an impressive array of Hatoum’s work, the artist herself is non-existent.
“Terra Infirma” continues at the Menil through Feb. 26.The exhibition will travel to the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, where it will be on view beginning April 2018.