||[Apr. 28th, 2005|08:28 am]
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Mona Hatoum:Strange Bodies
The de-materialized body
The enigmatic sculpture and multi-media installations of Mona Hatoum create an unsettling, dissolving, and dialectical play. Her works generate an experience and sensation that bounce between awe/dread; seduction/and repulsion. She often transforms daily used domestic objects into strange and eerie objects of bodily confinement and haunting discomfort. Much of her work has centered on the portrayal of her own body through video and performance works. In turn, the body (self/other) re-appears in her sculpture and installation through examinations of the de-materialized or disembodied form. For Hatoum the body is a site where the familiar and the foreign meet, where these two conceptions dissolve; much like the boundaries of the flesh. Her sculptures are ‘haunted’ by the spectral presence of life (as well as death), of the familiar and the strange, self and “other.”
In his essay on “The Uncanny (1919)” Freud describes and analyzes the haunting and eerie feeling created through the tension brought on by the familiar made strange. Freud states: “The ‘uncanny’ [unheimlick] is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar” (368). The disembodied presence of the body in this sense becomes through its dematerialized form, but in its ephemeral presence- an uncanny occurrence.
Freud argues that an experience of the uncanny is in part created through the in-distinction between the real/unreal, or by the familiar made foreign. He suggests that the uncanny is experienced “when one possesses knowledge, feeling and experience in common with the ‘other’, identifies himself with another person, so that his self becomes confounded, or the foreign self is substituted for his own- in other words, by doubling, dividing, and interchanging the self” (“Uncanny” 387). Freud argues that the experience of the “uncanny is in reality nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression” (“Uncanny” 394). Within this experience of the foreign, through the fragmentation, and dematerialization of the body, I argue is the moment of enigma- where the object in question becomes consumed by one’s experience of the spectral presence of the body.
I am interested in this notion of haunting, auratic or spectral quality which certain works evoke. The self made strange: shown from the borders of form, represented through its detritus and fragmented presentation creates a double response- one of familiarity and repulse. The works I will discuss by Mona Hatoum encompass this very feeling; they play with associations of the body, although they reject displaying the body as whole. The metaphorical body is present in varying degrees in these works- allowing the de-materialized body to hover in a realm of the real, and the represented. The body is not represented as such, but rather through an evocative sense of bodily presence. The uncanny and/or spectral response to her works is felt due to the viewer’s strange identification with the (non)presence of the body.
This presence of the de-materialized or borderline body resonates with Julia Kristeva’s conceptualization of the Abject body, and more specifically Georges Bataille’s concept of the Formless, as re-read through Ives Alain-Bois, and Rosalind Krauss. According to Kristeva the Abject body exists when the operational borders between the inside and outside collapse and the fragility of breaking these boundaries create anxiety or a sense of trauma. Kristeva situates the abject corporal body as a subject/object split which has no borders, an indistinction of boundaries, she suggests that “it is death infecting life” (Kristeva, 4). Georges Bataille’s short and ambiguous description of what he coins ‘the Formless’(1927-1930) describes a phenomenon which resists rational and material structure or that which resists “taking shape” (Bataille, 31). Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss expand on Bataille’s conceptualization and attempt to categorize and classify that which produces the formless. This conceptualization of the Formless encompasses such notions as: base materialism, horizontality, entropy, and pulse.
Base materials such as discarded hair, blood, skin tissue, and bodily ‘otherness’ defile the space they inhabit. Bois argues that according to Bataille “matter is seductive waste appealing to what is most infantile in us. The “scatological dimension” of base materials such as bodily secretions, excrement, and dirt are oppositional to idealism in the “hierarchy of matter,” and therefore create a sense that is foreign and “regressively low” (Bois, 29). The horizontal axial position “brings things down in the world” (Bataille, 31), it is the space of burial, the carnal sexual act, as well as the corpse. Through the process of entropy (irreversible degradation of energy) subjects are destined to spoil, rot, and decay (Bois, 34). Pulsation projects the drive, throb, and vibration of life; as Bois suggests: “no image of the body is necessary to produce this intrusion of desire the pulse alone sexualizes the gaze” (Bois, 32). The concept of the formless itself is inherently dissolving in theory-it abolishes materiality through its supposed incessant ability to resist embodiment. This dissolving, disembodied presence resonates with Jacques Derrida’s concept of the specter or the spectral; a ‘haunting,’ ephemeral bodily figure which is neither and both present and absent.
In Specters of Marx (1994) Derrida outlines the phenomenon of the spectral by describing it as “what one imagines, what one thinks one sees and which one projects-onto an imaginary screen where there is nothing to see” (Derrida, 101). He goes on to suggest that the specter appears to present itself during a visitation […] but it is not present, itself, in flesh and blood (101) For there is no ghost, there is never any becoming-specter of the spirit without at least an appearance of the flesh, in a space if invisible visibility, like the disappearing of an apparition. For there to be ghost there must be a return to the body, but to a body that is more abstract than ever (Derrida, 126).
In “Spectrographies” (2002) Derrida reasserts that the specter is “first and foremost something visible” (115). He argues that “it is of the visiable, but of the invisiable visiable, it is the visibility of the body which is not present in flesh and blood” (115). Derrida argues that the spectral is “a trace that marks the present with its absence in advance, [its logic is] a deconstructive logic” (117). Derrida implies that the specter or the spectral presence of the body is created through the familiar made strange- through the “home outside itself” (132). In this sense the spectral body hovers over the spaces in which the body may have once been associated, or through that which propels the subject to acknowledge the body. I would argue that the spectral body is present through certain associations made in regards to domestic objects such as carpets, chairs, and beds which are the basic elements of support and structure in the house and home. The spectral presence of the body is more obviously, yet powerfully present in the inherently ephemeral nature of photographic and filmed moments.
Through the use of such mediums the ghosts of what has been are projected onto the present moment- forced to exist in a time and place of which they do not belong. Through these technologies moments, spaces, and people can temporarily (for a certain term) be brought back to life: their voices, movements, and bodily presence flash before our eyes. The feeling of re-experiencing this dematerialized past creates a haunting feeling of the familiar made foreign. According to Roland Barthes (who Derrida cites) in Camera Lucida (1980) the presence of a figure in a
photo is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body which was there proceed radiations that come to touch me, I who am here. […] The photo of the departed being comes to touch me like the delayed rays of a star. A kind of umbilical cord ties to the body of the photographic thing to my gaze: light, though impalpable, is really a carnal medium here […](Derrida,113).
For Barthes a photograph of oneself is a prime manifestation of the spectral, or the self becoming spectral. He argues that: “the photograph represents that very subtle moment when […] I am neither subject nor object, but a subject that is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death: I am truly becoming a specter” (Barthes, 14). Barthes associates the photographic image of the self to be a process of ‘othering’ or of death. In this sense, when a person is photographed their image takes on an uncanny presence through photography. They are real, yet are presented through this process as object. Barthes describes that through the capture of his essence, he experiences a frozen, death- like state- where he is neither real nor unreal. The image is left behind through time, as an ephemeral and spectral representation of the objectified self or ‘other.’ The presence of the specter is conjured through careful and subtle material associations which pertain to the body, yet are foreign bodies.
Keeping these theoretical models in mind, I will discuss how Mona Hatoum’s work fundamentally hovers between the spaces of the body as: self/ “other,” internal/external, present, yet absent. Central to my interest in these works is their ability to communicate a sense of life, and in turn death- through plays with dialectical examinations. I argue that the life force and equally the death drive are present in these works through the bodily associations the works provoke. The corporal body is present, yet incorporeal through Hatoum’s manipulations of suggestive form and material.
The installation Corps Etranger (Foreign Body), 1994 consists of a cylindrical viewing booth which is lined with black soft fabric. The structure houses the intimate, yet foreign projections of Hatoum’s internal organs, as they are explored by an endioscopic camera which navigates the internal and external contours of her body. The circular images are projected onto the floor in massive scale. The images of the body are often unrecognizable as such- yet are strangely familiar to the viewer as they attempt to recognize organs, veins, skin, and hair. The camera quickly enters each orifice of Hatoum’s body- guiding the viewers gaze through the tunnels of wet, soft, tubular forms (Morgan, 2) which move and swerve as the camera explores. The viewer experiences the body through the lens of the camera- the camera creates the pathway by which we experience the internal structures of the body in which we inhabit. The body in this sense is no-longer viewed as whole- but rather as the internal, disfigured, or ambiguous mass of flesh, organs, and fluid. The borders of the body are recognized and disoriented as the camera moves from the internal to the external. Although, the experience suggests the need to envision the body as whole, as we contend with the abstracted form of the internal body.
Our experience of this body is fragmented and ambiguous- a body in the state of becoming before our eyes. This becoming of form in its materiality refuses to cohere- the borders of internal and external are mysteriously fused. The projected body parts Hatoum presents to us are real- yet are haunted by the overwhelming need to see, or capture the body in whole. To experience this body the viewer must peer down to the ground- the internal exploration on a horizontal plane. The viewer steps inside the realm of the internal body, as the projection encompasses the horizontal plane of the viewer’s space. The camera is able to materialize a view of the internal body that is not naturally available to the naked eye. Echography is used to record and transmit the sounds created through the bodily processes of breathing, digestion, and heartbeat. This ephemeral recording of the body’s life sustaining sounds and pulsation create a strange experience of that which we rarely consider (the base interior of our body) on such an elevated and grandiose scale. The work plays with the dialectical relationship between experiencing the body as self, and other. The body here is the foreign body (not our own) - yet it communicates to us the familiarity, but also the strangeness of our own bodies. Through the use of photographic video projection Hatoum creates a space where her internal/external body is projected onto the viewer’s space. The use of photographic video projection creates an ephemeral spectral presence of the body in time and space. Hatoum states:
I wanted to give the feeling that the body becomes vulnerable in the face of the scientific eye, probing it, invading it’s boundaries, objectifying it… on the other hand when you enter the room, in places, you feel like you are on the edge of an abyss that can swallow you up, the devouring womb, the vagina dentata, castration anxiety…there is a sense of threat which is something that is present in a lot of my work (Archer, 138).
Through the process of surgical intervention, and video projection Hatoum’s presentation of her body, an extended self portrait, is transformed into a disembodied manifestation which eerily recalls the formless. The macabre sculptural carpet, Entrails Carpet, 1995 constructed of opalescent rubber molded into a gruesome, yet fascinating relief pattern, strongly suggests internal organs: entrails, intestines, or “guts.” This massive accumulation of seemingly delicate and soft entrails appear as if they have been collected and displayed in such a way as to invite the viewer to sit in comfort. The material Hatoum uses allows the surface of the ‘carpet’ to reflect light, which allows the work a moist, life like appearance, which is at second consideration less than enticing. Hatoum states:
I want the meaning to be embedded, so to speak, in the material that I am using. I choose the materials as an extension of the concept, or sometimes in opposition to it, to create a contradictory and paradoxical situation of attraction/repulsion, fascination/ revulsion” (Brett, 102).
The meticulous and inviting nature of the carpet’s surface is transformed when the viewer realizes that the surface may in fact be to their horror- human entrails. This presentation of the disembowelled and formless body, which is created, and left to exist on the floor, is lowered to the state of a banal domestic object such as a carpet- a surface for sitting, or standing. The body in this work has no structure, no frame. It is the uncontained, fragmented, and metaphorical body. The presentation of such a base substance as the disembowelled organs and their putrid nature in such a highly sanitized and even decorative and seductive form creates a strange experience of the essence of the body which we would usually, immediately reject.
The presentation of the body Hatoum faces us with encompasses a disconcerting aspect of foreignness, as the body becomes transformed into something rejected, strange and “other.” Our sense of the human body hovers over what at fist glance may be just a decorative carpet, but which at closer look is less ambiguously the haunting presence of the real body.
The immaculate and sterile sculptural work Silence, 1994 seemingly appears to be a realistically constructed representation of a bed-like structure or child’s crib. This work is part of Hatoum’s many sculptural works which represent furniture-based domestic objects. Like the skeleton, furniture becomes a structure or form which supports the body. Furniture is described in bodily terms: chairs and tables and beds personified through the support of their “backs,” “legs,” and “arms.” Like the body’s skeleton – furniture sustains and keeps erect our tired and otherwise formless bodies.
This sculpture of an infants crib created entirely out of thin glass tubes (reminiscent of test tubes) are blown together to construct an endless network. The associations made in relation to test-tubes recall containers of bodily presence as the vision of blood flowing through the glass tubes haunts the piece. This structure can not contain or support a child- as its inherent structure is much too fragile and dangerous- nor does it contain the supportive bottom frame in which to hold a mattress. The hollow structure- although it evokes the skeletal nature of the body- is missing its life sustaining fluids. In this sense the work is haunted by its bodily presence, and yet it’s inability to sustain life. The body is present through this work through its absence, and that which is associated with the materials and form it consists of. Hatoum’s works eerily resonate with bodily associations pertaining to certain surfaces, materials, and forms.
The way Hatoum uses materials to suggest certain bodily association is vital to her work. She states that she “likes to explore the sensuousness of materials and use them to create an emotional charge” (Archer, 17). As I argue, the enigmatic and dematerialized presence of the body (to varying levels of transparency) is present in her work. Through plays with the familiar/foreign body, and the internal/external body the ‘estranged’ body is represented through its abstract, internal, and discarded remnants such as blood, flesh and hair. Hair can be the source of either beauty (an ideal material) or disgust (a base material) depending on the circumstances. After it is shed, a stray hair instantly transforms into filth, a sign of death and decay. The hair itself is a sign of bodily presence; present through its superfluous detritus, yet absent in and of itself. Snipits of hair are often collected and preserved in lockets and albums as a memento-mori or monument of infant-hood -links to the past. Shed hair although often considered repulsive can also be considered fragile manifestations of bodily presence in a space. Although the very nature of the material suggests, as well as denies bodily presence.
The hair collected by Hatoum and used in her installation Recollection, 1995 is her own hair collected over a 6 year period (Brett, 75). Hatoum meticulously ties her stray hairs into an endless thread which is hand spun into tiny geometric spheres. These beautifully crafted objects are hung from the ceiling from single threads of hair which are scattered across the space. When the viewer enters the large open, seemingly empty space, the single, fragile strands of hair sweep across ones face like a spider web. This feeling of brushing up against a ghost creates a sensation that one may not be alone in this space. The small balls of hair collect together across the floor, and gently sway across the floor as the viewer passes by.
Hair; ultimately the refuse of the body is tied to the base materiality and horizontality of the body. The accumulations of hair balls (although they are painstakingly created) are created using the rejected, defilement, or debasement of the body. Hair is only considered deserving of attention while part of the human body—once removed, and disembodied it immediately loses its value. Hair is a base material that becomes a scatological material through its removal from the body. In this way Hatoum’s formulations of hair in this work displays the disembodied, estranged, and spectral presence of the body. The body, which is inherently familiar to all, seems repulsively strange under such minute examination and consideration. The remnants of Hatoum’s own body become the foreign body through division and detachment, like a stray hair.
The spectral presence of the body encompasses Mona Hatoum’s sculpture and installation. Bodily connotations haunt her works which create fascinating, yet eerie sensations. What may appear as a predictable object at first glance may in fact, at closer investigation carry the premonition of an estranged bodily presence. Hatoum presents us with these strange bodies which are neither whole, nor completely visible, but whose presence in space and time can not be easily dismissed. The experience of this display of the spectral body is in fact hauntingly familiar (self) and foreign (other). Luce Irigaray asks us “to consider this ambiguous boundary between the body and ‘otherness’, not as horror and disgust, but as providing a glorious opening onto a new form of identity construction- a female divine” (Brett, 102).
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