Objects of Horror and Desire
The Western gallery has historically been the pedestal for notions of the classical body, perfected in the Renaissance through the hands of White masters such as Da Vinci and Michelangelo. To this day, in this postmodern moment, the Western and Western-influenced gallery’s welcoming of the grotesque body, and the body of the stranger, remains problematic, and historically charged. The gallery in this paper is a conceptual space. While it may manifest in actual gallery spaces—white walled rooms inside white cube museums—what truly matters here is the act of exhibiting, in other words, who has historically been object to be viewed, and who is the viewer?
Historically, when an image of the Other is placed in a Western gallery, it is there to mark its difference and strangeness.1 A clear example of this is the display of South African Sarah Baartman’s living and later deceased body (commonly referred to as the Hottentot Venus) as an object to be viewed by White spectators. Baartman’s body was exhibited as an oddity, she became a symbol signifying inferiority to the classical European body.2 In other words, she marked difference, and asserted otherness. In describing the grotesque body in relation to the classical body, Mary Russo argues:
The classical body is transcendent, monumental, closed, static, self-contained, symmetrical and sleek; it is identified with the ‘high’ or official culture of the Renaissance, and later, with rationalism, individualism, and normalizing aspirations of the bourgeoisie. The grotesque body is open, protruding, irregular, secreting, multiple, and changing; it is identified with non-official ‘low’ culture, or the carnivalesque, and with social transformation.3
Arab/Middle Eastern bodies held a similar status in the European imperial consciousness as grotesque bodies, and belonged in the gallery in particular ways: as curiosities and Orientalist representations where both desire and horror are mapped. This is especially true for the female body.4 Arab women in specific were regarded and represented as veiled figures, and manifested as both anxiety and lust in the colonizer’s imagination. A clear example of this are the postcards sent from colonized Algeria by French lieutenants to France, which often depicted women as veiled/unveiled fantasies.5 These images depicting Arab women as exotic objects in harems soon shifted during the Algerian revolution against French rule. When the veil became a method of anonymity for the Algerian resistance, the female body became constructed in the colonial imaginary as a danger that needed to be unveiled, often through rape scenarios that asserted the dominance of the colonizer.6
Residues of these colonial discourses that construct the Arab body in terms of desire and horror remain in a new consciousness that furthers this othering; In the post 9/11 U.S. American imagination, the Arab body is further marked as danger. The figure of the Arab terrorist body emerges as a rejected, failed body, requiring quarantine and discipline.
In this paper I wonder: How is the theoretical machine of the gallery space disrupted by the presence (or marked absence) of the Other’s body? What does the Arab woman’s body do to the gallery and its audience? The speaking body of Arab women, with its singularity and agency intact, is a stranger to the gallery, and marks a danger. How does the art of Mona Hatoum assert itself in the gallery given such a violent history of objectification and exclusion?
A Terrorist in the Gallery
Through her work, Keffiyeh, contemporary artist Mona Hatoum calls attention to the body of the Arab woman/terrorist from within the gallery.7 Hatoum deterritorializes the keffiyeh from its original meaning, by dis/placing it in a gallery space, and demonstrates the complexity and multiplicity of meaning one object can perform.8 Hatoum abstracts the keffiyeh from its familiar usage, reterritorializing it for the viewers with new meanings woven together with familiar ones. The Arab woman’s body is present in this work by marking its absence. The traditionally male-worn garment is disrupted when, in Hatoum’s version, it is interwoven with strands of long black human hair, referencing the traditional image of Arab women’s hair, often black, often kept long, often said to be the source of their beauty. Here, then, a female presence is haunting the fabric, and the gallery in turn. By creating this work, Hatoum calls attention to a vast array of associations, and perhaps stereotypes, of those who wear and use the keffiyeh. She also, however, detaches the keffiyeh from associations with official political powers, and aligns it with a more intimate and personal form of politics: the politics of the body.
Visually, the keffiyeh relates differently to different people. An Arab or Palestinian viewing this work may have a different (and perhaps a more personal) trigger than others. In global media representations, the keffiyeh became associated with Yasir Arafat, the former president of the Palestinian National Authority (1994–2004), who wore it to stress its value as a nationalistic symbol. Yet many Arab intellectuals and skeptics of power were unhappy with this association.9 Even within intellectual circles, however, it remained a symbol for the Palestinian struggle as well as Palestinian pride, and many iconic Arab/Palestinian musicians and artists still wear it, and it continues to be a common symbol in Palestinian visual culture, disassociated from Arafat.10 Whether Hatoum was aware of these particular associations or not, the hair strands of her Keffiyeh certainly deemphasize the political association for an audience who is aware of them. What does a symbol of women’s hair add to (as opposed to subtract from) this already charged piece of cloth, when reterritorialized by Hatoum’s work?
A gendered presence is perhaps the most evident addition. To a viewer knowing the original masculine use of the keffiyeh, it is inescapable to question the matter of gender roles within rural Palestinian societies that remain very conservative and patriarchal to this day. The keffiyeh is marked by a new anonymous feminine haunting. But with this anonymity is another, more evident haunting, that of Leila Khaled, a female Palestinian “terrorist_”_ to some, and nationalistic symbol to others. Leila Khaled was a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.11 She and her comrades were involved in a series of airline hijackings in 1970, causing her to become a symbolic figure of the Palestinian struggle. Leila was often seen and represented wearing the keffiyeh around her neck. The most famous of these images is a photograph taken by Pulitzer Prize winner Eddie Adams, which to this day is reappropriated in graffiti and posters of the Palestinian resistance.
Whether or not Leila Khaled was the intended woman, Hatoum invites the Arab woman body into the gallery. But one must further wonder: who is this spectral body? And am I that body?12
This Etched Body of Mine
The body, the most visible difference between men and women, the only one to offer secure ground for those who seek the permanent, the feminine “nature” and “essence,” remains thereby the safest basis for racist and sexist ideologies.13
The visual arts disciplines are biased towards the masculine, and male artists continue to gain better visibility in what is considered the “proper” art scene. This “proper” art used to be referred to with terms such as high art or fine art. With the postmodern paradigm shift, such words were left behind, but a singular idea of worthy art (of sponsoring and displaying in galleries) remains intact. This singular idea, needless to say, is often aligned with masculinist approaches to art, and thus while art tries to escape its phallocentric residues, it continues to be haunted by constructs such as “the great white men,” and the “male genius.”
Using the body as a medium in art has long been employed by feminist, feminist-aligned, and women artists to disrupt the male hegemonic nature of the art discipline, and the patriarchal power hierarchy from within the gallery itself. Women artists have also used and exposed their bodies in an attempt to free themselves from their prescribed roles as objects of desire, and the dominance of the tokenizing male gaze in art. In many examples of Mona Hatoum’s work, however, the use of the body as medium has shifted into disembodied conceptual art that references the presence of the body, and engages with the viewer in extremely embodied ways. Hatoum’s work also moves forward from feminist body art that aims to disrupt patriarchy, into a more complex examination of power and body politics that engage viewers in transnational ways.
For decades, cultural theorists (including feminists) have debated whether biology produces body surfaces that are already encoded, or bodies are blank slates awaiting cultural encryption. Yet it is Elizabeth Grosz’s expansion on this debate that concerns my argument here. In her theorization of the body, Grosz adopts a model of etching.14 While this model still calls attention to the coded nature of bodies, it refuses the idea that codes are inscribed on a blank slate, and takes into account the texture of the surface being inscribed. In Grosz’s words, the etching model takes into account “the specificities of the material being inscribed and their concrete effects on the kind of text produced.”15 How is the Arab woman body textured and coded? How is my body (and Mona Hatoum’s body) different than the bodies of other women artists such as Shigeko Kubota, Carolee Schneemann, Marina Abramović, and Ana Mendieta?16
In Grosz’s theorization, difference is not merely a code transcribed onto raw-material bodies, but is also controlled by the texture of the body itself, which sometimes is resistant to codes and hence can disrupt and perhaps escape their fixed meanings. The Arab woman body/Mona’s body/my body are still etched in particular ways, however. For the surface itself is dented by the weights of colonial history and neocolonial power.
My body is perhaps one that does not matter to the Western gaze in relation to that of a body considered having a precarious life.17 Butler asserts that if “certain lives do not qualify as lives or are, from the start, not conceivable as lives within certain epistemological frames, then these lives are never lived nor lost in the full sense.”18 This must be taken into consideration in a post 9/11 moment in regard to work made by bodies that are classified as terrorist bodies. Butler refers to such people(s) as “lose-able” populations, and argues that in this case “a specific exploitation of targeted populations, of lives that are not quite lives… the loss of such populations is deemed necessary to protect the lives of ‘the living’.”19 I, that is to say my embodied self, is then ungrievable.20 For Arabs are certainly categorized globally as such a people. It is this precariousness that I see in Hatoum’s work Suspended.
To view Suspended, the audience walks into a room with what seems to be familiar objects of play—swings—suspended from the ceiling, filling the room. This work begins playing the audience by first communicating with them in an embodied way. While the function of the swing in relation to the body is a familiar one, it is an impossibility in this case to engage with the objects. The black and red wooden swings crowd the room, and are suspended from the ceiling. Immediately the body perceives that multiple people swinging in this designated space would most certainly cause physical injury. And upon a second look, it is visible that maps are carved into the seats. The swings are not for swinging, and they invite contemplation. The White Cube exhibition website describes the embodied encounter as eerie:
Each swing is hung at an oblique angle to its neighbour, creating a sense of geographical dislocation rather than connection, alluding perhaps to the constant flux of migrant communities across the world that shape the contemporary urban experience. The swings are constantly in motion as visitors circulate in and around the space and continue gently rocking even after they have left, lending the work an eerie and distinct sense of unease.21
It is this dislocation that causes me to wonder: who are the invisible bodies on these swings. The exhibition assumes the work gestures towards migrant/immigrant bodies. But what is most visible is the absence of these dislocated/displaced bodies. These invisible bodies are the very ones that do not matter. Bodies of “lose-able” populations. Bodies of the terrorist/victim paradox. What do these absent bodies urge us to suspend?
The Terrorist/Terrorized Body
The images exposed in 2004 displaying U.S. military activities of torture in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq caused a disconcerting slippage; the framing of the terrorist body as dangerous no longer suffices. Here, the terrorist body becomes a spectacle of victimization, when its own vulnerability is exposed.22 Jasbir Puar writes that “the actions of the U.S. military in Saddam’s former torture chambers certainly narrows the gap between us and them—between the patriot and the terrorist.”23 But who is us and who is them? Certainly reactions depended on the etched body of the viewer and how she/he perceive the etched body of the Iraqi prisoner. For a long time, I was not able to view the images from Abu Ghraib, feeling that viewing them would normalize the cruelty they show. Eventually, however, while reading Puar’s book, I did. Only to realize that the Iraqi terrorist body, is my body, etched with similar meanings, viewed at the same distance, as foreign to vulnerability as the Iraqi body is, and othered in similar ways. Recently I found myself forced into a similar encounter. Laura Poitras’ O’Say Can You See was part of her 2016 exhibition in the Whitney Museum in New York. Part of the installation was a video of a “terrorist” Arab being interrogated by the U.S. military. Disruption! How did I jump out of the screen and escape interrogation? I am sitting here seeing you/me… But when did we agree to this intrusion? Again, I found my body displayed in the gallery, and I refused to engage, got up and walked away. I refused to lay my eyes on a non-consenting terrorized Arab body. And I found myself asking: who has the right for consent, Sarah? (Perhaps I am asking myself or perhaps I am asking Sarah Baartman.) What bodies require consent? And what bodies remain spectacles in the Western gallery? And how did I become an accomplice in this and what does my body in this situation signify? Inviting this unwanted body into a gallery whether to view art or be viewed as art, is a form of encountering, if not reaching, abjection.
Encountering the Abject
In Powers of Horror, Kristeva asserts that in order for the subject to enter the symbolic order, it must define itself as independent.24 Abjection, however, disrupts this notion of independence by highlighting that control is always only partial, always incomplete. Kristeva argues that the abject is associated with all that the subject categorizes as filthy and polluting, such as food, blood, waste, bodily fluids and secretions, vomit, feces, and certainly in the case of the female body, menstruation. The abject is thus associated with what the subjects reject; all that is unclean and polluting. The subject is constantly reminded, however, that it cannot escape the abject since it has no control over it, and it is also part of its biological being (thus its embodiment that it cannot shed). For example, a living body must eat, and produce waste. While this may seem as an extreme, the abject can also describe undesirable states, such as being wounded, weak, vulnerable or exposed. Kristeva, explaining the state of approaching/reaching abjection, writes:
[…] But since the food is not an “other” for “me,” who am only in their desire, I expel myself, I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which “I” claim to establish myself. That detail, perhaps an insignificant one, but one that they ferret out, emphasize, evaluate, that trifle turns me inside out, guts sprawling; it is thus that they see that “I” am in the process of becoming an other at the expense of my own death.25
This horrifying aspect of the self that one cannot escape has been employed in art. Abjection, here, signifies the move from the constructed classical body towards an abjected, grotesque body that takes into account all of its embodied facets, rejecting the heightened status of the female body in classical Greek and Roman art. What causes the body to be grotesque? It is the proneness to abjection that renders it so, proneness long conflicting with an often transcended representation of the body in classical theory and classical art. Here, I argue that encountering the Arab woman’s body in the gallery is a form of abjection. For she is a stranger to the gallery. The outsider disrupts forms of othering by performing/working with contemporary art, and finding her way into a space that has rejected her autonomy. The Other becomes present.
Several of Hatoum’s works use human remnants as medium. Whether it be clothes, hair, blood, or skin. These remnants are examples of the abject, brought into the gallery to disrupt its supposed cleanliness, to subvert its “proper” attributes. Human Necklace is an example of such a work, where human hair is twirled into balls that dangle in a row from a neck-like structure resembling a pearl necklace. Pearls, the ultimate metaphor of feminine purity and value in the Arab imagination, becomes here a sight of filth-of discarded human hair. Just like the terrorist body, the human remnants of Hatoum’s work contaminate the gallery space, forcing the viewer to encounter the abject.
In Current Disturbance , Hatoum brings another element of abjection into the gallery space, that of death. In this example it is the danger of being electrified. Current Disturbance is an installation that, when experienced, casts the illusion of being charged with electricity. The installation is made of a grid-like wooden structure, with another inner grid within each compartment made up of metallic cages. Inside these cages are light bulbs that are programmed to dim and fade and re-brighten in order to give the illusion of the metal cages being electrified. Accompanying the physical installation is the sound of electric currents. The installation references the vulnerability of the body, and inserts danger of death into the gallery experience in order to shock and disrupt the viewer. Overall, vulnerability is a recurring theme in Hatoum’s work. What does vulnerability in the face of encountering the abject Other do to the viewers? This question has no single answer, for it certainly differs between one person and another. Not only would the answer depend on the affected moment of encounter with the work, but also the positioning of the viewer her/himself. Can enfranchised bodies experience vulnerability in ways the body of a displaced Arab woman can? Perhaps that is one thing contemporary art can offer. Perhaps through encountering the physical and psychological installations of Mona Hatoum, viewers can begin to understand ways of being other than their own.
Whose Present is the Present Tense?
“Did you draw the map in soap because when it dissolves we won’t have any of these stupid borders?”26
The above quote was one of the visitor’s reactions to Mona Hatoum’s site-specific installation, Present Tense, displayed in Gallery Anadiel, in the Palestinian side of Jerusalem. Hatoum’s parents, originally from Haifa, were expelled from their homes and displaced to Lebanon. In 1996, Hatoum made her first visit to Jerusalem, and came across a map of territorial divisions under the 1993 Oslo Agreement, representing the first phase requiring the Israeli State to return lands to the Palestinian authorities. Hatoum saw this as a map merely “dividing and controlling the area.”27 In reaction to this map, Hatoum recreated it on pieces of local-made Palestinian olive oil soap. What is most striking about this installation is the material used to create it. Hatoum chooses to replicate these borders on soap, a dissolving material. Borders, then, become through Hatoum’s work prone to being subverted. Hatoum’s immediate rejection of borders as solid is a reflection of the Palestinian psyche that continuously finds ways to resist and disrupt a solid border.
The choice does not only indicate temporary existence, but a very vulnerable one as well. Soap exists with the possibility of not existing. Thus soap exists as a double negative, occupying the liminal space of in-betweenness. Soap also exists in the theoretical space between a binary strongly constructed; clean/dirty.
It is this in-betweenness and vulnerability that Hatoum’s Doormat II inspires. Hatoum again introduces a familiar object, a benign everyday object so to speak. A submissive object that allows us to physically abuse it. The doormat’s function is that of convenience, and nods towards entry.28 Here, however, Hatoum has rid the object of its function, while maintaining its familiar aesthetic, and adding an element of danger and hostility—spikes. This is a pain causing doormat now. It is an embodied, affected perception. Its existence in the gallery suggests a relationship to the disembodied bodies that haunt the gallery as well as the embodied relation of the audience to the object. Let us consider Doormat II to be as an Arab woman’s body. Through the familiarity of the object, we understand that this work invites you to the problematic yet intimate space of the self and identity, and yet through the spikes, it warns you that you too must become vulnerable, and that it too can harm. Here the body of the Other again becomes mapped as danger and desire, yet in her own terms. The doormat has become visible, and is no longer the passive servant at your feet.
These complex and often contradicting human emotions (such as desire, trust, fear, and disequilibrium) and exchanges with Hatoum’s work signals its relation to the Arab woman’s body that I call to readers’ attention. By experiencing the work, you are involved—whether aware of this or not—in a dance, a ritual of becoming Other. This dance (the constant negotiation between the self and the Other, one’s body and the body of the Other) is one which disrupts the boundary of self/other. Self and other no longer exist as separate entities. They are no longer a dualistic binary. If the work releases the viewer from her/his inhibition and prejudice, then the two (self/other) become enmeshed together through the embodied experience of Hatoum’s work. But even without the viewer’s awareness, s/he is inserted within this negotiation by being within Hatoum’s work. S/he is complicit with or without consent. Such a volatile position may not have been possible without an encounter with vulnerability.
Inside/Outside: The Eye Within
In Strangers to Ourselves, Julia Kristeva describes the foreigner as an Other representing the strange and always excluded and operating within the realms of nowhere.29 This stranger/other is hostile, and defined negatively by an inescapable exclusivity she cannot escape. For the foreigner, in Kristevan terms, cannot but mimic the native language without fully grasping it, therefore is never made sovereign, and never inhabits this language for she must always translate it into that language. It can be said that Kristeva’s stranger/foreigner is thus oppressed by language and does not inhabit the more forgiving role other theorists may assign.30 Kristeva aims for harmony between the Other and the Same, yet they are distinguished without disruption, for even if the foreign asserts itself as native, and for the native to recognize the uncanny other within, a solid binary is still asserted between the two: original/mimic, foreign/native, self/other and so on. This negative definition and complete exclusion of the foreigner is perhaps something that Corps étranger disrupts, challenging the solid definitions of self/other as Kristeva prompts us to.
In her work Corps étranger, or the foreign body, Mona Hatoum disrupts boundaries of inside/outside, and self/other, by allowing us to literally walk inside her body. The work, installed in the George Pompidou Center in Paris, consists of a cylindrical structure with two openings. It allows viewers to either walk through or linger inside, where a circular video recording is projected on the floor.
When you first walk into the dimly-lit room where the white cylinder stands, your eyes are directly caught by the projection on the floor, only slightly visible through one of the two doors. From a distance, the projection looks like an eyeball. Your body will know that you are invited to go closer. This is due to the size of the cylinder that allows several bodies to be inside it at once, and the door’s size; two embodied factors that speak to your body directly. As you walk closer, however, you realize that what you assumed was a projection of an eyeball, is not. The video projection is in fact a recording of the medical scan of the inside of the artist’s body.
As you stand in the cylinder, you are taken on a disorienting, and at times dizzying, journey inside Hatoum’s body. The camera moves through multiple orifices and bodily tunnels. The cylinder’s inside is also fitted with speakers that play the accompanying audio of the work recorded by the same device/camera swallowed: whistling sounds, breathing sounds, wave sounds as the device passes through gushing liquids. The medical gaze of the camera through tunnels and valves offers perhaps the most intimate acquaintance with the artist, inside the landscape of her body. The scale of the projection engulfs “you,” and is described by Tracey Warr as a “womb-like space.”31
While inside the body of Hatoum, the projection threatens to swallow the viewer. The artist here has taken the viewer in a journey into the abject, her bodily fluids, secretions, flesh, and at times when the camera wanders out, pores and hair. By allowing the viewer to walk inside her body, the artist has made obsolete the inside/outside boundary through the use of the problematic medical science which often reduces the human body to absolutes. She has allowed us inside the foreign body, playing on her own foreignness, being a Palestinian-Lebanese artist displaying her insides in a European context. The name also describes us, since we are the foreign body inside the artist; the camera-object, the gaze. We are foreign to her insides as she is foreign to us. Self and other here are disrupted, for there is no way of knowing who has trespassed on whom here. Has the artist swallowed us/them into her or have we/they forced our/their own entry into her cylindrical abjection? Either way, the boundaries of inside/outside and self/other cease to exist in solid terms within Corps étranger.
Hatoum used the inside of her body as medium, externalizing her internals to represent foreignness. The repulsiveness of the work represents the words of Kristeva in describing her status as a foreigner as a choked up rage.32 Her description of not solidifying otherness, to me, is a description of the embodied phenomenological engagement with Hatoum’s work. Kristeva writes:
Let us not seek to solidify, to turn the otherness of the foreigner into a thing. Let us merely touch it, brush by it, without giving it permanent structure. Simply sketching out its perpetual motion through some of its variegated aspects spread out before our eyes today, even some of its former, changing representations scattered throughout history. Let us also lighten that otherness by constantly coming back to it-but more and more swiftly. Let us escape its hatred, its burden, fleeing them not through leveling and forgetting, but through the harmonious repetition of the differences it implies and spreads.”33
It is this harmonious repetition of the differences that I see in Hatoum’s work. The motion, the sound, the unity and difference of our insides. After all, Hatoum’s foreignness is not made explicit. Hatoum succeeded to create a work of art that stirs many reactions. These reactions can include disgust and nausea, as well as curiosity and fascination. It does not, however, allow for a benign passing-by. To see this work means that the body will react to this work.
Disturbances and Disruptions
I have attempted to draw alliances between the work of contemporary artist Mona Hatoum and conceptions of the body, drawing on themes such as strangeness/foreignness, intimacy and vulnerability, self and Other, presence and absence, and horror/desire. Hatoum invites the spectral figure of the Arab woman/terrorist into the gallery. Through her work we experience intimacy and vulnerability, finding ourselves to be—for a time—“lose-able” populations. She brings foreignness and abjection to the center stage of our consciousness, and challenges the dualistic split of self and other.
Mona Hatoum’s work embodies a disturbance to solid, stereotyped understandings, and a disruption to the privileged everyday lives of many gallery goers. The encounter with the work challenges the viewer by providing an inescapable embodied experience. It triggers our body to feel, it forces affect, it disrupts and disturbs us, no matter how subtle, we cannot dismiss it. Just like the body of the Arab woman, it offers paradoxes for us to contemplate, without offering answers, closure, or a unified truth.
Sarah W. Abu Bakr is a dual degree Art Education and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies PhD candidate. Sarah is half Palestinian, half Kuwaiti, and holds an MFA in Computational Studio Arts from Goldsmiths, University of London. As an artist, Sarah’s work reflects on her identity as an Arabic/Muslim woman, and meditates on the culture-religion overlap and convolution in the Arab world as well as the Palestinian diaspora. As a scholar, Sarah identifies as a postcolonial feminist and her academic interests include identity, displacement, performance art theory, and decoloniality.