Prayer Mat was made as part of a series of carpets that Mona Hatoum produced for the Istanbul Biennial of 1995. Upon first sight, it could have been picked up from the city’s tourist-laden Bazaar, but it in fact comprises thousands of nickel-plated brass pins glued to a canvas with a compass placed at its centre to allow orientation towards Mecca. Guy Brett has described how the work should not be seen merely as an ironic satire on religiosity but also as ‘a poetic, imagination-stretching invention, that re-circles on itself to evoke the cosmic wonder of a starry sky.’ The work feeds into a lineage of radical floor-based activities including those of Jackson Pollock, Carl Andre and Richard Long, as well as Arte Povera artists such as Jannis Kounellis and Piero Manzoni. Hatoum adds her own voice to this lineage, although the focus of her dialogue is not so much with these male trailblazers as between the materials she selects and their impact on the viewer’s perceptions and emotions.
Hatoum was born in Lebanon to Palestinian parents. She attended Beirut University, studying graphic design, before coming to England in 1975 just as the war broke out in her homeland. Forced into exile she enrolled at Byam Shaw School of Art before continuing at the Slade. In a practice that incorporates installation, sculpture, performance, photography and film and video, her work has, from the beginning, been focused on the body as the ‘axis of our perceptions’ – a site of activism, struggle and persecution. In 1985, she laced up a pair of shiny Doc Martens boots and strode through the streets of Brixton, an area experiencing severe race riots at the time. The boots evoke both vulnerability and authority; they could belong to a skinhead or a policeman. They are powerless yet hauntingly animated. The work combines a humour with the nuanced understanding of the symbolic qualities of objects that goes alongside a genuine engagement with the underlying urgency of place.
Whilst in Hatoum’s performances it is her own body that is the principle stage upon which meaning is fought out, in her installations and sculpture the key relationship is between object, viewer and space. Her deliberate forms are beautiful but loaded, revealing complexities and contradictions. A tension exists between, on the one hand, a desire for the formal harmony of abstract forms and aesthetic models, and, on the other, a deep suspicion of their potentially de-humanising qualities. The sculptures are imbued not only with the phenomenological language of Minimalism, but also a struggle for political voice in a complex contemporary world. Prayer Mat makes us consider our structures of belief and the means by which we go about private moments of spiritual engagement. It does this in a way that is both utterly serious and also light of touch; at once sensitive to the individual and also conscious of the systems within which individuals operate.
(C) Richard Parry 2009
1 Guy Brett, ‘Survey’, in Michael Archer, Guy Brett and Catherine de Zegher, Mona Hatoum (London: Phaidon, 1997), 77.
2 Hatoum in conversation with Michael Archer, in Mona Hatoum (1997), 8.