Casting a long shadow

Mona Hatoum, Current Disturbance, 1996

The whimsy of Noble and Webster’s use of shadows is witty enough but ultimately – for me at least – the work is unsatisfyingly slight. I enjoy it well enough at the time but the work never really gets under my skin. But shadow is a powerful force and it’s one that Mona Hatoum uses to really good effect.

In installations like Current Disturbance – which I saw at the Whitchapel Gallery in 2010 – Hatoum uses shadow as a meaning force. The bare lightbulbs fade in and out and the crackle of an electric current gives a sinister edge to the changing light levels. The gridded structure – reminiscent of the cages occupied by battery hens perhaps – feels prison-like. The installation has an architectural feel, but if this is a city space it is a densely-populated and uncomfortable one.

Light Sentence, 1992

In Light Sentence, Hatoum created a dark, unsettling space with a single light casting long shadows through the caged space as it moved up and down. The bare light bulb carries connotations of interrogation, particularly given the feeling on entrapment that goes with the fenced in nature of the space. The movement of the light means that the space changes and the shadows fluctuate.

Misbah, 2006

Misbah – the Arabic word for lantern – creates a space that is both beautiful and disturbing. As the lantern rotates it creates images in light on the walls. The illuminated figures circle the space – and viewer – as the follow one another around the walls, guns raised. In this and other works, Hatoum – born in Beirut to Palestinian parents – challenges our clichéd preconceptions of the Middle East. Hatoum – who was on a visit to London when war broke out in Lebanon in 1975 so became exiled by chance – has used her own body, hair, cultural artefacts to talk about her own separation from family and culture. I’m sure I’ll come back to Mona Hatoum’s work again, but in her use of light and shade she manages to evoke both the magical and sinister nature of shadows, making work that is both beautiful and challenging.

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