I saw Corps étranger  by Mona Hatoum for the first time in 1995 when it formed part of the Tate’s wonderful Rites of Passage exhibition marking the end of the twentieth century. I was just beginning my art degree then and I’d never seen anything like it; there wasn’t anything like it. It made a very deep impression on me, the fibre optic camera moving slowly across the body’s landscape and disappearing down orifice’s and into deep thickets of hair was foreign territory for me.
Now all these years later and twenty years older I have had perforce a few occasions when I became a little more familiar with my own moist and glistening interior and I have become aware of just how complex this installation must have been to execute.
The perfect white encasing cylinder was a departure from the artist’s usual oeuvre and so evocative of one of Le Corbusier’s primary solids. But it also served to create a space that was both inside and part of, yet also separate from the space of the museum. The neutral, clean surface of this column was cool and sophisticated, with a whiff of Huxley’s Brave New World about it – a giant test tube for creation?
Once inside I watched vertiginously from above the journey moving relentlessly onwards on a forward momentum through familiar and unfamiliar parts towards an unknown goal. This time my added years and own personal experiences has lent this work added significance and a more personal appreciation of just how magically Mona Hatoum manipulates her audience.
I had plenty of time, and the patience to wait and allow the works to communicate to me. Three works especially moved me and highlighted the artist’s prescience. Light Sentence  was visually interesting from the outset – this installation was made up of square wire mesh lockers stacked to create a three-sided enclosure of over human height. They resembled animal cages, prisons or might have been short hand for modernist architecture? The incredibly bright, single light hanging in the centre threw shadows of fine, intersecting lines and squares onto the outer walls.
Standing quietly and watching the shadow play on the walls I slowly became aware that the disturbed ambient air in the room was making the light bulb swing very, very slightly on its wire thus creating the effect of shadows that were moving rhythmically up and down much like that of breathing. This subtle, uncanny movement, full of suspense and unspoken threat spoke to me of sinister Prison Camps for terrorists.
One of Hatoum’s earliest works, Don’t smile, you’re on camera!  was a performance where she surreptitiously mixed live shots of audience members with images of naked bodies and x-rays, making it appear that the camera could see through layers of clothing. In 1980 how could she have foreseen cameras in at airport check ins which actually do see through your clothing – all introduced without any complaints about invasion of privacy or decency?
Finally there was a room full with a combination of kitchen utensils and household furniture, connected to each other with electric wire, through which ran a live electric current. Homebound  crackled and fizzed with the sound of the amplified hum of the fluctuating current which alternately illuminating separate parts of the installation. At first I didn’t think this complicated set up was very effective. I sat on the bench conveniently placed in the room; I sat and watched the loop of disparate, mundane objects lighting up and then going off and didn’t get it. What was the connection? OK so most of the objects were distressed metal, cooking utensils, whisks, colanders, chairs, tables, stools, buckets. Then I noticed the empty metal baby’s crib, there was nothing to soften the hard, metal surfaces, no mattress or pillow. Under the cot was a metal potty, white inside. Then the lights went on and this potty glowed brightly and seemed to draw attention to the complete abandonment of the place and suddenly into my mind came the pictures of bombed out and abandoned building in Aleppo and I got it.
Mona Hatoum’s work does seem to improve with age. Her work. Her Art. Her magical ability to force her audience to experience something and to empathise with what concerned her mind at the time. Taking the time with this retrospective I became conscious that for Hatoum the viewer is always part of her considerations when contemplating her work. Seeing all these works together we are moved from vicarious involvment, bound up in hopeless adventure, empowered as a voyeur, entrapped, and with luck just a bit of self-recognition. If you go please give this very well curated exhibition plenty of time and an open mind.