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June 22 - August 3, 2003 at The Museum of Contemporary Art [MOCA], Downtown

by Anne Martens

The pathos of exile is the loss of contact with the solidity and the satisfaction of earth.
—Mahmud Darwish, Palestinian poet

Boundaries divide and control. Barbed-wire fences, roadblocks, and border checkpoints symbolize the contemporary Palestinian experience. Restricted movement--the result of a volatile political climate--can be a constant reminder of cultural difference.

Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum’s personal experience is one of double exile: First, that of her Palestinian family in Lebanon, and later, her own move to England necessitated by Lebanon’s civil war.

“Map” (second version, detail),
1999, mixed media instal-
lation, dimensions vary.

The Museum of Contemporary Art recently purchased Hatoum’s Map (1999), a provocative installation about the political and cultural boundaries that shape identity. It implies a state of in-betweenness, a sense of belonging anywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Map is made up of clear glass marbles spread across a floor, their arrangement seemingly random until the viewer gradually recognizes continents. National and political borders, though, are not marked. The marbles’ transparency and the fact that they could roll easily suggests the fluid nature of such boundaries. The marbles’ placement on the floor hints at the possibility of walking on them and shifting their arrangement--a metaphor for political instability.

Over the years, Hatoum has made a number of floor-works, some representing maps, but also doormats, prayer mats, and carpets. Although the analogy of a woven prayer carpet alludes to Hatoum’s Islamic cultural background, she prefers to avoid being too autobiographical or didactic. “There isn’t a conscious effort on my part to speak directly about my background and history,” she has asserted. Nevertheless, personal history has shaped her perceptions. “It comes into my work as a feeling of unsettledness. The feeling of not being able to take anything for granted, even doubting the solidity of the ground you walk on.”

In recent years, Hatoum has focused on maps as a metaphor for global politics. In Continental Drift (2000), she constructed a clear plastic map with metal filings for seas. A magnetized bar charged the filings, shaping them into waves that overlapped continents. Present Tense (1996)--a floor map illustrating the division of land under the 1993 Oslo Peace Agreement--consisted of olive-oil soap blocks punctured with red beads.
Although Map has little personal specificity, its reference to global instability is one that we can all relate to. But it is the personal references, however indirect, that make Hatoum’s work powerful.