A simple grid-like fabric lies on a horizontal vitrine in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Without Boundary”. This grid contains the intersectional lines typically found in its aptly named title, “Keffieh”. However, Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum has created a complex framework through the addition of her own hair woven into the fabric. Indeed, a whole set of discourses informs this action and a whole set of discourses grows out of the piece as well. We must ask, why is an art piece created by the artist and what is at stake? It is commonly argued that the modernist temple of MoMA’s inclination towards deeming the artist as an Individual creator of a transcendental atemporal piece is erroneous and dangerous. And yet, as Foucault mentions, “It is not enough, however, to repeat the empty affirmation that the author has disappeared.” Foucault opens certain discourses that later Jaleh Mansoor continues in “A Spectral Universality: Mona Hatoum’s Biopolitics of Abstraction” (2006) in regards to “Keffieh”. Through Mona Hatoum’s “Keffieh” we can question how art pieces are both shaped by and shape discourses centering identity, subjectivity, and authorship. Particularly, Hatoum’s complex diasporic background points to the ways in which the author as well as the art piece is produced through a variety of political discourses. In addition, the grid itself undoes structural binaries of universality and particularity, abstraction and materiality. Finally, the placement of this grid in MoMA points to the role of institutions of power in circulating and legitimating discourses brought to bear by “Keffieh”.
Hatoum is both Palestinian and not. Never having traveled to the land associated with her identity, there is a sense of flux and ambiguity common in diaspora communities. These are significant political issues, and yet it would be facile to attribute the production of “Keffieh” solely to Hatoum’s personal life. Foucault points to the artist not as sole creator but as a production of various discourses. If we consider that there is no prediscursive reality, we can question the power of the creator, and subsequently upheave this power: we decenter humanist thought in order to challenge the idea that we are the sole agents of our futures. This temporal and existential helplessness is reified in Mona Hatoum’s work in reference to her lack of legitimate agency on her own land. Certainly, Hatoum is the product of the discourses concerning identity, citizenship, and mapped territory. There is a theme of flux present in Hatoum’s identity that is also present in the question of discourses concerning the author and the art piece. When Foucault says in reference to authorship, “a question of creating a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears,” the grid in Keffieh manifests this abstract universality. The artist is lost within the atemporal cage-like lines. However, it is not enough to say that the piece is devoid of subjectivity. This not a grid that transcends history: there is political symbolism of struggle within the grid. Hatoum’s grid signifies her own struggles in the search for a lost homeland. But it is not a singular struggle. The grid is also a representation of resistance in many forms. Particularly, it is a resistance that points to a space found more directly in the West Bank, but also found wherever we speak of Palestinian resistance. It is the resistance of providing a singular definition to an identity, any identity, especially the Palestinian one. It is the resistance necessarily brought out by a Palestinian identity that refused to be defined and furthermore refuses the formation of a universal signified “human nature”. Universally, the grid points to a resistance of the neutralization of subjectivity. As such, the subject and the artist do in fact disappear and reappear constantly and we can never ignore the immensity of the discourses that have shaped Hatoum’s work, as Foucault would mention, her “name seems always to be present” in “Keffieh” “revealing, or at least characterizing, its mode of being”. As Mansoor relays, there is a spectrality of the author that constantly resists the grid: this is the cyclical struggle of authorship.
In “What is the Author?” Foucault works to challenge the idea of universality by pulling the artwork away from the transcendental and grounding it in the material through contemplation of discourses. Hatoum has created an art piece that does not fall easily in universality or particularity, however. As Mansoor explains, the grid demands an initial structuralist explication. The “Keffieh” may be a representation of a grid and all the universal attributes it signifies, however, Hatoum defies this universality by incorporating her hair. This hair is deeply personal and visceral—it magnifies its right to be there—and is not a representation of a thing, rather it is that thing. Through unpacking this structuralist binary of the material and the universal the “Keffieh” itself produces discourses. Mansoor mentions “Hatoum occupies the diasporic condition of simultaneous identification and dis-identification with the site of her cultural heritage. The artist’s work speaks to this condition, complicating any claim to identity by noting that its terms are contingent upon a set of abstractions. The concreteness of location, of place, no longer obtains in enforced diaspora.” The “Keffieh” parallels this very ambiguity and this simultaneous concreteness and lack of concreteness; the grid identifies with universality but also dis-identifies with it through the hair’s identification with a set of material particulars. We can think of Foucault’s biopower—the right to maintain power over one’s body, life, and death–when we think of the placement of the hair in the grid. This biopower is manipulated in capitalist systems wherein institutions hold power over bodies. The grid is perhaps a symbol of the late modernist capitalist moment, a need capitalize the body and its labour and to maximize efficiency. The mode of production involved in an art piece implies a certain cyclicity. The threading of the keffieh is a very monotonous, cyclical, laborious act. By placing her own hair in “Keffieh”, Hatoum is breaking the cyclicity of the mode of production, perhaps gaining agency through biopower of her own body, a body that has been alienated through deterritorialization. To think of all the wars that have been fought and legitimized by the displacement of bodies is tremendous and we realize that power is exercised very overtly at the level of bodies. The material qualities of “Keffieh” thus also dialectically serve to produce abstraction—an abstraction of diaspora, of the power associated with controlling bodies. This is done through this very structuralist binaried use of material hair framed in an exact efficient grid.
The art piece may be fundamentally discursive, but it is also important to study the power implicit in the valorization of these discourses. Foucault would ask us to consider the power associated with the mode of production involved in art. Art relies on resources and who has control on these resources. It is institutions that distribute meanings, and the museum, MoMA, that have the power to legitimize this art piece. Hans Haacke, in his work “Museums: Managers of Consciousness”, defines the museum as an industry, a controller of power in the distribution and manipulation of “consciousness” or discourses. It is especially important to note the extreme complicitness of the museum in the production of discourses and the danger of an institution’s moral opaqueness. As Haacke mentions, “An institution’s intellectual and moral position becomes tenuous only if it claims to be free of ideological bias. And such an institution should be challenged if it refuses to acknowledge that it operates under constraints deriving from its sources of funding and from the authority to which it reports.” The “Keffieh”’s placement in MoMA is particularly radical act in the proliferation of discourses. When we think of MoMA, there is a sense of the static universal: we think of the great artists who are dedicated to modernist affirmations of the present moment. And here is Mona Hatoum’s work, a piece that is transgressive in the sense that it is very much bound by a chain of political particulars. The fact that the variety of discourses that grow out of this art piece–the discursive power of the author and of identity, the structuralist binaries of abstraction and materiality—are legitimated by MoMA, an institution that is typically associated with atemporal modernism presents a very explicit act of political deviance. The juxtaposition of the discourses associated with “Keffieh” as well as those associated with MoMA serve to amplify the incredible role of power in art institutions.
In the Foucauldian spirit, “where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power”. “Keffieh” is bound in power relations, discourses created by power and disseminated by power, and yet, it never supercedes this power. And in this vein, this power births multiple forms of resistance as well as being informed by resistance. Mona Hatoum resists hegemonic oppression in her homeland; multi-faceted “Keffieh” resists the ahistoric universalist agenda of MoMA; human hair resists the atemporal grid; particularity resists universality; materiality resists abstraction; identity resists any means of definition. And simultaneously, this resistance does not produce a clean relief or a transcendence. This resistance is necessary completely because power will always be present and as its antagonist resistance will continue.
Foucault, Michael. “History of Sexuality, Volume 1: The Will to Knowledge” (London: Penguin, 1976), pp. 95-96.
Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” (1970) in Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow, (New York: Panthenon Books), pp. 101-120.
Haacke, Hans. “Museums, Managers of Consciousness” in Hans Haacke, Unfinished Business (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1987), pp. 61-73.
Mansoor, Jaleh. “A Spectral Universality: Mona Hatoum’s Biopolitics of Abstraction” in October Magazine, (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2010), pp. 49-74.
From where does poetry come?
From the heart’s intelligence
from a hunch about the unknown
or from a rose in the desert?
The personal is not personal
and the universal not universal
I suppose I am I supposed I’m not
The more I listen to my heart the more I’m filled with the words of the unseen
and lifted high to the treetops
I fly aimless from dream to dream
Belonging to a thousand years of poetry
born in the darkness of white linen
I don’t know who amongst us was I
and who the dream
Am I my dream?
You waste the attention of your eyes,
the glittering labour of your hands,
and knead the dough enough for dozens of loaves
of which you’ll taste not a morsel;
you are free to slave for others–
you are free to make the rich richer.
The moment you’re born
they plant around you
mills that grind lies
lies to last you a lifetime.
You keep thinking in your great freedom
a finger on your temple
free to have a free conscience.
Your head bent as if half-cut from the nape,
your arms long, hanging,
you saunter about in your great freedom:
with the freedom of being unemployed.
You love your country
as the nearest, most precious thing to you.
But one day, for example,
they may endorse it over to America,
and you, too, with your great freedom–
you have the freedom to become an air-base.
You may proclaim that one must live
not as a tool, a number or a link
but as a human being–
then at once they handcuff your wrists.
You are free to be arrested, imprisoned
and even hanged.
There’s neither an iron, wooden
nor a tulle curtain
in your life;
there’s no need to choose freedom:
you are free.
But this kind of freedom
is a sad affair under the stars.
Translated by Taner Baybars
Nazim Hikmet, a Turkish Marxist poet
Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: Part Three
Orwell says somewhere that no one ever writes the real story of their life.
The real story of a life is the story of its humiliations.
If I wrote that story now—
radioactive to the end of time—
people, I swear, your eyes would fall out, you couldn’t peel
the gloves fast enough
from your hands scorched by the firestorms of that shame.
Your poor hands. Your poor eyes
to see me weeping in my room
or boring the tall blonde to death.
Once I accused the innocent.
Once I bowed and prayed to the guilty.
I still wince at what I once said to the devastated widow.
And one October afternoon, under a locust tree
whose blackened pods were falling and making
illuminating patterns on the pathway,
I was seized by joy,
and someone saw me there,
and that was the worst of all,
lacerating and unforgettable.