Toni Roberts discusses how Mona Hatoum’s radiant red sculpture, Hot Spot III, 2009, has become a relevant work of art during her time in lockdown and a metaphor for our cage-like existence.
It was back in the summer of 2016 that I was first introduced to Mona Hatoum’s work when I attended her exhibition at Tate Modern. I was struck by how impressive and daring I found her work. Included in the exhibition were pieces that used unconventional materials such as human pubic hair (Jardin Public, 1993), enlarged everyday objects (Grater Divide, 2002) and medical imaging procedures to explore the artist’s own body (Corps Éranger, 1994). As with every gallery visit, I went to the shop to buy some postcards. One of the postcards I chose was Hot Spot III (2009), a giant, cage-like globe made of stainless steel with neon tubes outlining the world’s continents in red light. I chose to purchase this postcard because I found the piece to be one of the works that stuck in my mind the most. The light emitting from the sculpture bathed its surroundings in a red neon glow. It affected the space so that the gallery became part of the work; a space that I myself occupied rendering me part of the work too.
Mona Hatoum was born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1952 to a Palestinian family. Hatoum currently resides in London where she settled after war broke out in her home country in 1975 (showonshow.com). Conflict, political unrest and exile are recurrent themes in her work. She is interested in gender and race, the relationship between politics, the individual and systems of control within society and the world.
The title of the work, Hot Spot III, is taken from the term ‘hot spot’, which refers to a place of military or civil unrest. Critics and art-lovers have said that the sculpture shows the world as an entire political hot spot and presents the world as a danger zone (highlighted with the red neon lights). Hatoum herself said that her intention with the piece was to show that spots of political unrest, conflicts and war are not particular to certain areas or countries, but affect the world as a whole (YouTube). The colour red has traditionally been associated with danger and heat. I think that if Hatoum had chosen to use a different colour light, the work probably would have had a different mood. The red light and the buzzing sound that emit from the sculpture impose on the viewer, creating energy between the spectator and the work. The grid of stainless steel (another trope that is recurrent in her work) made to represent the globe is like a cage, a trap. I do not think there has ever been, nor will ever be a moment of global peace. Perhaps the cage is showing that the world is trapped in conflict, that somewhere in the world there are tensions.
Hot Spot III (2009) follows other similar works such as Hot Spot (2006) and precedes Hot Spot (stand) (2018). Hot Spot is smaller than Hot Spot III with its diameter at 217cm (universes.art), while Hot Spot III measures at 234 x 223 x 223cm. Hot Spot (stand) is the smallest of the three measuring at 172 x 83 x 80 cm (ocula.com). I haven’t seen either Hot Spot or Hot Spot (stand) in the flesh. I don’t think that there is a great deal of difference between Hot Spot and Hot Spot III (for this reason I will not include an image of Hot Spot), so I imagine its impact is much the same. Hot Spot (stand), however, is noticeably a lot smaller than the other two sculptures. I don’t have first-hand experience of it, but I can imagine it has a very different feel to Hot Spot III. Looking at pictures, it doesn’t seem to bathe its surroundings in a red glow as the other two sculptures do. It doesn’t look as imposing and, although the message of the piece is the same, perhaps doesn’t have the same impact.
Since we’ve been in lockdown, I have looked at this postcard and been able to relate to the work in a way that I was unable to do before. It has a whole new meaning for me. Although the work itself is very imposing, it is easy – at least I found it easy – to still see themes of conflict as something ‘other’, despite the fact the work conveys that conflict is everywhere. It is a concept I could understand, but not one I felt connected to. I didn’t feel war as part of my life; I was outside the cage looking in. I was in the red zone, I could hear the buzzing, but I could also get away.
Things are different now. We have all been distancing ourselves from each other and staying within our areas, not permitted to travel too far (although this is set to change soon, to an extent). There are times when I have a yearning to get on a train and go somewhere, but government guidelines advise that I should not do this. And so I feel trapped in my home and my surroundings. Now I’m in the cage. I see the red neon lights outlining the continents as all of the borders that are closed. You cannot cross the red lines, you are locked out. If you cross the red line you might get burnt. Politicians describe the current pandemic in terms of conflict. They refer to ‘peace times’ and how the fight against Covid-19 is like being at war. People must stay in their homes as they had to in war times, there is news that many people are dying and the hospitals are working extra hard. It is amazing how relevant this piece is now and in a way that none of us could imagine. Like in Hot Spot III, the whole world is affected by this conflict, this war. I imagine that a great number of people will now be able to see themselves trapped in this cage-globe. However, there will come a point when we are through with the bad times and things start to get back to a “new normal”. We will be able to go to work again, to see friends, to go to the cinema, the theatre and attend gigs. I’m longing for the time when I can turn off the red neon lights.
About Toni Roberts
Toni Roberts is a writer from and based in London. She primarily writes plays and had a short play performed as part of The Platform at The Bread & Roses Theatre, which ran on 23rd and 24th February 2020. She studied English Language and Spanish at the University of Westminster where she first got into playwriting and has recently expanded her writing range to include poetry and essays.
This piece was commissioned for Postcards in Isolation
In times of loss and separation, art can be a source of inspiration, solace and connection. In her self-conceived series, Postcards in Isolation, writer and editor Rochelle Roberts has turned to the art on her bedroom wall to reflect on the difficulties quarantine and social distancing presents. Looking at artists as disparate as Claude Cahun, Dorothy Cross, Eileen Agar and Dorothea Tanning, Roberts has explored the sadness, uncertainty and joy of life in lockdown, and demonstrated how art can help us grapple with such feelings. As a guest editor for Lucy Writers, Roberts now wants to open the series up to other writers. Is there a postcard or a work of art that speaks to you at this time? If so, send your submissions to Rochelle via email@example.com and see here for more information.