Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

Disturbance: John Stezaker and Mona Hatoum at Whitechapel Gallery

by Genevieve O

03 May 2011

What’s more disturbing? John Stezaker’s echoing eyes disrupting a seemingly normal photographic portrait, or Mona Hatoum’s monolithic buzzing structure? Both artists, contained within London’s Whitechapel Gallery recently, were given platform for these respective disturbances to shine.

John Stezaker’s exhibition in the downstairs Gallery 1 presented a collection of over 90 ‘collage’ works from the 1970s to today. While some of the British artist’s works fit easily into the category of collage, others move beyond the confines of this label. Stezaker works with found images – old black-and-white studio portraits, vintage postcards and movie stills. A well-dressed couple move in for the kiss, but their faces are replaced with two rocky cliff faces, aligned with the margins of their original outlines. Here, both found images have something to offer: the kissing couple’s faces are as immovable as the ancient rock formations; the cliff faces are given life and character and seem, owing to their ‘body language’, to want to embrace.

‘Beyond collage’ images see Stezaker splice and repeat certain elements of the image. A thin sliver is taken from a woman’s black-and-white portrait and layered over her existing eyes, so that her eyes appear as a series of ripples, a stutter. The transplanted eyes, slightly darker in reproduction, appear almostas before the surgery. This almost there element is complex and Stezaker repeats it in the works where perspective is skewed – spliced and reversed, like the inversion of symbols on a pack of playing cards. He not only disturbs and alters the status quo – reminding us that photographic images don’t simply hold a mirror up to life; that every image represents interpretation – he also disturbs the lifetime of his material, cutting, layering and discarding parts of his found images.

From the quiet, contemplative space downstairs you would never guess as to the immensity of Mona Hatoum’s Current Disturbancein the gallery floors above. Act 3 of Keeping it Real: An Exhibition in 4 Acts (the exhibition of the D Daskalopoulos Collection from Greece), Hatoum’s wooden-and-metal structure is at once elegant and repellent: elegant for the symmetry of the structure, the grid-like pattern of the stacked wire boxes, and the evocative and romantic glow of the light bulbs; repellent for the god-awful noise emitted from the electrical element that dominates the work. This noise comes in irregular waves, growing more intense as the lights shine and subsiding as they glow. Housed in a relatively small room, Current Disturbance is a private installation, one you experience with others but understand alone as the lights are down and the sound is up. While in its presence, and, especially, when emerging from its embrace, your ears ringing like after a concert, you are faced with the reality of how electricity and machines like this rule our existence – the whirring of the laptop; the washing machine on spin; the muffled noise of the next-door neighbour’s vacuum. Somewhere, we are all rigidly plugged in, like Hatoum’s compartmentalised light bulbs.

In broadly different ways, both Stezaker and Hatoum show us what the abnormal looks, and sounds, like.