Block Collection Spotlight: Untitled (Milk Strainer), Mona Hatoum

Title: Untitled (Milk Strainer)

Artist: Mona Hatoum (1952- )

Nationality: Palestinian

Date: 1996

Medium: Wax Paper

Credit Line: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, gift of Neal Meltzer; 2015.8.10. Courtesy of the artist and Alexander and Bonin Gallery.

Curator Francis Morin invited Mona Hatoum to spend the summer of 1996 at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in Maine to live, work, and participate in religious ceremonies with ten other artists. Founded in the 18th-century England and formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, the Shakers are a Christian sect derived from the Quaker movement. Shakers practice celibacy and a communal lifestyle but are perhaps best known for their emotional and demonstrative forms of worship. Morin’s project, The Quiet in the Land: Everyday Life, Contemporary Art, and the Shakers, aimed to document the unique encounter between artists and Shakers, two groups of people that embody the value of creation in their everyday lives.

Untitled (Milk Strainer) is part of series of rubbings Hatoum created at Sabbathday Lake using common utensils found in the Shaker kitchen. It is composed of thick, grey Japanese wax paper punctured by a metal milk strainer pressed against the easily wrinkled surface. The resulting design is a simple, white floral-like image comprised of imprinted dots surrounded by creased lines. Although Hatoum is well known for transforming domestic objects into provocative and often menacing works of art, Untitled (Milk Strainer) deviates from this trajectory. Unlike No Way (1996), a sculpture comprising of a stainless-steel colander with blunt studs plugged into each of its holes, which she also created at Sabbathday Lake, Untitled (Milk Strainer) transfers a three-dimensional object into a flat two-dimensional space.  It is difficult to discern the subtle imprints on the grey paper which creates a sense of uncertainty. By displaying the marks created by an object, not the object itself, Hatoum creates a new way of picturing the object.

The tactile nature of the rubbing leads the viewer to imagine the way in which it was made. This very action references the kind of precise attention that Shakers give to every aspect in their daily lives and devout commitment to work and the belief that, by approaching even the most modest tasks with the utmost respect and care, they are strengthening their connection to God. Hatoum told New York Times reporter Kay Larson in 1997 that, although she refuses to read the Bible, she admits to finding comfort in the meditative quality of Shaker life. For the artist, patient deliberation was not synonymous with God, but with a sense of awareness. Perhaps her choice to represent a transient moment—like filtering milk through a strainer—is intended to illustrate that even the most mundane of tasks can be beautiful when recorded.

The artist has said: “It was in the Shaker community that I started examining this issue of home and what it means […] It was quite an eye-opener […] it made me reflect on my nomadic life and how very undomesticated it is” (ARTnews 2015). Hatoum’s upbringing fostered a deeply embedded sense of displacement; although she was born in Lebanon, her family is Palestinian and was never able to obtain Lebanese identity cards. In 1975, Hatoum traveled to London for what was supposed to be a short visit but, because war broke out in Lebanon, she was forced to stay and was unable to see her family for nearly a decade. Hatoum has admitted that this lack of stability was greatly discouraging and has stated that it has imbedded themes of uncertainty and dislocation in her work.

Inspired by her experience with the Shakers, people who for over two centuries have stood apart, but not retreated from, dominant cultural practice, Hatoum’s work may be interpreted as an attempt to recalibrate things we take as given. During her stay at Sabbathday Lake, Hatoum experienced an alternative social paradigm that was founded on the belief in the spiritual value of the activities of daily life and was presented a unique lens to question typical notions of domesticity and religion (The Quiet in the Land). The ambiguity inherent in Untitled (Milk Strainer), can be seen as a reflection of this position and the artist’s own complex relationship Shaker ideals. However, when I see the piece, any initial feelings of uncertainty are moderated by the simple, muted color pallete and elegant design. For me, these aestetic choices provide comfort and a reassurance that continued examination of the piece will not be burdensome, but meditative.

Larson, Kay. “A Month in Shaker Country.” The New York Times, August 10, 1997. Accessed July 7, 2016.

“Making the Ordinary Anything But: Mona Hatoum on Her Unnerving Sculptures, In 2005.” By the editors   of ARTnews. ARTnews, August 21, 2015. Accessed July 27, 2016.

The Quiet in the Land. “Shakers.”

— Contributed by Curatorial Intern, Mai Morsch (BA, Art History 2017)

Block Collection Spotlight invites a closer look at objects in the Block Museum permanent collection from students, staff, faculty, and museum audiences.


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