Impenetrable by Mona Hatoum

Mona Hatoum

Impenetrable, 2009, Steel and Nylon monofilament, 300 x 300 x 300 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Purchased with funds contributed by the Collections Council and the International Director's Council, with additional funds from Ann Ames, Tiqui Atencio Demirdjian, and Marcio Fainzilber, 2012, 2012.10, © Mona Hatoum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / Art Resource, NY

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Borders and Boundaries

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Impenetrable confuses. The cube formed by suspending barbed wire rods from the ceiling seems simultaneously fragile and intimidating. The thinness of the wires invites entry into the spaces between them while their spiky danger makes this impossible. We look on, stuck, perhaps wanting to explore the cube from within but scared and unable to do so.

Artist Mona Hatoum was born in Beirut to Christian Palestinian parents, and she has lived in London since 1975. Her work often emerges from her own experience of exile, and grapples with ambiguity and paradox. Impenetrable provokes consideration of structures that seek to confine and deter, enclose and repulse at the same time—edifices such as fences, camps, and detention centres (Hinkson n.d.)

If the twentieth century was one of growing global connectivity, the twenty-first century has so far been defined by the reassertion of national borders and identities in much of the Global North, and elsewhere too. Barbed wire fences, walls, and migrant camps have been constructed within and at the edges of Europe and North America (Schain 2018; Bieber 2018). These have been designed to contain people. They have also aimed to deter other would-be migrants from making the journey. Numerous commentators are suggesting that free-market, cosmopolitan optimism about the endless possibilities that could result from overcoming distance and difference has dissolved for many in Western capitalist economies into something else: a desire to restore an imagined bounded national past. Simultaneously, though, the promise of what lies beyond the boundary—safety, a move away from poverty, hope—continues to draw people to seek ways around or over them.

Beginning with the departure from Judah to Moab by Naomi, Elimelech, and their two sons, the book of Ruth is imbued with borders and boundaries. They are woven throughout the narrative and bifurcate the characters. When Ruth accompanies Naomi back from Moab to Judah, she crosses not just a geographical border but a cultural and a religious one. It is a border she must continue to negotiate in chapters 3–4, for she never escapes the label ‘the Moabite’ (4:5, 10). Gender boundaries also come to the fore with the distinct familial, sexual, economic, and legal roles of women and men of the time both highlighted and challenged.

Like the barbed wire of Hatoum’s structure, these boundaries have a power of resistance that is belied by their self-effacing delicacy. They may be unobtrusive but they are dense.



Bieber, Florien. 2018. ‘Is Nationalism on the Rise? Assessing Global Trends’, Ethnopolitics 17.5: 519–40

Hickson, Lauren. n.d. ‘Mona Hatoum: Impenetrable’, [accessed 20 January 2020]

Schain, Martin. 2018. Shifting Tides: Radical-Right Populism and Immigration Policy in Europe and the United States (Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute)

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