Disturbing Currents

Electricity is a strange and powerful thing. An invisible force that poses a deadly threat, we are taught to fear it at an early age. However, we have come to rely unconditionally upon it as well – in failure, as in a blackout, absolute panic and chaos ensues. And let us not forget that electric potential is the fundamental basis of all cellular life – perhaps this is why we are drawn to it in an inexplicable way.

It is this dichotomy of attraction and fear, comfort and chaos, that drives Mona Hatoum’s work Current Disturbance, installed at the Whitechapel Gallery, as the third of a four part series – ‘an exhibition in 4 acts,’ displaying works from Greek collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos’s private holdings.

Mona Hatoum, Current Disturbance, 1996. Photo: Geoff Craddick/PA/Whitechapel Gallery

Created during Hatoum’s 1996 residency at Capp Street Project in San Francisco, Current Disturbance consists of 240 wire cages, each containing a single light bulb, stacked in a manner that recalls images of chicken farm housing practices. The thick black wires that lead from each lightbulb coil in the centre in an endless and menacing pit contained within the architectural structure of the cages. The entire system has been likened to a Panopticon – however we can only view it from the outside and are not implicated within it’s structures of surveillance and control.

Within the cages, the lights are enticingly warm, emitting a soft yellow glow that draws us in like moths to a flame. Or simply to an electric lightbulb for that matter. The lights pulsate and surge – slowly rising and fading, building to a great intensity then abruptly cutting out to blackness. Taking a moment, they regain their strength and begin to build once again.

Mona Hatoum, Current Disturbance, 1996. Photo: Geoff Craddick/PA/Whitechapel Gallery

There is no real pattern to their undulating, or at least not one we are able to decipher. At times they peak quickly  – others they manage to hold on for quite some time before faltering.

Intensifying their struggle, the fluctuating light is translated into electronic sound – an amplification of the current flowing through the wires that creates a low humming, a rising buzzing, and at the peak, an severe screeching that gets inside your head and leaves your ears ringing when it cuts out and the room turns to black.

Each bulb is contained within an isolated cell, but they function as a coherent, yet chaotic, system. It seems as though there is some sort of purpose for their action, but it is as if they are not able to quite get there. As they rise in intensity they collapse in upon themselves, just short of their goal, and after regaining their strength, try, try again.

They reach for something impossible for them to simultaneously achieve. Their persistence short-circuits the system and they all fail as a result – victims of their collective drive.

In modest materials – wood, wire and lightbulbs – Hatoum has constructed a system of power, pandemonium, aspiration and failure. While initially transfixed by the light, the subsequent experience is painful – we cannot create order out of the turmoil however hard we try.

A system of controlled chaos that will literally leaves your head buzzing for days.