ISTANBUL – As the glass-blower exhales gently into the end of a long, hollow metal pole, Mona Hatoum stares intently at the clump of molten red glass dangling just inches from her face.
She nods and the blower forces the glass into the bars of what looks like a small steel cage, only cut in half. As the protesting glass begins to bend and curve around the dimensions of the cage, finally she puts up a hand.
“Okay,” Hatoum smiles, taking a step back before loudly sighing and brushing away a tuff of curly black hair stuck to her forehead.
Within a few minutes, the installation is cool enough to lay a thick glove on, and two workers grab it by the sides and place it quickly inside a nearby “healing oven” where it will stay for the next day, or until the two forcefully fused materials decide to yield to their fate.
The installment, still untitled, is part of a follow-up to Hatoum’s 2012 piece “Kapan,” which means “trap.” In a few months, the contraption in the healing oven will undergo a few more changes before starting its new life as a piece of art, forever under the scrutiny of pretentious, moustachioed critics.
For Beirut-born Palestinian contemporary artist Hatoum, the road from furnace to farrago starts right here, deep in the hills of rural metropolitan Istanbul.
The traditional Turkish glass workshop Cam Ocağı Vakfı, or The Glass Furnace, lies hidden behind a massive gated complex between mindfully tended farms and grazing land. This is a side of Istanbul few tourists will ever see.
But Hatoum is no stranger to unconventional territory; for the past 20 years the artist has been a thriving force in the international contemporary art scene.
Working primarily with video installations and everyday household objects, Hatoum has amassed a myriad of international accolades and praise for her work.
Her multi-medium pieces touch on different personal themes with political or social undertones like displacement, war, gender and identity. Her materials differ drastically in size and content, some occupying entire rooms with others are small as a few weaved strands of hair.
“She says her work isn’t autobiographical, but of course her work is influenced by her background and it comes into the work as a sense, as a feeling. You can see her individual background in her work, but she makes it accessible to everyone,” says Emre Baykal, Director of Exhibitions at Arter – Space for Art.
Arter, located in downtown Istanbul, has been exhibiting a 20-year retrospective of Hatoum’s work for over two months. Baykal says that in that time, her exhibition has drawn over 16,000 to the space.
“Kapan,” is just one of over 30 pieces displayed at the retrospective, entitled “You Are Still Here.” The piece is made up of five closed steel cages, each with a unique ball of cherry glass, trapped inside the steel bars.
Today, Hatoum is just another artist leaning intently into a sweltering 1280 ⁰C open oven, come to make a pilgrimage of sorts and work with the internationally recognized glass masters at The Glass Furnace.
“When I’m doing an exhibition, like at Arter, I like to produce work locally,” Hatoum says, taking a break from her work to step outside. “I like to search for workshops, or hand crafts, or people in the location who would be interested in working with me on a project.”
She says she chose to work with The Glass Furnace because of their willingness to experiment with the physical limitations of glass. Hatoum says that she first visited several other furnaces and workshops in Europe, but they had refused to work for her, claiming the process was impossible.
“[The Glass Furnace] had a very open attitude, because it’s not easy to merge glass and metal together, because they have different expansion rates,” she says.
Vakıf Kurucusu, who founded The Glass Furnace just over 10 years ago, says artists like Hatoum bring new life to the age-old practice of glass-blowing.
“I love when people and their children come to learn what we do here,” he says, pointing to a group of young Turkish families watching Hatoum work. “They look with different eyes through the glass now, not just tea glasses or windows. This is art, these are art pieces.”