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Reverberations

A stunning video exhibit goes far beyond the Iranian culture it uses as its base

In Neshat's work, the chador symbolizes a woman living in a particular culture with tightly enforced standards of female modesty. But this is by no means an exclusively Muslim concept. The examples of controlling women in society through dress are numerous: the habits of Catholic nuns, the "garments" of Mormons, the black dresses and head scarves of Balkan widows, the conservative dress of Pentecostals, Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, the Amish...

In Neshat's films, figures in chadors become stand-ins for all women. In the same way that restroom pictograms show a stick figure in a triangular skirt to indicate a woman and a stick figure in pants to indicate a man, the black-draped women and white-shirted men of Neshat's films become symbolic of women and men as a whole. Consequently we must see the much broader meanings in Neshat's work. She tells us open-ended stories of conflict, inequity and love between men and women, tales of exile, cultural change and loneliness, experiences common to us all.

The visual impact of Neshat's work is overwhelming. In Fervor (2000), two videos are shown, side by side, each the mirror image of the other. Roads converge in dramatic abstract patterns, crowds multiply and divide. A man and a woman cross paths, pause and move on. The woman smiles slightly to herself, her chador framing the high cheekbones of her lovely face. They both file into a building for a lecture delivered by a bearded man wearing a traditional Iranian vest. Using a painting of figures as a visual aid, he tells a morality tale. You don't understand the words, but the tone and delivery of moral lectures are something close to a universal. The cadences of exhortation and repetition of the language could easily call to mind a sermon by a Baptist fundamentalist preacher or a reading of Jonathan Edwards's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."

In Shirin Neshat's Turbulent (1998), the male singer's voice is outdone by the female's.
Larry Barns
In Shirin Neshat's Turbulent (1998), the male singer's voice is outdone by the female's.

Details

Through November 30; 713-284-8250
Contemporary Arts Museum, 5216 Montrose

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In the lecture the men sit on one side of a black curtain, the women on the other. The two protagonists, who crossed paths earlier, glance over at each other. Each senses the other's presence through the curtain. The crowd begins to chant back at the speaker and the woman becomes increasingly distressed. Is it guilt or irritation? Has she sinned? Or sinned only in her thoughts? Are those one in the same? She rises and flees.

We feel the pressure of sanctions, both social and official, against women. We see the relations between the man and the woman frustrated by the outside world. But the man remains seated in the lecture hall; it is the woman who flees.

Other works such as Rapture (1999) show the dynamics between men and women as a group, while Passage (2001) also alludes to generational chasms. A crowd of black-shirted men carries a white-shrouded corpse on a litter through the desert. A circle of black-draped women kneel and dig a grave with their bare hands. As they reach forward and claw back the dirt, the camera viewing them from a distance, they appear like one great undulating entity, rhythmically spewing dust from its center. The camera shows a small girl in a white shirt and loose green pants crouched behind a pile of stones. Are the rocks for a grave? Are they for throwing? She, too, digs in the dust, building a tiny tomb. A fire ignites behind her, moving quickly in an arc over the desert, surrounding the women digging the grave and the men bearing the dead. The fire threatens to cut the child off from the elders. As with all Neshat's works, the viewer is left to puzzle out his own reading of the piece. Her work is purposely open-ended. She insists that her intent is to ask questions with her art, not answer them.

Pulse (2001) is a haunting work of yearning and isolation. A woman sits on a carpet next to a large old-fashioned radio. The room is high-ceilinged and dim; faint light comes from a single lamp next to a narrow bed and a high window with a decorative metal grille. She leans her head against the radio, caressing it like a lover as a Farsi song based on a Rumi poem emanates from the radio. She begins to sing back to the radio. You feel her yearning for escape -- from her life to a new life, from her loneliness and longing.

While much of the iconography of Neshat's work is culturally specific, the larger issues she explores are not. There is an implicit criticism of the subjugation of women and there is empathy, understanding and lament for the human condition. We cannot view her installations and remain coolly removed from them, as if we were watching a documentary about some exotic and remote culture. Neshat pierces our culturally constructed facades and touches the tender, unprotected flesh of humanity.

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