Panoramas of starkly beautiful desert landscapes, haunting vocals sung in a foreign tongue, dark-haired men in crisp white shirts, women wearing chadors -- these are a few of the elements in the stunning video work of Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum as a part of her eponymous solo exhibition. Neshat's work is couched in the visuals and culture of Islamic countries, but its power reverberates into other cultures.
In Turbulent (1998), a wall-sized video projection shows a dark-haired man in a crisp white shirt walking out onto a stage. Other men in white shirts occupy the wooden auditorium seats. The man turns his back on the audience and begins to sing into a vintage silver microphone. His voice is beautifully resonant as he sings in a plaintive and imploring tone. As he sings, he faces us as well as the image projected on the opposite wall. It shows the back of a woman clad in a flowing black robe, her head covered with a long black lace scarf. She faces the same auditorium, but the seats are empty.
The man finishes singing and turns to the audience, which claps enthusiastically. Suddenly we hear a low, sonorous tone that gradually becomes louder. The man turns as if he hears it, to stand slightly open-mouthed in front of the microphone. On the opposite screen the camera slowly and sensuously pans around to the woman's face. She sings a wordless song of pure emotion. Some sounds seem to come from deep down, as with a Siberian throat-singer; others ring out clear, echoing like the call to prayer; there is a cluster of sounds like a flock of startled birds and a repetitive, gasping lowing that sounds orgasmic in its acceleration.
The man has delivered a conventionally beautiful, classical love chant based on a 13th-century poem by Jalal-al-Din Rumi, a Sufi mystic. But the impact of his voice has been negated by the woman's pure, visceral vocals. No one has gathered to hear her, but her power is such that they hear her just the same. It is a fantastic piece, characteristic of Neshat's ability to create striking image juxtapositions and to skillfully use the emotionally evocative power of music. Composer and performer Sussan Deyhim played the woman and created her audio.
Because she's Iranian, because she's a woman, it is tempting for people to view Shirin Neshat's work through a political lens, and to interpret it solely as a commentary on the relationships between men and women in traditional Islamic society or the extremes of postrevolutionary Iran. While this is certainly an element of the work, adhering to such a specific and narrow interpretation does the work and the artist a disservice.
Neshat left Iran at age 17 to pursue her studies in the United States. She visited her home country again after the Islamic revolution to find a country that was almost unrecognizable, so sweeping had been the changes from the Shah's secular dictatorship to the Ayatollah's dictatorial theocracy. Shirin considers herself a Western artist; she began her career here and is based in New York.
But distance has allowed her to pluck powerful, dramatic and "exotic" elements from her culture. Her long absence allows her to view it with a level of objectivity mixed with the fascination of an outsider. She is equally fluent in Western culture and is able to view it with a similar incisiveness. Her work Soliloquy (2000) juxtaposes two films of Neshat herself wearing a chador. One places her in a starkly beautiful village in Turkey with ancient stone-walled buildings; the other shows her in an urban Western city. The videos are shown opposite each other, and each woman pauses, seemingly to watch the other. The films end with one woman fleeing across a hilly, arid landscape, while the other disappears down a desolate city street, as Neshat explores the dislocation and the isolation of a woman trapped between cultures.
In Neshat's films, the chador-wearing figures have starkly sculptural visual presences. The connotations of the chador depend on who you are and where you're from. In our increasingly Muslim-phobic country, it can signify a threatening image of an alien culture. For more moderate people, including some Muslims, it symbolizes Islamic extremism and the oppression of women. Veiling of women was outlawed in Iran by the Pahlavi dynasty in the 1930s until the 1978 revolution, when, as one Iranian woman puts it, "Iran antiquated itself by a hundred years."
The chador is a mark of female modesty that is forced in Iran, but covering and veiling is a complicated issue. In attempts to modernize and Westernize, veiling was banned in Turkey in the late 1920s, and head scarves still are not allowed in public institutions and universities. Some Muslim women choose to cover themselves out of religious devotion, as a political statement, because it is traditional dress or because wearing an abaya (a long loose cloak), hijab (head scarf) or chador is a way to protect themselves from unwanted male attention. Any woman who has walked through a conservative area in an Islamic country with her head uncovered, in clothes that indicate a waist or reveal a collarbone, ankle or elbow, knows that covering can also be a pragmatic decision.
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 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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