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Shirin Neshat: Striking a Balance Between Western and Islamic Values

The New York Times
December 21, 1999

HERE was a total eclipse of the sun on the day in August when Shirin Neshat began shooting her new film installation, "Soliloquy," in the hill town of Mardin in southeastern Turkey. There was the lethal 7.4 earthquake on Aug. 17, the day after the final wrap, when this Iranian-born New York artist and her crew arrived in Istanbul for much needed R & R. In the days between, she was shadowed by sinister plainclothesmen, whether police or military, local or national, she never knew. Some of the film crew were jailed; passports were confiscated.

Artists go to great lengths to produce new work when they are invited to participate in so key a career-making exhibition as the 103-year-old Carnegie International survey of contemporary art, which is on view in its 1999-2000 incarnation at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh through March 26. But probably no other artist has experienced the dire conditions of weather and danger that are at least partly responsible for the emotional intensity of Ms. Neshat's offering.

Like Ms. Neshat's other film installations, "Soliloquy" tells two sides of a story on two 9-foot-by-12-foot screens on opposite walls of a darkened room. This time the screens depict the conflicted inner life of a woman who belongs neither to the modern Western world she inhabits nor the traditional Islamic world she has left. Ms. Neshat, appearing for the first time as an actress in her films, plays both women. She is a figure swathed in black robes, as isolated in the ancient landscape on one screen as on the modern highways of the other.

She sticks out like a "black sheep," as Ms. Neshat puts it, integrated into the crowd only once, in a climactic moment when 150 men and women in black robes, shot from above, hold hands, circle and keen. It is a film that mourns loss -- of family, community, custom, identity, the possibility of wholeness and the necessity of constructing something new out of the shattered parts. And it does so, as her other films have done, wordlessly, to the eclectic, inventive music of Iranian-born Sussan Deyhim.

"Soliloquy" is the third film installation Ms. Neshat has completed this year, and at 17 minutes it is the longest. It is also by far the most narrative, the most elaborate and the first to be shot in color -- animating the rusty gold of the Turkish desert, the artificial blue of the sky during the eclipse, transparent and so extreme it consumes all other color.

But it was the two earlier black-and-white films that led dealers and international exhibitions to begin courting Ms. Neshat, who is 42. (She is shortlisted for the Whitney Biennial next year, and starting tomorrow, one of her earliest photographs will hang as a banner outside the Museum of Modern Art.) The stark simplicity of "Turbulent" -- a musical duel between Ms. Deyhim in an empty auditorium and a popular male Iranian singer crooning a Sufi love song in front of a packed house -- won Ms. Neshat a Golden Lion, one of the top awards, at the Venice Biennale this summer. The evocative imagery of "Rapture," in which men amuse themselves and worship in a castle and women in black robes dance barefoot on a drum and put out to sea, moved the philosopher and critic Arthur Danto to rehabilitate the unfashionable word "masterpiece" to praise the work at length in The Nation.

M S. NESHAT distills her themes of male and female, urban and traditional, nature and culture, West and East, the hidden and the explicit into images that are sculptural and sensuous. Before this year's foray into film installations, she was best known for her photograph of the bottoms of two feet, inscribed with a feminist poem in Farsi calligraphy, between which protruded the barrel of a rifle.

With "Soliloquy" she wants to describe "how universal suffering is," she explained as she raced against deadlines in an editing room recently. "Emotions are beyond boundaries."

When the Carnegie first invited Ms. Neshat to become one of 42 emerging and established artists to participate in the International, she was in mourning for her 17-year-old nephew, Iman, who had died of cancer in Iran, and for her father, Ali, whom she hardly knew when he died because he had sent her away to high school in California when she was 16. She has had to cope with the baffled anger and the deprivations of that adolescent exile ever since.

She decided her film for the Carnegie would be a lament for Iman, for her father, for her lost Iran (altered almost beyond recognition by the 1979 revolution) and her rootlessness. But Ms. Neshat was afraid to film in Iran. When she last visited there three years ago, she and her son, Cyrus, now 9, were held at the airport for four hours, and signals are dangerously mixed about her welcome there. The closest she could get, both geographically and architecturally, was Turkey. She invited her sister Maryam, Iman's mother, to join her in Turkey; the change would do Maryam good.

But there was a perilous level of naïveté in Ms. Neshat's choice of location, Mardin. She picked the town for its rocky desert setting, which reminded her of Iran, and for its domed 14th-century Islamic school. But Mardin also lies in Kurdish country. There has been war between insurgent Kurds and the Turkish government for 15 years. Mardin was insular, fundamentalist, seething with intrigue and far too close to the uneasy borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran. The Iranian artist from New York and her Iranian-American film crew were suspect.

Worse, on her two trips she had parts of her extended family along to worry about -- not just Maryam, but Cyrus, whom she doused periodically with water in the scalding sun, as well as her boyfriend and co-writer, the Iranian-American filmmaker Shoja Y. Azari, and his mother. Nevertheless, she dressed her cast of 150 local men and women in the black robes and scarves of Iranian Islam in a country that fitfully considers Iran the enemy and discourages emblems of fundamentalism by jailing women for wearing head scarves on campus or in public office. She was lucky she was only shadowed, that she was able to bail crew members out of jail.

W E were inseparable from the local political situation, and we asked for it," Ms. Neshat said. "I feel like all that difficulty was meant to be, because it's a very difficult subject."

Ms. Deyhim had taken along a short-wave radio to record found sounds: the songs of Syria; a 4-year-old Turkish boy singing of destiny and tragedy; an old woman weeping over her lost husband and child. "I wanted sound as texture, as dissonance and harmony, as well as narrative," she said.

Back in America, Ms. Deyhim recorded the weather report, traffic noise, news off the radio. Ms. Neshat auditioned Dallas, New Haven, Hartford and Stamford, Conn., for the Western half of her story, finally choosing Albany for its anonymity and its modernist buildings. She didn't want the brand recognition of New York, but she filmed inside St. Peter's Lutheran Church at 54th Street and Lexington Avenue. A choir in white robes over jeans chanted hymns while Ms. Neshat, in black Islamic robes, stood in front of it stoically facing the camera.

They'd been up since 5 a.m., because, at $250 a day to rent the church, their time was valuable; Ms. Neshat's budget for the whole film was $250,000, much of it raised from her new dealer, Barbara Gladstone, the rest from the Bohen Foundation.

In the double last scene, the woman in black flees the sacred circle of Islamic mourners on one screen, and the sacred space of the Christian church on the other. Underneath is the sonorous beat of an Egyptian chant.

"Eliminate, eliminate, eliminate," Ms. Neshat told Ms. Deyhim when the rich sound track first arrived. They stayed up for three nights cutting. "Simplify, simplify, simplify."

Amei Wallach and Marion Cajori are in post-production on a feature-length documentary about the artist Louise Bourgeois.


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