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Cry from the heart

The Guardian
August 1, 2000

Artist Shirin Neshat Has Been Accused Of Being Too Soft On Her Native Iran. But Adrian Searle Finds Plenty To Move Him In Her Latest Work

The voice goes right through me, though I don't understand a word. In fact, there are no words onlycries, sobs, ululations, knots and overlays of sound. A voice from the gut, the tongue and the throat,both alien and expressive, for all the dubbing, the loops and layered cross-currents. I comprehendnothing, but the voice is filled with feeling. The first time I heard it, the hairs rose on my neck, my stomach tightened, I felt winded. A woman stoodalone in an empty theatre, black chador against blackness, her face and hands illuminated, bendingtowards an away from the microphone.

It was the Iranian composer and singer Sussan Deyhim,performing in Shirin Neshat's two-screen video/sound installation Turbulent, one of a trio of worksNeshat is now showing at London's Serpentine Gallery. Deyhim's is a voice of great authority andreserve, and the sense of what is held back is as important as what is vocalised.

In Turbulent she iscompletely unleashed, almost terrifying in her intensity. She is watched, from a screen on the other side of the room, by a man, who has just sung a devotionallove song. He has an audience of other men, although he has performed with his back to them. I cannottell if the song a 13th-century Sufi poem is addressed to me, to the woman on the screen on the furtherside of the room, or to God. The nature of the song's passion is less important than the fact of passionitself.

Turbulent is a film about song against song, and the relative places of men and women in present-day Iranian society (the male voice is that of Shahram Nazeri, a Kurdish Iranian singer much loved in Iran. The actor in the film, a friend of Neshat's, is lip-synching).

Turbulent won a prize at last year's Venice Biennale. It has been shown in Britain before, and can also be seen at Edinburgh's Fruitmarket Gallery. It deserves its continuing success as a singular, unforgettable art work. But it is not even the best of the three thematically related installations now showing at the Serpentine, together with a series of earlier photographs of women wearing the chador, some holding guns and rifles, all of them drawn over with Islamic text and calligraphy.

All three of Neshat's video works here are shot on black-and-white film and directed by the artist herself (with superb photographic direction by Ghasem Ebrahimian). Although transferred to video, the works remain intrinsically filmic, and have a rather old-fashioned quality. Neshat has spoken of the influence of recent Iranian cinema, citing Abbas Kiarostami, director of A Taste of Cherry, as well as Hitchcock's The Birds. Her video installations are, in effect, stories, or rather fragments of stories rudimentary but complex situations. Images from the work Rapture keep coming back to me: women revealing their legs as they lift their black robes to push a boat into the sea; bare feet dancing on a drum; men lifting ladders in a narrow, shadowed street, the ladders catching the light in the air above.

But it is the newest work, Fervor, that really excites me. A man and a woman meet at a crossroads in the country, passing in different directions. They are divided as much as brought together by the crossing of the roads, the slanting light, the vertiginous camera angles duplicated and reversed on the two adjacent screens. The meeting of their gazes cleaves them apart. Later, they see one another at a public meeting in a courtyard in a town, where a male speaker on a stage rants and bellows, railing against the sins of the flesh.

I cannot tell if the responses from the crowd, sometimes passing like a wind over a field, sometimes a roar, are of assent or disapproval. His message is familiar: Woe unto the sinful, woe unto you. Dread and beware.' The same exhortations the priest made in Joyce's Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man: Beware the day of judgment.' The man and woman, seated amid single-sex crowds divided by a curtain, look at each other once again. The woman leaves. That's it. That's all there is, but then again, that's not it at all. Fervor, as much as it is about male authority, is about yearning and impossibility, the power of the eye and the power of words. It is also, I think, about the loss of what one has never truly possessed.

Affecting though they are, Neshat's recent works come with complications. In fact, they are about complications, difficulties, ambivalences. Born in Iran, the 43-year-old artist was sent to America for her education in the years before the Iranian theocratic revolution. Although she has since attempted to work in Iran, she is based in the US, and her films are largely shot in Turkey and Morocco. Refusing to regard herself as an exile, she says she is distanced' from Iran, although there are official cultural factions in Tehran who would welcome her return.

What we in the West frequently regard as social iniquities and barbarities especially in relation to the place of women are treated with a certain ambivalence in Neshat's work. In a talk she gave at the Serpentine at the weekend, Neshat was castigated for not being feminist enough, radical enough, overtly critical enough. Accused of not doing what she never set out to do of not taking a more European or American view of her native country she insisted that she was simply an artist.

One of Neshat's strengths is her refusal to forsake her ambivalence in favour of a simple, and largely politically correct, message. We seem, in the west, to talk of Islam and Islamic cultures in simplistic terms. Edward Said once remarked that westerners come up against the orient' as Americans or Europeans first, and as individuals second. Neshat's work opens up other possibilities, though she is no apologist. As an artist, she describes, invents, analyses and prods situations as an individual first of all.

Yet what can I bring to a body of work whose entire force and inner complexity depends on its relationship to post-revolutionary Iran, and its references to Sufism and Persian history works that are made from the position, if not of exile, then of distance, and its own kind of yearning? This is the position, I suspect, that most of Neshat's audience find themselves in, as well as beguiled and entranced. I left this show filled with emotion, but I didn't know its nature, or what it meant.

Shirin Neshat is at the Serpentine Gallery, London SE1 (020-7298 1515), till September 3. Turbulent is at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (0131-225 2383), till September 23.


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