Black-and-White Issues in Video
Neshat's Iranian culture looms large
By Kenneth Baker
The San Francisco Chronicle
September 30, 2000
Iranian-born Shirin Neshat works with video as if she were innocent
of American television's oafish first five decades. In fact, she has lived
in the United States since the early '70s and attended the University of
California at Berkeley.
Neshat's "Turbulent" at the Berkeley Art Museum, awarded a
prize at the 1999 Venice Biennale, wrings high impact and near universal
import from elemental technical moves. Its casting and language characteristically
echo her reaction to her Iranian upbringing.
Two black-and-white video projections fill the end walls of a long,
One shows a small auditorium, seen from the stage, its wooden seats
nearly filled with men wearing white shirts and dark trousers.
A single white-shirted man comes onstage and, after bowing to the applauding
crowd, turns his back to it, to face the camera and a microphone on a stand.
He then sings, or lip-synchs loosely, an impassioned classical song:
the musical setting of a hymn of divine praise by the medieval Sufi poet
Then, after acknowledging applause once more, he turns again to face
the static camera as if something in its direction -- in the image opposite
-- has caught his attention.
In that second image, meanwhile, the solitary figure of a woman draped
in black has appeared onstage facing not an audience but a hall of empty
She begins to sing, or lip-synch, her own ululant, hair-raising, wordless
solo as the camera tracks around her.
The patriarchal tradition of Iran, which forbids women to sing in public,
among many other gendered prohibitions, frames the blunt oppositions that
Neshat sets up: black and white, men versus women, listeners versus void,
camera motion against stasis, classical verse against speechless urgency.
When the woman's performance ends, nothing has changed except that the
image of the men has frozen, hinting at a paralysis that might be spiritual,
social, emotional or all three. A high pressure of feeling, expressed but
uncommunicated, fills the room.
Nothing passes between the figures in the two video projections, of
course. But their fictive, uncomprehending exchange of energy passes through
us, who must then ask ourselves at which end of the room we see ourselves