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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, dark room.

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 Jalaluddin Rumi.

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 seats.

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 mirrored.


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