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Romance of the Chador: An Iranian Exile's Silent Movies

New York Times
March 25, 2001

At a certain point not too long ago, American art became a division of the movie business. Or so it seems one morning in November as I gaze out across a desert in Morocco. The thin frame of Shirin Neshat is silhouetted against the golden sands, her red woolen shawl fluttering in the wind. She looks like an ancient prophet, but maybe deserts do that to everyone.

Neshat, an Iranian émigré who lives in New York, is celebrated in the art world for her video installations, a nebulous phrase that doesn't do justice to her lyrical fables about women under Islam. She has come to the desert to film a new work, and moments after her arrival, a bus comes rolling over the horizon. Out steps the cast: some 40 women in long black veils, most of them middle-aged housewives with no acting experience. They chat in Arabic and laugh easily among themselves, tickled to be appearing in an American film.

Soon a crowd of onlookers has gathered, as villagers arrive by foot, burro and moped. You'd be surprised: a desert can get pretty busy. There are groups of schoolboys in striped T-shirts and old men steering donkey carts. A Berber farmer in a hooded brown robe stands stiffly and stares at the people with the movie cameras and the sunglasses and the black leather jackets.

Neshat is part of the art-world trend that is turning everyone and his cousin into a director. Many of the strongest new artists are photographers who are taking their cues from the movies -- scouting locations, hiring actors and creating elaborately faked images. During her school days Neshat trained as a painter, and I wonder, with only a minimum of panic, what would happen if every painter decided to stop painting and follow her lead.

"What's so important about painting?" Neshat asks in her accented English that evening, sitting in the back of a minivan and peeling a hard-boiled egg. "So much has already been done in painting. How much more innovation can there be?"

Film is not exactly a new medium, either, but never mind. Neshat's films look like no one else's. (Although she projects in video, she shoots in 16-millimeter film, which explains the pearly tones of her images.) A typical Neshat production is a 13-minute silent film in black and white that relates stories about women in an unnamed country presumed to be Iran. Influenced by Abbas Kiarostami and other leaders of contemporary Iranian cinema, she favors "minimalist narratives," as she calls them, with maximal visual impact.

Her work is staged, but what makes it so satisfying is that it has the direct, unadorned look of documentary realism. When you walk into a darkened gallery and see her videos projected on a white wall, you feel as if she is bringing you real people, inhabiting real spaces -- as opposed to, say, romping satyrs (Matthew Barney), tortured clowns (Bruce Nauman), MTV-obsessed girls (Pipilotti Rist) or lost modernist ideals (Stan Douglas and just about everyone else working in video).

At 43, Neshat is a petite, amiable woman with striking features and long black hair tied back in a ponytail. In conversation, she avoids introspection and would rather talk about the women in her films than about herself. "I love the wrinkles in their faces," she says.

In the surface, Neshat's career is a soho fairy tale about a young artist who feels discouraged and gives up art, only to visit her homeland in later life, have an epiphany and start making seriously beautiful videos that win her overnight acclaim. Although Neshat is not young, her career is. She didn't receive widespread attention until "Rapture" -- a two-screen epic about groups of men and women not exactly hitting it off in an ancient-looking landscape -- won rave reviews in 1999. Since then her reputation (and prices) have appreciated considerably. Her videos, which she makes for as little as $150,000, are produced in editions of five and have sold for up to $85,000 apiece, mostly to museums. (She shares her profits with the four main members of her crew -- which is about as common in the art world as galleries that give away paintings.)

Neshat's videos might be described as star vehicles for the chador (literally, "tent"), the traditional veil of Iran, a square of black fabric that falls from head to toe and looks conveniently dramatic on film. For this reason alone, it's hard not to view her work in political terms -- it is always reminding you that Iran is a repressive place where a woman must cloak her body and, in public, can't smoke or even hold hands with a man other than her husband or a close relative. Yet Neshat isn't issuing manifestoes. Her women are basically Emma Bovary in a chador, hopeless romantics whose overly intense temperaments you suspect would get them into hot water in any country.

Neshat loves the sort of willful, ominous moments when a woman does something that could wreck her life in 10 seconds. The woman might make eye contact with a handsome stranger during a service at a mosque ("Fervor") or sing a love song in an empty auditorium in defiance of a Shiite ban on singing in public ("Turbulence"). A new film in her coming show at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in Manhattan (it opens May 12) features an attractive housewife who removes her chador and takes a stroll in a tattered dress. Hounded by gawkers, she goes insane, weeping and muttering to herself in the town plaza.

Previous views of the Middle East have often resembled a stag party. For centuries, painters ranging from Rembrandt to Matisse turned out opulent, Orientalist fantasies of sultans and desert landscapes and overcrowded female harems. Neshat's work, it might be said, brings you the harem gone berserk. The women in her films, instead of idly lying around, are always leaving. They escape in rowboats, through soothing daydreams of romance or, when all else fails, through madness.

It's dinnertime after a day of shooting, and Neshat is at a long table, picking at a plate of sea bass. During her month in Morocco, she and her crew are staying in Essaouira, an old port town with wide-angle views of the ocean and camels wandering the shore. Orson Welles shot "Othello" here, which explains the commemorative statue of him downtown and the hotel named Desdemona (perhaps for the tragedy-prone traveler). Neshat's rented house, directly behind it, has an "Arabian Nights" charm, complete with two stray sparrows fluttering around indoors.

Tonight, as on most nights, Neshat is joined at dinner by the seven members of her film crew and her 10-year-old son, Cyrus. As a divorced mother, she emphasizes the sense of family she gets from the people she works with, all of them artists, and all of them, except for the singer and composer Sussan Deyhim, male.

"Shirin is reversing Iranian history," says Shoja Azari, a bearded, eloquent filmmaker who is Neshat's editor and longtime boyfriend. "All Iranian and Persian kings had a female harem. She has a male harem!"

As the members of her film crew banter, Neshat excuses herself from the table. A Gnaoua band -- five Moroccan musicians in blue silk robes -- is playing in the dining room. She starts dancing by herself, bending from the waist to the ground, stroking the air in front of her eyes, a graceful figure caught up in the rapid and complex beat. (For years she has studied classical Indian and African dance.) As the tempo of the drumming mounts, she appears to be lost to the music, but not too lost to shout out to her crew, "We have to be in bed by 10:30 tonight!"

Watching Neshat dance, I felt, momentarily, that I was seeing some essential part of her. Perhaps it was just the wine and the drums and the exotic locale, but perhaps it was genuinely revealing, this vision of a woman who seemed at once so expressive and so alone. In the presence of her film crew, she was sweetly deferential, but I suspected that, much like the cloaked women in her films, she was capable of the most bold behavior. In fact, her life has demonstrated as much, with a series of dramatic breaks and flights: she has left behind her native country, her marriage and, at times, even art.

The daughter of a physician, Neshat was brought up in Qazvin, Iran, a small city two hours west of Tehran. As a child she wanted to be an artist and, like many children from prosperous families, was educated abroad. In 1983, she earned a master of fine arts degree from the University of California at Berkeley, where she majored in painting. After school she settled in New York, renting an apartment in the East Village at a time when every resident, it seemed, was a graffiti artist or a punk rocker or preferably both. Her paintings, as she describes them, were "the typical clich 1/8 of the third-world artist who takes a bit of the East and a bit of the West and tries to put it together."

Clearly, she did not have the highest opinion of her painterly abilities. "I went for 10 years after that without making art," she says. "My true maturity comes right here, when I became totally aware of the fact that I didn't know whether I wanted to be an artist."

So she became an art dropout. To support herself she took a job as a receptionist at a hair salon on Madison Avenue and later designed fabrics at a midtown textile office. Then she met Kyong Park, a Korean-born architect and conceptual artist whom she wound up marrying. (He's the father of her son.) She became co-director of his Storefront for Art and Architecture, a socially minded gallery in SoHo.

In 1990, Neshat visited Iran for the first time in 12 years and took in the seismic changes wrought by the Iranian revolution. "It was shocking," she says. "Everyone had gone through this major identity crisis. Before I left they were Iranian-Persians, and now they were strict Muslims. Visually everything was black and white, and women had to be in dark clothes. I would walk around and see people getting harassed in the park. They were taken away in buses because they were wearing nail polish or the wrong stocking."

In 1993, after several more trips to Iran, Neshat felt that she had finally found her artistic bearings. She became a practicing artist again and eventually divorced her husband ("I needed to be around Iranian people," she says). Working in photography, she had friends take pictures of her in revolutionary drag, a svelte rebel toting a rifle. Poems written in Farsi calligraphy adorned her palms and the soles of her feet. The photographs, in which Neshat looks like nothing so much as an Iranian Patty Hearst, confused people when they were first exhibited, because it wasn't clear why Neshat would want to glamorize violence. "Many of my childhood friends were involved with the revolution," she explains, "but those photographs have nothing to do with who I am now."

Neshat last visited Iran in 1995, a painful memory. Her parents, who owned a 100-acre farm lush with fruit, had most of their land confiscated after the revolution. "My father died last year, in a bad way, defeated," she says. Her mother keeps discouraging her from returning, fearful of the consequences. As Neshat becomes more distinguished in America, she becomes less welcome in Iran. Her work has never been shown there publicly because its feminist content is considered too controversial. "I am starting to get very homesick," she says, "and I can't stand the idea that I am living in exile. But there is an element of risk when you go to Iran because you don't know if you are going to come out."

One morning in January, I visited Neshat in her New York studio. She lives in a loft on the southern fringe of SoHo, with an abundance of laptops arrayed on long tables. The day of my visit was her son's 11th birthday. "Cyrus wants me to hire a D.J. for his party," Neshat said when I stepped off the elevator. "Can you imagine?"

She mentioned on the phone before I arrived that she was in the middle of an editing session. The notion was evocative, and I had envisaged strips of shiny film dangling from a clothesline, falling into bins. Instead I found Neshat and Andy Sterling, a freelance film editor, stationed in front of two computers. "We're using Avid," he explained, referring to a computer editing system that is widely known in the movie business.

He and Neshat were working on "Passage," the film she shot in the Moroccan desert. By now Philip Glass had composed an original soundtrack for it; his ominous, starkly repetitive music sounded just right as Neshat played the film on a computer screen. It was inspired, she said, by a dream she had about "the Palestinian situation." I could see that it was different from her earlier work -- less bound to Islamic society, more universal, a ballet of death and mourning.

As we sat there watching, it was strange to think that an ordinary day in the desert in November had been transmuted into this, a potent work of art, with so many wildly beautiful sequences -- the men walking in a solemn procession by the sea, the veiled women digging a grave with their hands, the rising clouds of dust, the little girl rubbing twigs together, the massive wall of fire raging in the desert and making you smile because you never imagined that a video could be this intense. As the film finished, it struck me that Neshat may be the most earnest artist of her generation, someone who believes that she doesn't need Warholian irony because life by itself is such unbelievably great material

* Deborah Solomon, a regular contributor to the magazine, is working on a biography of Norman Rockwell.


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