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ART IN REVIEW: Shirin Neshat

The New York Times

Shirin Neshat 'Turbulent'
Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris
120 Park Avenue, at 42d Street Manhattan
Through Jan. 15

Shirin Neshat, born in Iran in 1957, is best known for self-portrait photographs in which she appears in a body-covering black chador, the female garb as dictated by Islamic tradition, with a gun barrel protruding from her robes. Gender politics is her subject; the repression of woman, whether through fundamentalism or cultural exoticizing, is her target.

This Whitney show consists of a video installation that touches on essentially the same theme but makes something really dynamic of it. Two short films are projected on opposite walls of a darkened room. On one side, a male singer acknowledges the welcoming applause of an all-male audience in a concert hall, then sings an impassioned song of erotic and spiritual longing with words by the 13th-century mystical poet Rumi. At its conclusion, he stares out expectantly toward the other screen.

A woman in chador appears there, her back to the camera. Facing an empty, darkened auditorium, she begins to sing a kind of wordless vocalise, a series of gutteral cries, wails and whispers punctuated with expressive hand movements. The camera, stationary while filming the man, moves around her in a slow, enraptured swirl. The empty concert hall vanishes; her face and voice are the center of attention.

Ms. Neshat bases the piece on a specific political reference, the fact that Islamic law in Iran forbids women to perform music in public. But the work is really about its wealth of male-female contrasts, suggested through body language, setting, camera work and in the music itself. The man's song is communal, approved of, tied to language; the woman's is solitary, illicit, free-form, seemingly improvised. (In fact, it is composed by Sussan Deyhim, who also performs it.) The result is a composite image of unusual resonance, with thrilling music that sounds in the ear long after you've left the show.

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