Shirin Neshat: Striking a Balance Between Western and
By AMEI WALLACH|
The New York Times
December 21, 1999
HERE was a total eclipse of the sun on the day in August when Shirin Neshat
began shooting her new film installation, "Soliloquy," in the
hill town of Mardin in southeastern Turkey. There was the lethal 7.4 earthquake
on Aug. 17, the day after the final wrap, when this Iranian-born New York
artist and her crew arrived in Istanbul for much needed R & R. In the
days between, she was shadowed by sinister plainclothesmen, whether police
or military, local or national, she never knew. Some of the film crew were
jailed; passports were confiscated.
Artists go to great lengths to produce new work when they are invited
to participate in so key a career-making exhibition as the 103-year-old
Carnegie International survey of contemporary art, which is on view in
its 1999-2000 incarnation at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh through
March 26. But probably no other artist has experienced the dire conditions
of weather and danger that are at least partly responsible for the emotional
intensity of Ms. Neshat's
Like Ms. Neshat's
other film installations, "Soliloquy" tells two sides of a story
on two 9-foot-by-12-foot screens on opposite walls of a darkened room.
This time the screens depict the conflicted inner life of a woman who belongs
neither to the modern Western world she inhabits nor the traditional Islamic
world she has left. Ms. Neshat,
appearing for the first time as an actress in her films, plays both women.
She is a figure swathed in black robes, as isolated in the ancient landscape
on one screen as on the modern highways of the other.
She sticks out like a "black sheep," as Ms. Neshat
puts it, integrated into the crowd only once, in a climactic moment when
150 men and women in black robes, shot from above, hold hands, circle and
keen. It is a film that mourns loss -- of family, community, custom, identity,
the possibility of wholeness and the necessity of constructing something
new out of the shattered parts. And it does so, as her other films have
done, wordlessly, to the eclectic, inventive music of Iranian-born Sussan
"Soliloquy" is the third film installation Ms. Neshat has
completed this year, and at 17 minutes it is the longest. It is also by
far the most narrative, the most elaborate and the first to be shot in
color -- animating the rusty gold of the Turkish desert, the artificial
blue of the sky during the eclipse, transparent and so extreme it consumes
all other color.
But it was the two earlier black-and-white films that led dealers and
international exhibitions to begin courting Ms. Neshat, who is 42. (She
is shortlisted for the Whitney Biennial next year, and starting tomorrow,
one of her earliest photographs will hang as a banner outside the Museum
of Modern Art.) The stark simplicity of "Turbulent" -- a musical
duel between Ms. Deyhim in an empty auditorium and a popular male Iranian
singer crooning a Sufi love song in front of a packed house -- won Ms.
Neshat a Golden Lion, one of the top awards, at the Venice Biennale this
summer. The evocative imagery of "Rapture," in which men amuse
themselves and worship in a castle and women in black robes dance barefoot
on a drum and put out to sea, moved the philosopher and critic Arthur Danto
to rehabilitate the unfashionable word "masterpiece" to praise
the work at length in The Nation.
M S. NESHAT distills her themes of male and female, urban and traditional,
nature and culture, West and East, the hidden and the explicit into images
that are sculptural and sensuous. Before this year's foray into film installations,
she was best known for her photograph of the bottoms of two feet, inscribed
with a feminist poem in Farsi calligraphy, between which protruded the
barrel of a rifle.
With "Soliloquy" she wants to describe "how universal
suffering is," she explained as she raced against deadlines in an
editing room recently. "Emotions are beyond boundaries."
When the Carnegie first invited Ms. Neshat to become one of 42 emerging
and established artists to participate in the International, she was in
mourning for her 17-year-old nephew, Iman, who had died of cancer in Iran,
and for her father, Ali, whom she hardly knew when he died because he had
sent her away to high school in California when she was 16. She has had
to cope with the baffled anger and the deprivations of that adolescent
exile ever since.
She decided her film for the Carnegie would be a lament for Iman, for
her father, for her lost Iran (altered almost beyond recognition by the
1979 revolution) and her rootlessness. But Ms. Neshat was afraid to film
in Iran. When she last visited there three years ago, she and her son,
Cyrus, now 9, were held at the airport for four hours, and signals are
dangerously mixed about her welcome there. The closest she could get, both
geographically and architecturally, was Turkey. She invited her sister
Maryam, Iman's mother, to join her in Turkey; the change would do Maryam
But there was a perilous level of naïveté in Ms. Neshat's
choice of location, Mardin. She picked the town for its rocky desert setting,
which reminded her of Iran, and for its domed 14th-century Islamic school.
But Mardin also lies in Kurdish country. There has been war between insurgent
Kurds and the Turkish government for 15 years. Mardin was insular, fundamentalist,
seething with intrigue and far too close to the uneasy borders with Syria,
Iraq and Iran. The Iranian artist from New York and her Iranian-American
film crew were suspect.
Worse, on her two trips she had parts of her extended family along
to worry about -- not just Maryam, but Cyrus, whom she doused periodically
with water in the scalding sun, as well as her boyfriend and co-writer,
the Iranian-American filmmaker Shoja Y. Azari, and his mother. Nevertheless,
she dressed her cast of 150 local men and women in the black robes and
scarves of Iranian Islam in a country that fitfully considers Iran the
enemy and discourages emblems of fundamentalism by jailing women for wearing
head scarves on campus or in public office. She was lucky she was only
shadowed, that she was able to bail crew members out of jail.
W E were inseparable from the local political situation, and we asked
for it," Ms. Neshat said. "I feel like all that difficulty was
meant to be, because it's a very difficult subject."
Ms. Deyhim had taken along a short-wave radio to record found sounds:
the songs of Syria; a 4-year-old Turkish boy singing of destiny and tragedy;
an old woman weeping over her lost husband and child. "I wanted sound
as texture, as dissonance and harmony, as well as narrative," she
Back in America, Ms. Deyhim recorded the weather report, traffic noise,
news off the radio. Ms. Neshat auditioned Dallas, New Haven, Hartford and
Stamford, Conn., for the Western half of her story, finally choosing Albany
for its anonymity and its modernist buildings. She didn't want the brand
recognition of New York, but she filmed inside St. Peter's Lutheran Church
at 54th Street and Lexington Avenue. A choir in white robes over jeans
chanted hymns while Ms. Neshat, in black Islamic robes, stood in front
of it stoically facing the camera.
They'd been up since 5 a.m., because, at $250 a day to rent the church,
their time was valuable; Ms. Neshat's budget for the whole film was $250,000,
much of it raised from her new dealer, Barbara Gladstone, the rest from
the Bohen Foundation.
In the double last scene, the woman in black flees the sacred circle
of Islamic mourners on one screen, and the sacred space of the Christian
church on the other. Underneath is the sonorous beat of an Egyptian chant.
"Eliminate, eliminate, eliminate," Ms. Neshat told Ms. Deyhim
when the rich sound track first arrived. They stayed up for three nights
cutting. "Simplify, simplify, simplify."
Amei Wallach and Marion Cajori are in post-production on a feature-length
documentary about the artist Louise Bourgeois.