Lifting the veil on Iranian society
August 1, 2000
Lynn MacRitchie is entranced by Shirin Neshat's video trilogy exploring
attraction and repression.
Two black and white video projections are screened side by side. In
one, a man walks away from thecamera. In the other, a woman walks towards
it. Eventually, their separate paths converge, and the manand woman appear
together on both screens. They slow down, look at each other, but do not
stop or speak. The woman wears a chador, the enveloping black veil required
in strict Muslim societies.
The man wears a dark suit and white shirt. Asshe walks on, he looks
back. Now the audience can see what he cannot - that, all too aware of
hisgaze, she secretly smiles in delighted response. Thus begins Fervor,
the most recent video installation by the Iranian artist Shirin Neshat,
a drama oferotic attraction and repression played out in 10 intense minutes.
It is the third of a trilogy of videoinstallations now showing at the Serpentine
Gallery, the first of which, Turbulent, 1998, won a GoldenLion at the Venice
Biennale in 1999.
Born in Iran in 1957, Neshat was studying art in America when the Iranian
revolution broke out in 1979. She could not return for another 11 years.
When she did, the changes she found galvanised herinto making art again
herself after 10 years as co-director of the New York Storefront for Art
&Architecture. Neshat's first works, based on her Iranian experience,
drew on her response to photographs of veiledwomen armed with rifles, which
she recreated in New York with herself as the model.
On to the printsshe inscribed Farsi texts, poems exploring the concepts
of self-sacrifice and heroic martyrdom whichyed such an important role
in the ideology of the Islamic revolution. The exhibition begins with works
from this Women of Allah series, 1993-97. In the large, black andwhite
photographs, a woman's face, hands, even the white of her eye, are written
over. While it may beimpossible to understand the script, the effect of
the images is unmistakable - the woman whose calmgaze confronts the viewer
so directly is somehow involved in a mysterious drama of power.
The root of that drama, Neshat believes, is the relationship between
men and women, now the central theme of her work. It is prefigured in Untitled,
a photograph from 1996 in which the artist, her face and body completely
shrouded in a chador, stands holding the hand of her young son, her arm
emerging from the all enveloping black veil the only visible part of her
While his mother is rendered effectively invisible, the boy is fully
displayed, naked, his flesh adorned with elaborate, abstract decorative
patterns. The male is shown resplendent - but still reliant on the hidden
support of the woman who gave him life.
Male and female difference is the subject of Turbulent. Two black and
white videos are screened on opposite walls: to see them, the viewer must
look constantly from one screen to the other. Both open with shots of rows
of empty theatre seats. On one screen, these fill up with men, identically
dressed in white shirts. Another man enters and begins to sing, his face
expressive, his hands gesticulating to the luscious, romantic tune. His
audience claps enthusiastically.
On the other screen, meanwhile, the rows of seats remain empty. Suddenly,
a tall figure draped in black appears on the stage, standing motionless
and silent while the man sings. Enjoying his applause, he becomes aware
of the presence on the other screen and approaches the camera as if to
look at it more closely. His face is apprehensive. The tall black figure
turns round. It is a woman, and she begins to sing, filling the still empty
theatre with wordless sound. Her face is sad. She makes no ingratiating
gestures. Instead, her body becomes a vehicle for an extraordinary outpouring
of raw improvised sound that seems to connect with the most profound emotion.
Silenced, the man can only stare. As she finishes, both screens fade out.
Much of the impact of Turbulent lies in the power of the performance
of Sussan Deyhim, the woman singer. Also a composer, she, like Neshat,
likes to mix traditional Islamic forms with modern technology, as in her
soundtrack for Rapture, the second work in the video trilogy. While the
visual style of Turbulent is simple, Rapture, 1999, again shown on two
screens, goes all out to create striking visual metaphors. Within a castle
by the sea, men perform a series of arcane rituals.
Meanwhile on the opposite screen, a group of women gather in silence
on the empty beach, their chadors filling the screen with a great mass
of black. As they stare across at the men, the male games grow more violent.
The women suddenly give voice, ululating together in a great shreik of
sound. The men freeze and begin to watch them. The women seize a wooden
boat and struggle to push it into the sea. A few climb aboard and sail
towards the horizon. As the boat grows smaller against the immensity of
the sea, the men line up on the battlements and wave. Almost wilfully obscure,
the images could verge on the absurd, yet their visual strength carries
enough conviction to make the piece succeed.
Like Turbulent and Fervor, Rapture is only 13 minutes long. This has
not stopped Neshat employing epic production values - scores of extras,
exotic locations, a dramatic soundtrack. A maker of photographs who is
not a photographer, a film director with no experience behind the camera,
the strength of Neshat's vision has helped her build a team of experts
to realise it.
Her success is to have used the means of popular cinema (she acknowledges
her debt to Iranian film maker Abbas Kiarostami and also to Orson Welles
and Alfred Hitchcock) - spectacle, romance and a great soundtrack - to
open up an area of subject matter almost unknown to western culture. And
yet her highly stylised presentation of a ritualised power struggle between
men and women seems to have struck a profound chord, even in western societies
which may think they have left such concerns behind.
The unspoken power of erotic repression which Alfred Hitchcock understood
so well still remains the hidden dynamic of our apparently open approach
to sexuality and desire. The Birds may seem an unlikely inspiration for
Fervor or Rapture but it is one nevertheless, something Neshat uses to
remarkable effect. Shirin Neshat at The Serpentine Gallery, Kensington
Gardens, London W2 until September 3