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Lifting the veil on Iranian society

Financial Times
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 body.

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


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