Tuesday, 19 February 2008



Shirin Neshat continues her installations of video and related stills at Barbara Gladstone NY, again freely adapting stories by fellow Iranian émigré Shahmush Parsipur and expanding upon the theme of cultural identity, that has driven her work from its first appearance in the early 90s. Neshat is interesting both for the way this theme has developed through the move from photography to video, and more generally for the way video then approaches narrative and cinema but retains an art gallery and fine art context.

Neshat’s photography commenced as a response to her return to Iran in 1990 after an eleven year absence as an American citizen. The Women of Allah series (1993-7) is notable for the use of Persian or Farsi calligraphy and embellishment, often imposed on the hands of Iranian women (sometimes the artist or child) in traditional chador, militant stances, and stark black and white prints. Neshat’s encounter with contemporary Iran coincided with the wider interest in local and sub-cultural identities in art, in what is sometimes called Identity Art. Her work compounds a string of potent issues in the representation of Middle Eastern, Islamic, fundamentalist women in Iran by a US-based (of all places) émigré. The work confirms western stereotypes of sexual oppression, ruthless enforcement and hostility to depiction, while subtly signalling a profound alienation or rupture with both ideologies.

It is Identity Art surely at its most acute, since identity for women is largely confined to a single shapeless costume, for all adults, occasions, seasons, while culture is essentially reduced to the severest reading of Islamic scriptures. Moreover depiction, even as photography and only where it allows some further distinction, is literally and literarily over-written, reminding us of the grave suspicion ‘graven imagery’ holds under all of the Abrahamic creeds; the power its suppression then extracts, its rivalry to The Word.

The alignment of female identity with text here is ambiguous. For the casual western observer, text presents another teasing veil, concealing a supposed direct or natural encounter. For the Farsi reader, the contemporary poetry is shown surviving under Islamic doctrine, within the narrowest of constraints. Women are then taken as ‘the poetry’ to Iranian culture; poetry’s role as that of women to more masculine Iranian literature. The use of text upon or over figures, the rhyming of the black veil with the black and white of the print and isolation of figures against blank backgrounds; all highlight non-literal or metaphoric reference for the pictures. This more indirect meaning is also co-opted as a feminine domain, a discreet avenue of expression to circumvent restrictions on more explicit statement.

Neshat is soon drawn to motion pictures and opportunities for greater gesture and ritual, set against crucial architecture and locations, in group or collective action, set to music rather than dialogue or commentary – pointedly avoiding the explicit and articulate - and as challenge to predictable sequence or narrative. In themselves, these no more than announce her ambition as a film maker, but tellingly, Iranian cinema has been especially alert to such symbolism over much the same period, in many ways anticipates and answers Neshat’s work. So that in order to decisively stretch this range of expression; she relies upon distinctive screening configurations and a gallery rather than cinema context. She uses screens or channels on opposite walls with overlapping or complementary events pictured, sound often similarly displaced to generate more remote connections, metaphors for a troubled middle ground or combination. But by this, ironically, iconically, reference is firstly to cinematic or television norms, and obviously Iranian motion pictures, then to the artist’s uneasy distance or diffidence. Cultural identity by this route begins to seem somewhat aloof and evasive, the video installation demonstrating her detachment and divided loyalties.

Yet here too Neshat tethers picture and story to literature (Parsipur’s novel Women Without Men) eventually concedes dialogue and stricter narrative, colour and elaborate lighting. But work then looks less effective as installation, less distinctive as motion picture. Later works such as Mahdokht (2004) and Zarin (2005) dispense with dual channels and deal in more nuanced sexual roles, in childhood and adolescence, mystic fertility and a romantic, even clichéd embrace of nature. Inevitably Neshat advances toward a feature film by this series of short studies and the current show adds Munis (2008) and Faezeh (2008) to them. Events remain characteristically bleak (murder, suicide, rape and madness) but Neshat has now moved beyond black and white, Persia or Iran, female or male, discovers myth and deeper identity where history no longer reaches.

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