Shirin Neshat is getting personal. No doubt the best politically aware art always is. No doubt that direct line to experience—a woman's or one's own—has always distinguished her videos. Something, however, has changed.
I do not mean the emotions. Neshat has portrayed them all before, as a collective experience, and a related review offers a closer look. Rage, oppression, desire, and grief—they have appeared as the very fabric of a nation or the stuff of its rituals. Only now they mark one woman's coming of age. In Zarin, a young woman hides from the crowds and the rituals, vulnerable and in fear. The change corresponds to a video artist more and more at home with cinematic convention.
Neshat has become a storyteller—and a dangerously polished one at that. She is still exploring video's space between the movie theater and the art gallery. It can seduce her into settling for more obvious choices. Yet, to her credit, she finds it a broad and ambiguous space indeed, at least for now. A postscript follows her to 2008 for another series, Women Without Men. After three years, real conflict is dissolving in a cinematic dream.
Zarin lives in a different world from Neshat's past work. She does not inhabit a flash point in the Middle East or an opera set. She does not stand in for an American artist, for Iranian art and its Saqqakhaneh movement, for Islamic art, for the Islamic world, or for a woman in exile somewhere in between. She has desires only partly her own, and she knows their price.
Not that Neshat forgets who exacts such a price, only beginning with the men who use Zarin as a prostitute. Neshat abandons the desert expanses that have suggested a kind of Lawrence of Arabia for women's rights, but not her penetration. She returns to the concrete realities of another culture, and she has no happy endings in store. It brings her closer to Mary Ellen Mark documenting actual prostitution in Bombay (a comparison I develop separately). In the process, however, she actually grows closer to the movies.
She has her protagonist, as one would expect for a filmmaker, and the camera follows at eye level, with the rushed fluidity of a thriller. She chooses a realistic setting, in Morocco, at once more familiar to western eyes and comfortingly exotic. Fade-outs, rather than startling cuts, ensure continuity between scenes. She even packs a surprise at the end. I never thought an art critic would worry about giving away the plot. For now, round up the usual suspects.
Neshat has always had a sense of drama and empathy. She does more than anyone in new media or in work about the Middle East, even Emily Jacir and Frédéric Brenner, to make political art personal. When a mass of women in her past work moves inexorably forward, as if driven by the very weight of their black shawls, every one demands a response. When men run rampant on a second screen, they seem to threaten each of her women—and a western viewer as well.
She has used decidedly avant-garde forms, including split screens and music by Philip Glass. However, the results belong firmly to the post-avant-garde present. Early video art often paid close attention to the human body, like that of Charlotte Moorman, or inanimate objects, but in order to reveal consciousness itself as cold, tactile, and disjointed. More recent video situates memory in nostalgia for the modernist city or a shattered digital landscape. Neshat lets a crowd confront the viewer as one mind to another.
Naturally a crowd presents something impersonal as well, and it is here that Zarin most marks a change. For Neshat, a crowd represents political and religious forces, but it aims for the iconic as well. Her men have seemed uniformly young and impatient, her women prematurely close to death. They have displayed suffering as a ritual or a gesture of defiance. With Zarin, she offers a girl alone, unable to blend into a ritual or to voice her defiance.
In its apparent naturalism, Zarin marks a change in technique as well as subject, and that raises questions about new media's course these days. Rapture, the work that earned her attention at the 2000 Whitney Biennial and in surveys of video art, could almost pass for documentary footage after the Iranian revolution. It spoke of female powerlessness and spiritual isolation in the midst of near chaos. However, it used the masses of her subjects, the split screens, and the contrast of black and white as formal elements in a visual and narrative structure, and it ended in a victory dance. Her later videos seemed designed to freeze that brief moment of triumph into pageantry.
In reviewing the arc of her career then, I wondered where the pageant was taking her and, for that matter, video. New media have always had multiple genealogies, including the documentary and the movie projector, and Matthew Barney already cites Hollywood and opera. As video enters the mainstream, one has to expect slicker and slicker productions.
Art today embraces star power, and its stars have the financial resources to make art one more part of the entertainment industry. Madonna has managed to combine the Apocalypse and a fashion shoot. More recently, Laurie Anderson indulges in color and a screen resolution worthy of Imax. Her static tableau features a dead body as a kind of magician's prop, because she never lets one doubt that art can compete for willing audiences with magic. Anderson herself peers in from the projection's lower-left corner. She acts less as a bridge between the viewer and the work than as a product logo.
Also concurrent with Zarin, Jonathan Horowitz appropriates movies the old-fashioned way, by stealing. One recognizes immediately the marks of a genre—the player piano accompaniment, the studio lighting, the dated glamour of contract stars. If you recognize the actual borrowings, you are spending too much time watching the tube, and your TiVo needs serious repair. Silent Movie uses clips from four movies about deaf mutes, from Johnny Belinda to Tommy, to enter some of the same territory as Neshat. In each, male desire overpowers a young woman's silent struggle, the heroines wallow in temper tantrums of their own, and I can pride myself on my consciousness of images and their cost. It makes me fear for the future, perhaps Neshat: The Miniseries.
If Neshat, too, is out to make a movie, she at least makes a gripping one. Her lack of irony and her assimilation of her sources prevent facile detachment. One rarely observes gallery-goers sticking through a twenty-minute video. Just as important, by her focus on technique, she calls attention to the limits of her realism, where the others that I have mentioned simply take it for granted. Zarin's consciousness keeps disrupting the picture, and the disruptions speak to the ambivalence of her desires—and the viewer's.
Do not trust that appearance of continuity. The fade-outs alone dissolve space and time into discrete scenes. One remembers them as images—Zarin in her room, Zarin in bed, Zarin at the bath house. One remembers a matriarch calling her to her sad profession, the inner courtyard, the alleys and their alluring faces, the women in their burkas, the men at prayer. Deceptively little happens, slowing time until each image offers an extended moment of anticipation, perhaps not unlike adolescence.
Each scene centers on an area of relative privacy, and yet men penetrate a woman's world rather than face it from across a split screen. The confined spaces act as representations of a girl's consciousness, a young woman's sexual bondage, and any woman's status under Islam. The sole clear exception to a female domain comes at the end, with the men bent at prayer, and event then they present their backs to the camera and the sky. Zarin and the viewer see them from without. One senses a conscious reversal of the shrouded women and gesturing men in Neshat's earlier videos.
A woman's world, especially one ruled by and created for men, places serious demands on a mere girl. It is a kind of politics that another Iranian, Ardeshir Mohassess, could not know. The voice will not stop calling her from her upstairs room, like the ringing telephone on video pursuing Jesper Just, and the bath requires her to become clean. She flees one clustered gender in the street only to run into another.
One does not realize it at first, but the demands increasingly arise from within. A man's hand runs across her naked body, and if does not take long for one to recognizes him as a client, one can also, at one's peril, interpret the scene's abrupt ending as signifying Zarin's awakening from a dream. One can imagine that Zarin's own desire, like the older woman but in a rather different way, calls her to act as a woman and to give in to men. Meanwhile, her superego, again like the older woman, censures her for accommodating desires.
At the bath, she scrubs herself frantically, as if to eradicate forever her own flesh. The man at the dreamlike brothel has no face—or rather, hideously flat flesh sewn over his absence of features.
A dream and a bath have their comforts, because they keep reality safely apart. They allow her to wake and so to hold on to her innocence. even when a pitiless reality does not. One may not even notice how much the video's sensuality has unsettled the boundaries between reality and the dream.
Faced with her obsessive scrubbing, perhaps one already wonders whether her imagination has intruded into the visible. When the men at prayer look up, each one as faceless as her nightmare, the boundaries have broken down completely. No wonder the work has to end.
Can video keep getting slicker? From Viola's dream operas to the art-historical pageantry of Eve Sussman, from Douglas Gordon cherishing Hollywood of the 1950s to Barney as frat boy at the multiplex, new media emulate the old—especially old media with big audiences. At the same time, anyone can combine a simple concept, a sudden urge, and a hand-held camera. Many a group show settles for packing in a dozen examples.
The choice corresponds to the economics of all mass media, whether the Grammys versus the indies or Fox Five versus the blogosphere. Big money and alternative channels of distribution crowd out the middle ground, a place for both creativity and consensus. No wonder one waits in vain for a repeat of Modernism's art movements and the next direction for art. The extremes also tempt any artist in the spotlight to leap from one extreme to the other. When it comes to Neshat, that temptation may sound like old news. Increasingly, however, she pictures political and gender conflict in terms of youth and repose.
Ever since Rapture, her black-and-white confrontation of men and women under Islam, Neshat has gone for wider screens, lusher colors, slow music, and solitary meditations. Her production values and exoticism risk not just sentimentality. They also echo the very condescension to women and the Arab world that she hopes to shatter. Yet she continues to tell a woman's story. When she connects Western myths to Eastern rituals, violence simmers just beneath.
With Women Without Men, the violence bursts out again on camera. Unfortunately, it also dissolves in slow motion into a young woman's dreams. In art of the Arab lands, can real-world politics survive an otherworldly ending?
The title already hints at fantasies of escape. Following her source, Shahrnush Parsipur's novel of the same name, Neshat also turns away from repression in Iran today. Instead, she enters less contested ground—the British coup that brought the shah to power in 1953. In one video, a young woman suffers a brother's tirade as she listens desperately to the news. She then happily joins her lover in death, as if effacing the gender divide forever. In another, a woman imagines her own rape on the eve of marriage, set against a journey into the woods.
It is an oddly pleasant journey, much as in Hollywood, where even an unhappy ending speaks of fulfillment. Where once Neshat thrust hooded figures into the camera and the cry that dogged her heroine into one's ear, here the woman's voice-over narration adds to the mix of personal commitment and felt detachment. Neshat has created something haunting, entirely professional, and without resolution even in death. She also leaves it oddly clear, languid, and politically safe.
Shirin Neshat's "Zarin" ran at Barbara Gladstone through November 12, 2005, Laurie Anderson at Sean Kelly through October 22, and Jonathan Horowitz at Yvon Lambert through November 12. I have discussed "Rapture" and other work by Neshat in a previous review. Neshat's series returned to Gladstone through February 23, 2008.