Shirin Neshat: Crafting an Artistic "Self": Excerpt from In the Making
Calculating the ratio between the exposure and the concealment of skin on a woman’s body does not yield a consistent measure of modesty and exhibitionism. The glimpse of an ankle inspires incrimination in some cultures, while near nudity is unremarkable in others. Nor is there a cross-cultural measure that applies to specific parts of the anatomy. Baring breasts can be either innocent or scandalous. Women wearing shorts and tank tops on the streets of Manhattan, where Shirin Neshat currently lives and works, rouse less attention than a shrouded woman with an immodest gaze in Iran, where she was born. Neshat has fashioned an expansive visual language that embraces and transcends these polar cultural traditions.
The paradox that may account for Shirin Neshat’s acclaim among the many artists currently working in the genres of photography and film installation is her ability to evoke universal commonalities out of the inconsistencies of cultural difference. Neshat’s special ability to see beyond the pettiness of such discrepancies is inextricably linked to her personal history. The United States became Neshat’s adopted country in 1973, when she left Iran to attend school in California. When the revolution erupted in Iran in 1978, she remained in the U.S. to avoid the strictures imposed by the Khomeini regime after it reversed the Shah’s support of progressive cultural influences and economic reforms modeled on the West. Twelve years passed before she was able to return to her family and the land of her birth. In the interim her mother had become a devout Muslim and her family’s status had declined. “It was probably one of the most shocking experiences that I have ever had, the difference between what I had remembered from the Iranian culture and what I was witnessing was enormous. The change was both frightening and exciting; I had never been in a country that was so ideologically based. Most noticeable of course was the change in people’s physical appearance and public behavior.”
As a woman of Allah, Neshat respectfully explores the religious orthodoxy of her compatriots. As an artist in SoHo, she is a vanguard who uses a Western medium that conforms to current Western artistic practices.
“I stay in the United States by choice, and I go to Iran by choice. I’m not in exile. I don’t have to have an excuse for doing something. My dilemma is about being between spaces—culturally, mentally, and physically. When it comes to the production of work, I go back and forth between these two worlds. I like that. My work is about being Muslim, Iranian. But the way it is framed is according to who I am now and what my knowledge and aesthetic is.”
Thus, ancient Islamic traditions affect her relationship to urbane culture in New York. New York, in turn, adds a postmodern, transnational perspective to her relationship with her ancestry. Combining them seems to cancel their disparity, permitting Neshat’s art to pertain to people from diverse cultures.
Neshat not only pursues cultural harmony without sacrificing her connection to the cultural tradition and religious inheritance of her birth, she amplifies them.
“Among all the issues of Islamic culture, I zero in on the strangest ones. These are difficult subjects. I am adamant in bringing up this dialogue because it is at the heart of the misunderstanding of Islamic Fundamentalism. Subconsciously I tap into aspects of that culture that are peculiar to Islamic culture. In addition to exploring my Islamic roots, I present material from an alien culture because strangeness captivates viewers. But the work wouldn’t have sustained the attention of the audience (in the United States and Europe) if it was just foreign. I do not cash in on the foreignness. The audience is captivated because of its foreignness and because of its universality.”
Universal truths transcend the myriad definitions of “here” and “now” or “me” and “you..” Artists who wish to expand the relevance of their work usually avoid specific references. They use universal themes like birth and death, universal emotions like fear and joy, universal shapes like circles and squares, universal objects like fire and water. Neshat reverses this approach and reasserts a sense of balance, explaining,
“The recent challenge for me, particularly with my new films Rapture and Turbulent, has been to create work that, while remaining uncompromisingly authentic to the roots of the subject, do not become too ethnographic, and do no alienate those who are not quite informed about the culture. With video I feel I have finally arrived at a point where the work has become universal in its motive. ....I’m interested in juxtaposing the traditional with the modern, but there are other, more philosophical aspects that interest me as well—the desire of all human beings to be free, to escape conditioning, be it social, cultural, or political, and how we’re trapped by all kinds of iconographies and social codes. I try to combine these elements to convey a sense of human crisis and emotion. One feels surrounded by these kinds of pressures in the Islamic culture. They are not necessarily good or bad, but they are very real Islamic conditions.”
Thus, the truths that Neshat pursues apply to everyone, everywhere. Yet she is resolutely specific about the visual motifs that comprise her majestic film installations. Every view of architecture, clothing, and landscape discloses the work’s cultural and religious origins. Their spiritual basis is Islamic. Their geographical location refers to Iran. Their perspective is feminine. The setting still resonates with the effects of A.D. 622, the year that Mohammed fled to Medinet-en-Nabi and founded a new religion. He named it Islam, a word that means “submission to the will of God,” and he forbade sumptuous displays and immodest behaviors. To this day, five times each day, devout Muslims are reminded of their religious duties when they are called to prayer with the chant, “Allah is Great, Allah is great. There is no god but Allah.”
Rapture (1999) is an installation consisting of two synchronized black-and-white films projected onto opposing walls in a darkened gallery. One video presents a throng of Islamic men all wearing Western-styled white shirts and black slacks. They occupy a remote fortress by the sea. In the film they attempt to scale the fortress walls with ladders, conduct menial drills of war, jostle, and perform rituals involving the passing of food, the laying of carpets, the clapping of hands. The second video projection presents a multitude of Islamic women who gradually come into view as they walk across the desolate desert outside the fortress walls. They too wear identical attire, but their clothing carries a message of social significance. Their bodies are wrapped, head to foot, in traditional chadors.. In the film these black cloths flap in the desert wind like the flapping wings of a flock of crows. Separate sound tracks emanate from speakers next to each screen so that the exchanges between the sexes are both visual and aural. Typically, the women respond to the action of the men, as when one hundred female voices erupt in ululation, a shrill and mesmerizing vocalization that rises above the sound of the winds and halts the brawling among the men. Significantly, the dual soundtracks overlap only once, when both the women and men chant a prayer, an uplifting crescendo of voices unified by religious devotion. In the final sequence of the film, six women wade into the churning ocean. They climb aboard a decrepit little boat and cast out into the vast sea, set adrift by the other women. The distant horizon marks their uncertain fate. The men stand beside the guns on the rampart and face out toward the women and the sea. Solemnly they raise their hands and wave with open palms, an Islamic symbol of giving your hand to God in supplication.
These specific components of her narrative remain uncongealed, allowing each viewer of Rapture to ponder humanity’s perennial search for freedom and exaltation. At the same time, Neshat seems intent on avoiding vague abstractions.
“The biggest challenge for me has been how to present my ideas in a way that avoids generalities, clichés, and a sense of didacticism. I usually first try to identify the specific points that I am interested in, find curious and critical to raise concerning my subject. Then conceptually I compose the images with a certain amount of vagueness, almost self-contradictory, to leave the answers to my viewers.”
Such dichotomies erupt at each intersection of the film. For example, men occupy a formidable architectural structure while the veiled women wander under the open skies and amid the howling winds. This imagery evokes quandaries of interpretation. Which domain offers protection and which is perilous? Which group is free and which is confined? The fortress is crumbling. Nature is powerful. The demeanor of the women is proud and resolute. The conduct of the men resembles mindless obedience. Which group is dominant and which is oppressed? In the end, the men are left behind at the abutments while the women set out to sea. Neshat never reveals if the women’s perilous journey represents migration, liberation, salvation, or martyrdom. Nor does she indicate if the men beckon for the women to return or if they wave them farewell.
The film surmounts cultural boundaries for its Western spectator because “us” combines with “them” to produce the collective “everyone.” This expansion of contexts is something Neshat actually experienced when she worked with the Kurdish women from villages in Turkey and Morocco who appear in her films. Perhaps they ignited a sensation that might explain the work’s title, Rapture. Neshat recalls,
“They were so physical. They touched my face. It was the female bonding. They showed their strength and power in the most subtle way. These women play themselves. They really were not performing. The work is so much about these people. I examined Muslim woman’s internal nature and her relation to nature. It all came out during the film. I bring out aspects of human character that is candid. It is up to the director. The idea was to generalize the experience of womanhood, the things that affect all of us - politics, government, history, tradition, religion, mortality, emotional trauma. Things we can’t escape as human beings. We are bound to them in different ways. My interest is to point out that we are just conditioned differently - underneath, we are all the same. Human suffering and dilemma is universal. No one way is better than the other. We are only different on the surface. The veil is just a symbol.”
Women and men cease being individuals and become, instead, generalized as maleness/womanliness
Rapture is poetic, but it includes no words, no dialogue. Its soaring verses are structured out of the universal syntax of emotion that is conveyed through gestures, through the choreographed movements of masses of bodies, and through Sussan Deyhim’s pulsating musical score. Deyhim’s hypnotic composition combines ambient sounds, traditional Middle Eastern songs, techno passages, and drum beats. Thus Neshat capitalizes on elements that have universal appeal and carefully omits barriers to cross-cultural comprehension. But even universal works of art can’t escape the effects of time and place. The Islamic terrorists’ bombing of the World Trade Center and. Pentagon on September 11th, 2001 altered the emotional, spiritual, and historic context in which Rapture will forevermore be viewed. The film now stirs thoughts about the relationship between faith and fanaticism, between devotion and suicide, between secular law and divine law. Even Neshat’s original concern regarding gender roles is now altered. September 11th heightened sensitivity to divergent cultural stereotypes regarding Islamic and Western women—one shunning visual attention while the other attracting it, one being acquiescent and the other self-assertive, one accepting self-renunciation while the other pursues self-fulfillment. In addition, the fortress setting in the film conjures the Islamic Fundamentalist belief that “the sword is the key to heaven.” Thus, militancy has been added to the specific references of time, place, tradition, history, and nationality. Rapture is a descriptive word that denotes the fervor inspired on one side, the indignation provoked on the other, and the imperative to establish harmony between them
Neshat’s inclusion of the chador exemplifies her embrace of the fullness, the complexity, and the contradictions of her subject “From the beginning,” she says, “I made a decision that this work was not going to be about me or my opinions on the subject, and that my position was going to be no position.” Living in the West has exposed her to the opinion that the black, veiled dress of Islamic women signals their requirement to hide their bodies, restrain signs of sexuality, and suppress their individualities. But the faces of the robed and mute women in Neshat’s film are radiant with fierce pride. Their spirit has not been extinguished. Indeed, their demeanor evokes the complex history of the “chador” in Islamic countries. This robe-like garment was actually condemned during the early years of the twentieth century when Iran attempted to modernize by modeling its policies on the West. It was revived during the Revolution when wearing it became a way to demonstrate opposition to the insinuation of Western values. In that era women donned the chador to reassert and purify Islamic values. It was not uncommon in the late 1970s to see militant Muslim women robed and carrying machine guns. After the revolution, however, an Islamic republic was established and the chador, once again, became integrated into the ultra-conservative policies of the state. Rapture is film that addresses such contentious subjects without contaminating its poetic beauty
Neshat alters the conventional manner of presenting foreign cultures on film. Her works do not, for example, resemble travelogues in which exotic subjects are treated as tourist attractions and the audience members behave like sightseers. Nor are they like documentaries made to convey information. Neshat says she uses film “to engage an audience.” The grandeur of Rapture’s black-and-white images and its riveting musical score support this intention. But engagement is mostly achieved by requiring viewers to stand in the space between the two wall projections. The film on one wall presents the women. The film on the opposite wall presents the men. Because it is not possible to see both films as they run simultaneously, audiences must continually turn to monitor the actions on one screen and the responses on the other. Physically, observers occupy the position in-between. Alien constructs literally pass through them. They inhabit an ambivalent mental position—devotion mixes with independence, tradition with progress, security with freedom, individuality with community.
In actuality, Neshat straddles more than two opposing cultural contexts. “Iran is such an extreme opposite of the United States. It makes you think about yourself. You start questioning your relationship to your own culture. I am interested in tapping into ideas and subjects that are ethnically specific but presented in way that is universal - subliminal and primal.” Her international reputation requires that she travel extensively. She lives in cosmopolitan New York where the sidewalks teem with people of all races and nationalities. In New York her loft is in Chinatown. Her son is half Korean. All these aspects of her life prime her to transcend specifics of class, race, and ethnicity Neshat notes that this experience is not unique.
“Globalization of the world and the subsequent rapid migration has uprooted many of us, sometimes by choice, and other times due to economic factors. Whatever the reason, however, those of us living in the state of the ‘in between’ have certain advantages and disadvantages. The advantage of being exposed to a new culture and in my case the freedom that comes with living in the USA. The disadvantages of course being that you will never experience again being in a ‘center’ or quite at ‘home’ anywhere.”
Being in-between is even revealed in Neshat’s appearance. Respectfully, she veils herself when she visits Islamic countries. In the United States, however, she adopts a Western style of dress. In both kinds of apparel, her eyes are her dominant feature. The thick black mascara line that sweeps beneath her bottom lid from the bridge of her nose to her temple is not merely a cosmetic flourish. It underscores a gaze that echoes the confidence and intensity that shines in the eyes of the female subjects, the only part of their bodies that is not hidden by of their chadors, precisely those eyes where suppression and defeat might be expected. They evoke an epic tale of rapture.