Rape, revolt, suicide, dreams, magic: these are the main themes of Shirin Neshat’s current show at Barbara Gladstone, which runs through February 23rd. As in her previous solo shows at the gallery, Neshat addresses the intersection of political oppression and emotional conflict in her native Iran, from which she has been in exile for over thirty years. The exhibition contains large-scale color photographs and two short films from her Women Without Men series, which is based on the novel of the same title by fellow Persian exile Shahrnush Parsipur. The series outlines the lives of five women who are affected by the pivotal CIA-backed 1953 coup that ousted the democratic government and reinstated the Shah.
The more startling of the two films, Faezeh, depicts a young, devout Muslim woman who suffers through a brutal rape and the inevitable consequences that sexual assault implies in the ultra-religious Iran. Separated from herself by the intensity of the atrocity, Faezeh chases a figment of herself through a dream-like forest where she reencounters the crime as a bystander. As she runs through the woods, whispers in Farsi are repeated: “Where is my blue dress? What should I wear to Parveen’s wedding?” These thought-pattern fragments could represent what was coursing through her mind during the rape, as it is easier to be outside oneself and escape during such an unconscionable act, although such thoughts could also refer to the woman’s loss of hope for marriage as a result of her forced loss of her virginity in a culture of fundamentalist patriarchy.
At the beginning of the film, Faezeh and a woman who might be her sister are conversing in Farsi, and there are no English subtitles translating their dialogue. There are only select phrases that are translated in Faezeh, begging the question of what audience Neshat envisioned while creating the film. This choice causes a feeling of displacement and alienation to the non-Farsi speaking viewer, mirroring Neshat’s own experience of being forcibly detached from her culture. The artist is aware that the majority of the exhibition’s viewers will be of non-Iranian origin and that the film will not be screened in her native country. One may assume that this exclusion is meant as a tactic to keep the Western audience at arms length while simultaneously permitting an entrance into an unknown existence.
In the film Munis, Neshat tells the story of a young woman who longs to join the political activists she sees on the television and in the streets during the 1953 coup. Again, the beginning of the film contains a conversation that is not translated between the main character and a family member, who the press release discloses is her brother, in which he forcibly stops her from watching the protests on T.V. Munis is then seen on the roof where she witnesses the death of a revolutionary and then seemingly jumps to her own demise, landing beside the man who’s life she admired. Whether the scene is imagined or real, the young woman enters into a philosophical conversation with the dead man and envisions herself amongst the protesters. The dream-like confrontation between supporters of the democratic government and the military-backed Shah is filmed largely from a bird’s eye view in a way that emphasizes the choreographed, imaginary nature of the scene. As in Faezeh, Neshat prohibits the viewer from fully entering into the life of the protagonist by using filmic and narrative devices which serve as a reminder that they are watching a film of which they remain outside.
Both films in the exhibition portray imagined scenarios that illuminate a harsh reality in a diffused yet honest fashion, revealing a network of complexities in the lives of Iranian women. Even the photographs are presented in a way that exposes the artifice of the image instead of creating enterable, escapist worlds. In Faezeh and Amin Kahn, the man and woman stand rigidly facing the camera, inviting the viewer to ask unanswerable questions, or at least questions that they will not answer.
Overall, the exhibit marks the beginning of Neshat’s transfer from video art to filmmaking, as the two short films that are included do not fit neatly into either category. Too linear to be perceived as traditional video art, yet still too unconventional to enter into the realm of mainstream cinema, the films straddle the line between art and entertainment in a way that may upset some viewers and excite others. Neshat’s interest in dichotomies surfaces yet again through the transition from white cube to darkened theater, proving that the artist’s ability to provoke analysis and discussion has not yet dwindled.