|Shirin Neshat has for over a decade fascinated us with the beauty, sensuous, timelessness of both her photographic works, and single and multi-channel video works. Born in Qazvin, Shirin Neshat left Iran just before the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the subsequent fall of the Shah. Since l983, Neshat’s art works have raised important questions concerning the complex history of the nation and treatment of women within the context of Middle Eastern culture in general. Since l996 she has been unable to return to her native country due the often-controversial nature of her art. She presently lives in New York. The winner of numerous awards including the Silver Lion at 2009 Venice Film Festival for the feature film “ Women Without Men”, Neshat ‘s videos and photographs have been presented in various institutions including the MOMA, NYC, Stedjik Museum in Amsterdam, Hamburger Bhanhof, Berlin, and The Tate, London.|
Author: Horace Brockington
Shirin Neshat has for over a decade fascinated us with the beauty, sensuous, timelessness of both her photographic works, and single and multi-channel video works. Born in Qazvin, Shirin Neshat left Iran just before the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the subsequent fall of the Shah. Since l983, Neshat’s art works have raised important questions concerning the complex history of the nation and treatment of women within the context of Middle Eastern culture in general. Since l996 she has been unable to return to her native country due the often-controversial nature of her art. She presently lives in New York. The winner of numerous awards including the Silver Lion at 2009 Venice Film Festival for the feature film “ Women Without Men”, Neshat ‘s videos and photographs have been presented in various institutions including the MOMA, NYC, Stedjik Museum in Amsterdam, Hamburger Bhanhof, Berlin, and The Tate, London.
Despite the sophisticated and combined beauty of her works, the topical – essential the changing and complex political nature of the Middle East especially Iran, and the feminist overtone of her works have always been front and center. Works by Neshat such as, “Women of Allah”( 1993-97) a series of photographs of women in veils carrying guns with their skin covered with Islamic poetry and the video trilogy which included “Rapture” ( 1999), “Turbulence”(1998, and “Fervor”( 2000) introduced new and powerful voice in visual culture in their ability to push conceptual practices of art making into the realm of filmmaking in ways that few of her contemporaries had yet to achieved. With the exception of fellow filmmaker / artist Steve McQueen, both artists who seamlessly moved from conceptual artistic practices to filmmaker, few recent artists has been able to make such a transition to film seem inevitable and warranted. Jackie Hatfield has observed that, changeability has always been the ground-breaking aspect of video art, and its potential for amalgamation with other art forms and contexts, whether performance, dance, sculpture, as theatre, television, or computer has been a key to its flexibility. The video works of Shirin Neshat and Steve Mc Queen have continually relied on the unfixed and tangible nature of video to push the medium towards new definition of film making and in the process comment on some of the most pressing geopolitical events in our contemporary lives. What has distinguished Shirin Neshat’s works has been a seemingly highly intimate and autobiographical in nature of her content that moves into universal themes of repression and domination. The thematization of social matters and recent histories of the Middle East in Neshat’s art take on a form of active politics in themselves and not merely cultural criticism or protest.
“Shirin Neshat’s approach is simple, poetic, minimalist, and is appropriately communicative. It allows for criticism of Islamic society without overtly declaring that stance. One could say that the artist, in discovering a mode of representation that develops within a limited space, simultaneously owes the conciseness and universality of her work to this limitation.” Ameh Wallach
Early works such as “Rapture” and “Turbulence” have prepared us for Neshat first extremely seductive and political full-length film: Women Without Men. What she retains from her early works is the stark black and white and sophisticated use of color for both its semiotic and visual inference. She uses the film genre to reinscribe our contemporary understanding of the Islamic Revolution within the context of postcolonial discourse. But equally, the film is loaded with reference to cross- cultural encounters. The background of the Film narrative expands on the screen behind the backdrop of the political and political –cultural infrastructure of the period min which internationalism came into direct opposition with the regionalism of the Middle East.
In Women Without Men Neshat retains the understated sophistication and simplicity that has marked her earlier video works, but she allows herself to dissolve the limitation of the video/ installation platform in order to draw the viewer deeper into a world of sexual politics and political intrigue.
Woman Without Men is adapted from the novel of Shahrnush Parsipur’s by the same name which when published in 1989 was seen as ambitious and daring. Parsipur’s writing career spans over three decades and Women Without Men contains, thematically and stylistically, elements of pre-revolution Iranian literature however its narrative was seen as unique in its providing new Iranian woman voice in a post revolutionary period.
In the film adaptation the story chronicles the interconnection of the lives of four Iranian women during the summer of l953, the turning point in the history of Iran in which the an American led and British backed coup’d’etate brought down the democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, and reinstalled the Shah to power. 1953 and Mossadegh’s overthrow is an important period in Iranian history because it marks the first and last democratically elected government in Iran. The reinstallation of the Shah to power lead to a long harsh dictatorship over the people of Iran. Simultaneously the illegitimate and bloody coup alienated nationalist elite within Iran, which had previously looked to the United States as its ideological ally. As such it marked the deterioration of the relationship between the United States and Iran, and many of other Middle Eastern countries.
But, Women Without Men is not simply another political –verite film, it is also a moving story about traditions, social, political, familial and the consequences of change and the necessity to reject traditions.
Filmed in Casablanca, Morocco, the Neshat stunningly recreates the Tehran of the l950s. Herein Neshat brings some of the themes she has continually introduced in her work since the early “Women of Allah” photographs, her earlier video works, and the more recent video installation, “Tooba”, whose visual core was the tree of Tooba, a mythological tree that us regarded as a “ scared tree” in paradise. In Women Without Men, Neshat creates an imaginary garden where the tree of Tooba stands as center, in which the women in the film take refuge. .In Parsipur’s original novel the garden was use as a type of magic realist device intended to symbolize pleasure and knowledge.
The film evolves over a the course of several days in which we are witness to the lives of the four women from different parts of Iranian society who circumstances are dictated in part as cause and effect of the changing political and social turbulence of the period. Fakri, a middle aged woman trapped in a loveless marriage and her affection of her former lover who has recently returned from America and is determined to re-enter her life. Zarin, young prostitute who tries come to terms with the reality that she can no longer see the faces of men. Munis, a politically awakened young woman, who rejects the seclusion and isolation both physically and mentally, imposed by her devoutly religious traditional brother, while her best friend Faezeh oblivious to the turmoil of the streets and the air of change in society longs to marry Munis’s controlling brother, only to fall victim to her own her naiveté. Employing the techniques of realism, magic realism, surrealism and a type of cinema verite Neshat has created a bittersweet tale of love and loss and a compelling exploration of a woman’s search for identity and fulfillment amongst the turmoil o f a country in upheaval.
As the political unrest evolves over the fours days into the streets of Tehran, each woman faced with her sheer will or a consequent of evolving events finds liberation from her predicament. Through series of moments the women ultimately finds themselves in a mystical orchard on the outskirts of the city that has been purchased by Fakri. As in thee video installation “Tooba”, the garden is herein treated as a space of exile, refuge, an oasis where one can be feel both safe and secure, if only temporarily.. For a moment in this tranquil and surreal environment these women find salvation, relief, and vision. However, such calm is soon interrupted by the country-changing history and arrival of outsiders.
Women Without Men continues two essential subjects of Neshat’s oeuvre, Islam and gender relations. As in all her works, she explores the affect that the revolution has had on both the lives of men and women in Iranian society, especially the lives of women rebelling against martyrdom and militancy. But far from simply being platform for feminist dogma, Women Without Men is an engaging and beautifully shot film about desire and repression. It is both a mirror into Iran past’s and it to the hidden lives of women, rarely seen on the screen presented , not a simplified set of issues but the complex consequences of the all human nature in both the desire to embrace and freeze time, but equally the fear of the future’s uncertainty.
While the feminist tone of the film is up front, both the women and men in Neshat’s film are depicted as victim of change, their personal, social, and political disempowerment as a result of Western Imperialism intervention in Middle Eastern affairs becomes apparent. Neshat has been described as exploring oppositions inherent in nature- culture, male female, public-private, In Women Without Men in doing so has developed her own filmic language, a language that she uses much like a visual artist combining spare, often graphic like images.
As the first feature film by one of the most intriguing young conceptual artist today, Shirin Neshat ‘s Women Without Men embraces the film medium without scarifying her own signature approach the cinematic/ video medium. While so many visual artists moving into the film genre want us to be moved by the cleverness of handling film, or clever use of computer assisted technology, Neshat’s approach is rather formal. Addressing the issue of limited use of color in the film Neshat has observed, “The question of color or absence of color has always been tied to my concepts….In “Rapture” and “Turbulence” the narratives evolved around the notion of “opposites”, so the black and white helped to exaggerate the dichotomy between the different genders in Islamic cultures. In the case of Women Without Men, I thought it was interesting to have saturated color, mainly to pay tribute to the period that the film take place; the l950s. However, throughout the film, the schemes of color change from the orchards, which are colorful, to the scenes of the street protests where I purposely drained the color, to give a sort of archival quality to the film.