Art & Politics

Video Installation : 'Turbulent' (1998) by Shirin Neshat (Iran / U.S.A)

This powerful film shows Shirin Neshat’s two-screen video installation. She normally presents it on two facing or opposing walls. As we watch the two films (here put together in this single-screen version) we need to imagine the same two pieces of film showing (in sync) on opposite walls facing each other, with us the audience standing or moving in the space between them.

The two singers (Shoja Azari playing the role of the male, and the vocalist and composer Sussan Deyhim as the female) create a powerful musical metaphor for the injustices inherent in gender roles and cultural power in Iran.

This is achieved not only with the use of ancient Persian music and poetry but the metaphor is also conveyed by the visual film-making techniques and the settings in the theatres. This two-screen installation dramatically presents the strict social segregation between men and women demanded in Iranian Islamic culture.

First, the man walks onto the stage and is welcomed with applause from his audience. He sings a conventional love song written by the mystic 13th century Sufi poet Rumi to his audience. When he is finished there is more applause. He turns around, walks towards us and stands in front of us, with his audience behind him. It is as if he is now watching the woman starting to perform her song on the opposite screen facing him.

The woman is prevented by the laws of Islam from singing in public, she is not supposed to be in the theatre and does not have an audience. She sings without words, free-form, improvised, unpredictable, primal, her facial expressions and hand movements are integral to her performance. She sings soulfully as an act of rebellion, frustration and distress. Perhaps she is trying to express the inexpressible, singing to express something deep inside herself and shared widely within her gender – to an empty theatre. Nobody is there to welcome or applaud her.

Like many art works shown on the Red Line Art Works website, Shirin’s work transcends the realms of the conventional 'western' art world. In large parts of this art world today there are artists, galleries, critics and collectors wholly infused with the values and assumptions of neoliberalism and materialism. This can involve : Satisfying the artists' ego as the first objective of art, judging art's 'success' by whether it fulfils the desire of the wealthy for exclusive décor in their homes or businesses, and defining 'successful artists' as those who are represented by galleries which exist to satisfy the tastes of wealthy buyers and collectors.

Shirin’s art works (and others featured in Red Line Art Works) transcend those neoliberal values and assumptions and are instead reflecting more important and far-reaching human issues and global concerns. It is perhaps not surprising that in rich, neoliberal countries some people and institutions in the arts are effectively blind to these massive human concerns. Happily, not all art is blind…

Notes on the Music :

The song the woman here sings was written (and performed) by Sussan Deyhim, a New York-based Iranian composer. It is based on traditional Islamic melodies, and is quite radical (in terms of traditional Iranian culture) in that it does not adhere to any particular musical form or style. The man’s song is : "Daramad, Dad Khavaran Tasnif" by Shahram Nazeri.

Both the the male and female singing styles are ‘melismatic’, i.e. any one syllable of a word may sustain through many musical pitches, including grace notes, giving the whole performance a fluidity. This is common in Persian vocal styles and can be heard in many other musical traditions across North and West Africa, in the 'Blues', in the Middle East, Arabic, Flamenco, Fado, some Asian forms and some ancient Liturgical traditions, etc.

Biographical & Historical Notes :

Shirin Neshat (born 1957) is an Iranian visual artist who lives in New York City. She is known primarily for her work in film, video and photography. Neshat was born in Iran during the reign of the Shah, who came into power thanks to a 1953 British-American backed coup which replaced Iran’s democratically elected government with a monarchy.

She grew up in Iran and left to study art in Los Angeles at about the time that the Iranian Islamic Revolution occurred (in 1979). This resulted in the removal of the British-American backed Shah and the beginning of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In 1990, she returned to visit Iran. "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.”

Much of her work refers to the social, cultural and religious codes of Muslim societies and the complexity of certain oppositions, such as man and woman. Shirin actively resists stereotypical representations of Islam. From a human rights perspective Iranian culture, politics and society is very patriarchal.

Her work addresses the social, political and psychological dimensions of women's experience in contemporary Islamic societies. Her artistic objectives are not explicitly polemical.

In 2009 she took part in a three-day hunger strike at the U.N. headquarters in New York in protest against the 2009 Iranian Presidential Election