New York

Shirin Neshat

DESPITE SHIRIN NESHAT'S RECENT SUCCESSES (her 1998 film Turbulent earned top honors at the 1999 Venice Biennale; last year brought awards from the Kwangju Biennale, CalArts, and the Edinburgh International Festival), this latest show disappointed. While her earlier films pivoted on social issues like the politics of desire in a sex-segregated state, this trio of works leaned toward heavy-handed dramatizations of hackneyed “universal” themes: life, death, insanity.

In the short black-and-white film Pulse (all works 2001), a woman wails in a gothic interior next to a large-knobbed, old-fashioned radio. Hinting at the havoc wreaked by censorship, Neshat sells her subject too hard: The film eventually drowns in its own dark cinematography, Sussan Deyhim's baroque sound track, and the dramatic keening of the actress (Shohreh Aghdashloo). Passage, an eleven-and-a-half-minute epic with a score by Philip Glass, employs familiar Neshat motifs: dual armies of men and women dressed in black, posed against the sea and the desert, respectively. A ring of veiled women digs a grave for a shrouded corpse carried by the men, while a little girl builds her own miniature grave circle. The film relies so heavily on stock “archetypal” motifs (a circle of fire erupts around the figures at the end) that it simulates, more than anything, the theatrics of an expensive, high-concept music video.

More successful was Possessed, an elegiac, Maya Derenesque film that eases into its dramatic proposal rather than entering in medias res. Wandering unveiled through narrow streets, a woman ends up in a village square, where she moves invisibly through a crowd. Resembling, in her psychotic nonconformism, the ''walking woman“ in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's landmark story The Yellow Wallpaper, the dark-eyed heroine suggests that madness may be the only ”rational" response to cultural repression.

Neshat's position as spokesperson for Persian feminism (the bedrock, in a sense, for her Western art career) must be qualified: Born in Iran and educated in the United States, she only returned to visit Iran eleven years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, having spent sixteen years abroad. What Neshat offers is a dual cultural view, empathizing with the Iranian situation but privy to American perceptions (and preconceptions) as well. But this is a difficult position to maintain—particularly since the two cultures involved are anything but neutral toward each other. Reception becomes a key consideration with Neshat, since her audience is primarily Western, and the abstract version of Iran she presents is often impenetrable to her viewers. She might be accused of orientalism, of preying on or pandering to Western fascination with a culture that is virtually closed to the rest of us. To complicate matters, these three films were shot in Morocco, so the “glimpse” into Persian culture via the window of cinema—which must be, but rarely is, understood as fictional in the first place—is doubly suspect. In some ways, Morocco's substitution for Iran seems inconsequential—after all, how many times in the history of film has Thailand served as Vietnam, Toronto as New York, or a Hollywood studio lot as outer space? But it is precisely the movieland suspension of disbelief that weakens Neshat's factual/fictional presentation, pushing her men in black and veiled women into the territory of ciphers, decorative emblems held up as representatives of recent Persian “history.”

Martha Schwendener