New York

Shirin Neshat

Shirin Neshat’s transition from photographer to filmmaker is grounded in an ongoing examination of the everyday lives of Islamic women that is shadowed by her own exile from her Iranian homeland and her subsequent displacement to Morocco, where she has tapped into the energy of a fledgling women’s movement. When we watch Neshat’s films—which are paradoxically both short and epic—we are thus seeing something both personal and political.

How many locations, scenes, and events in Neshat’s work inform us about the actual texture of day-to-day life of women in the Middle East, whether from the perspective of an exile or of someone who has no choice but to remain? We can’t help wondering how much in her art might possess documentary value, providing a window onto the lives of those to whom virtually all forms of self-expression are denied. And we feel encouraged to weigh the informational content of the work against its fictional dimension, factoring in the artist’s interest in cinematic spectacle and musical grandiloquence. Neshat’s sweeping sound tracks accompany monumentally beautiful scenery and lend dramatic urgency to her narrative vignettes—unfolding in barren deserts or on ancient stony streets—which most recently have focused on female protagonists experiencing psychotic breakdowns.

In Zarin, 2005, a twenty-minute film adapted from a novella written by Shahrnoush Parsipour, an Iranian, Neshat reveals glimpses of a woman who, forced into prostitution at an early age, loses her sanity and hallucinates all men as faceless monsters. The artist leads us in and out of the brothel, the baths, the streets, and the mosques as Zarin, the prostitute, experiences a rupture with reality and runs from one place to another in a frantic effort to cleanse and redeem herself. Her horror results not only from the frightening specter of men without faces but from her awareness that she is hallucinating. Shunned by the women and children at the public baths, where she scrubs herself into a bloody mess, she becomes a pariah.

Thus displaced, Zarin becomes a wholly pathetic character. We are led to compare her circumstances with the lives of real women in the Middle East, and we can’t help but speculate about the work’s reception there—particularly in Morocco—both during and after its production. Neshat’s video must be seen as a contribution to the area’s developing women’s movement, which is currently some thirty to forty years behind the West’s. The challenge she faces lies in bridging that gap by producing art that appeals equally to very different audiences. Unfortunately, in New York at least, despite the respect generally accorded to Neshat’s oeuvre, Zarin suffers from a dose of melodrama that inadvertently occasions muted laughter.

When the film’s faceless men all begin to advance on the viewer at once, the scene starts to feel like a Saturday Night Live parody of “high art” by way of a George Romero zombie flick. No matter how earnestly we may try to channel Neshat’s visionary art into a better understanding of the plight of oppressed women and our own relationship to their predicament, what we’re left with is a ragbag of cinematic tricks and clichés that overwhelm both Zarin’s struggle and the cultural milieu it represents.

Jan Avgikos