New York

Shirin Neshat

In producing a body of work inspired by and named after Shahrnush Parsipur’s experimental novel about five women’s experiences in 1950s Iran, Women Without Men (1989), Shirin Neshat continues in the vein of her series of photographs “Women of Allah,” 1993–97. Using high-production-value film, video, and photography, the artist here makes visual the author’s exploration of the intersection of gender and ideology. But Neshat parts ways with an earlier generation of feminist artists that includes Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman in that her work does not seek to disidentify in the interest of unmooring ideological givens, but rather reifies—mythifies, even—traditional identity by locating it at the level of the flesh.

“Women of Allah” shows Farsi text literally inscribed over faces characterized by ethnic specificity. Neshat uses her own face, coded as post-1979 Iranian by black chador and starkly outlined eyes. That quality of reification, in this case, silences any serious intellectual inquiry; first, the works do not question the veracity of the stereotype, and second, who could resist the seduction of the exotic physiognomic beauty of Neshat’s photographic subjects (herself included) and that of the photographs themselves, or indeed the narrative drive of her films? The dominance of the purely aesthetic neutralizes the political potential of Neshat’s project. But if the viewer does not care about politics anyway, the question becomes: If Neshat’s work is so mimetically inscribed in an experience styled after mainstream cinema and fashion photography, why bother with it?

Munis (all works 2008), a roughly thirteen-minute video that forms part of the series “Women Without Men,” 2004– (the entirety of which will be on display at Aros Aarhaus Art Museum in Denmark this month), follows a woman passionately interested in the anticolonialist protests of supporters of Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who was deposed by the British and the American CIA, which installed the Pahlavi regime, a monarchy, in 1953 (a handout assists the viewer with this story). Rather than pausing to allow the viewer to consider the legacy of these events and their impact on the current configuration of the Middle East (and, perhaps, how American intervention fits into this picture), the segment spins the issue as a localized romance between the woman and her activist lover, who is assassinated in the course of the narrative.

While Parsipur’s text conveys history through the feminist adage The personal is political, through which we understand the world-historical ramifications of the protagonist’s feelings, Neshat’s video merely trivializes them. “Women Without Men,” with its bombastic visual and musical style, misses the effective shock of Parsipur’s book, in which violence is underscored by the laconic quietness with which it is presented.

Faezeh, which follows the story of another of Parsipur’s female protagonists, and Munis’s friend, explores the story of a pious woman whose aspirations are shattered when she is violently raped. The camera’s fetishization of the actress who plays Faezeh, her physiognomic exoticism (the Qajar eyebrows, the wide almond eyes, the long dark hair) serves not only to aestheticize the rape, but reenacts every tenet of Orientalism, as the late Edward Said theorized it, from the metaphorization of the (Middle) East through the vulnerable, horizontal, eroticized female body as an object of fantasy and delectation to the im/penetrable exotic other. Neshat, in 2008, has a lot in common with, and has internalized the lessons of, the master Ingres at his Orientalist best with La Grande Odalisque of 1914. On a wider register, Neshat presents ethnically specific and female faces as sites of visual pleasure, plenitude, and truth in the most conventional senses. They are, as she presents them, and whether in the United States or the Islamic Republic, sites of psychological interiority only at the expense of the politically determined subject.

Jaleh Mansoor