Shirin Neshat: I Will Greet the Sun Again
The Broad Museum, Los Angeles
On view through February 12, 2020
by Mario Vasquez
In 1995, Shirin Neshat was about to board a plane at the airport in Tehran, Iran to go back to the United States. As she was waiting at the airport, the Iranian secret police arrested Neshat and interrogated her for hours. It is at this point that everything changed. Neshat became an outsider, an exile, in a culture that was both familiar and foreign. This kind of dichotomy and others are on display in a survey currently showing at The Broad Museum in Los Angeles. Curated by Ed Schad, “Shirin Neshat: I Will Greet the Sun Again” is the largest exhibition to date of internationally acclaimed artist Shirin Neshat’s approximately 30-year career. Taking its title from a poem by Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad, the exhibition (which presents over 230 photographs and eight immersive video installations works) offers a rare glimpse into the evolution of Neshat’s artistic journey as she explores topics of exile, displacement, and identity with beauty, dynamic formal invention, and poetic grace. Neshat’s work is an exploration of conflicts and contradictions that beset complexities of gender, and culture. The survey of Neshat’s work is displayed chronologically from the earliest work beginning in the early 1990s to a new video and photographic installation being shown for the first time.
From the beginning of the 1990s, Neshat was exploring themes of gender and cultural conflict by integrating photography and Farsi text. Neshat sought to connect poetry with the image, and thus creating a visual language that addresses both gender and culture. Upon viewing each of Neshat’s photoworks, Farsi texts of Persian poetry appear in various places on the skin, the eyes and on other parts of the body. Neshat’s makes a specific relation between the word and the body. The poetic is a constant presence in Neshat world. The word and image assist the viewer in navigating the world that Neshat explores. From the time between her return to Iran around 1990 to the 1995 incident at the Tehran airport, Neshat sought to explore both the contradictions and continuity of woman’s place in Persian society. Neshat lived in the West for about 15 years before returning to Iran. She sought to reconcile the changes that were brought about by the Islamic Revolution. Ideas such as martyrdom and violence are addressed in the early work. Neshat directly explores the contradictions and the political changes brought about by the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
The experience at the Tehran airport brought about a shift in Neshat’s work. Neshat became an exile, and United States was now her new home. Neshat was now an outsider both in her homeland of Iran and her new home in the West. The experience led to the most provocative and best-known works within Neshat’s oeuvre. The two-channel video installation Rapture (1999) remains Neshat’s masterpiece. The viewer is propelled between two screens. The video installation is divided and segregated by gender; men on one side, women on the other. Set in the Middle East, Neshat confronts the divide between men and woman. Large groups of men and women confront each other despite being separated by both the space of the installation and the distance. The video show men singing, dancing, marching and wrestling around a fortress complex. The male side is aggressive and loud. All the while, the women look on from across the space on to the actions of male side in total silence. There are times of tension where each side stares at each other in confrontational gaze. The women despite the silence are there defiant in their stance. Each of the women are dressed in the hijab and burka, while the men wear white shirts with black trousers. The dichotomy and tension are what Neshat wants to the viewer to feel while watching Rapture. The video culminates in the woman speaking with a load holler as if an act of both assertion and defiance.
Defiance in the gender roles prevalent in Islamic and in the West is a continuing part of Neshat’s work. Video works such as Possessed (2001) take on concepts of madness and repression within Iranian society, where a woman roams the streets of an unknown city in the Middle East where the men surround and debate her fate. Later, Neshat explores the aftermath of the September 11th attacks in 2001 and the consequences of the subsequent measures taken to prevent future attacks. Neshat explores the more recent history with portraits of witnesses of the Arab Spring and the Green Revolution in Iran. The faces of those portrayed reflect a deep sadness, and one gets the sense of a great weight placed upon them as events in their countries spiral out of control. They are not victims. Instead, Neshat’s exploration reflect an admiration and a strength that is present within their faces; the hopes and dreams that endure tragedy and horror.
In the most recent works, Neshat explores the intersection between dreams and psychological states that surround her adopted home the United States. With this change, Neshat now connects with and sees herself as an American. In the “Roja” video series, Neshat reflects on the familial connections that have been lost as she channels through dream states. The film demonstrates the influence of Surrealist films by those such as Man Ray, Cocteau, and Antonioni. In “Illusions and Mirrors,” the protagonist played by Natalie Portman is pursued through a house by a mysterious figure appearing in mirrors throughout the home. In “Land of Dreams” a new work being shown to the public for the first time, a protagonist who is Neshat’s double travels throughout the Southwest United States recording dreams of the subjects she meets and photographing them. Neshat comes back to the politics of immigration and the connections with home, exile and the dreams that are encountered as a result of current tensions. Throughout the exhibition Neshat continues to explore the intersection between poetry and photography as a means to explore both gender roles, and Islamic societies.
When looking at the art of Shirin Neshat, the work seems at first to defy interpretation. None of the writing on the photographic portraits are written in English. All the works are in Farsi. This adds a bit of mystery to those not familiar with the language. It also informs the viewer that the intended audience are those who are both near and far; the people of Iran. The exile is always present. However, her new home in the United States brings new dimensions to Neshat’s work. Between her early works that directly addresses the contradictions, changes, gender tensions, and eventual tragedy of Islamic society, and the recent works that explore the connections between dreams, the personal, and the current politic climate, Neshat never allows the viewer off easy. The works are vastly layered in meaning and concepts that intertwine history, poetry, and gender. They are the mirror that reflects an underlying and ever-present conflict and change.