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In the video installation “Rapture” (1999) ,viewers stand in a darkened gallery space between two projections: one of women in black chadors (the traditional Islamic dress for Iranian women) and the other of men in a medieval fortress. While the men perform absurd tasks and run between the high stone walls in a mass, the women wander individually and aimlessly, dispersed about a desert landscape. The actions of the men devolve into chaos and they fight one another until the women divert their attention with a ritual cry. In a subtle choreographic interplay, the women move about in nature, the men in the confines of architecture and society; each group, though separate, seems responsive to the other. Eventually, the men watch the women make their way to the sea, where a motorized boat will carry a few of them beyond the waves.
There’s no clear narrative or dialogue, and any connection to a historical period or specific culture is uncertain. Ambiguity is Shirin Neshat’s currency, and placing the viewer between dual projections is a strategy that unveils codependent binaries: man/woman, nature/culture, private/public, East/West, and the hybrid identity of the artist herself. In its first exhibition dedicated to the Iranian-American artist, the Hirshhorn Museum presents five video installations and three complete photographic series interspersed with displays of Iran’s three modern revolutionary moments. Here, Neshat’s often fascinating, hyphenated perspective takes a backseat to such explicit teachings of history, but the approach offers an experience of her work tailored to a D.C. audience.
Neshat was born in Qazvin, the former capital of Iran and one of its most religiously conservative centers. She arrived in San Francisco as a teenage student in 1973, and barely spoke English, but by the time the Iranian Revolution ended in 1979, she was studying art at UC Berkeley. She’d finished her degree and moved to New York before she was finally able to return to her home country for a visit after the Iran-Iraq War. By then, the Iran of her memory was all but eradicated by the Islamic regime; her black-and-white videos attest to the stark, chador-clad world she encountered there.
The Hirshhorn’s exhibition is far from a retrospective of Neshat’s work. “Rapture” rounds out the artist’s famous first video trilogy, which also includes “Turbulent” (1998) and “Fervor” (2000), but missing is her second trilogy, completed in 2001, along with other significant individual videos. “Munis” (2008), for instance, is one of five videos based on characters from Neshat’s award-winning debut film, Women Without Men (2009), which the museum will screen on June 11 as part of the exhibition’s adjacent programming. Neshat achieved international fame when “Turbulent” won the Golden Lion at the 1999 Venice Biennale, one of the most prestigious awards for a living artist, and she has since been awarded a slew of other international awards. She’s also held solo exhibitions in just about every major city in the world—except Tehran and D.C.
The museum’s co-curators of the exhibition, Melissa Chiu and Melissa Ho, have taken an appropriate if not bold political approach to Neshat’s work with “Facing History.” Upon entering the exhibit, viewers are met with historical photographs and U.S. newsreel footage of the 1951 election of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, who was ousted just two years later in a CIA-sponsored coup d’état. Beyond this introduction, a cavernous space delivers a cinematic experience of “Munis,” titled for the video’s protagonist, who participates in the resistance against the coup. Through “Munis,” Neshat provides an alternative history of the democratically elected prime minister, referred to in the preceding U.S. media footage as “dictatorially minded.” Additional transitions between the galleries will continue to situate her work against the backdrops of the Iranian Revolution and the Green Movement of 2009; any meatier political rumination is left to Neshat’s responsive work.
“Munis” is rooted in an oeuvre that has long emphasized the rootlessness of its artist and her identity, fraught with the contradictions of two cultures. In her early career in the 1990s, when she produced most of the work shown at the Hirshhorn, Neshat was reluctant to describe herself as a political artist and did not want to be misconstrued as a cultural representative of Iran. Even the most controversial work in this exhibition, the “Women of Allah” photographic series (1993-97), was a personal exploration of the changes that had taken place in Iran since her absence, and the impact of 1983’s Veiling Act, which mandated that women wear hijabs. Some women embraced the veil as a requisite of their religion; others donned it as a symbol of resistance to the encroachment of Western capitalist culture; still others have seen it as a means of segregating and subjugating women.
In some of these photographs, Neshat, a secular Muslim living in the U.S., deliberately poses in a chador. Particularly in “Faceless” (1994), she appropriates this image and enters it into a confrontational pose, even brandishing a gun toward the viewer, to address the limitations of American visual contexts for Iranian subjects. She writes across the surface of each photograph, on the hands, face and feet (the only parts of the body exposed under the restrictive dress code), in the calligraphic Persian script. The female body becomes the bearer of textual meaning that Neshat has culled from Persian poetry, celebrated in Iran as an art of political resistance under censoring regimes. The language, incomprehensible to most American audiences since the exhibit only provides limited samples of translation, sets across the subject’s skin like a screen that bars a penetrating gaze—a communication extended but lost, further signifying a cultural divide.
After the Iranian Revolution, mainstream media in the U.S. too often failed to explain the complexity of social and religious identity in Iran or the diversity of women’s experiences there, so D.C. audiences may read Neshat’s work as a feminist indictment of Iranian culture. But the image of Iranian women Neshat constructs for us is one that is empowered and revolutionary, perhaps as much due to their subjugation as despite it. Influences outside of Iran show themselves in Neshat’s work, too: her experiences as a young émigré in the U.S. seeing the tumultuous events of her country unfold through a Western-biased media, for example, and the emotional upheaval she experienced as a Muslim New Yorker after 9/11.
In the Hirshhorn exhibition’s final work, “Soliloquy” (1999), Neshat performs as the main character; projected on one wall, she moves about the modernist architecture of New York (including the World Trade Center), and on the opposite wall, within the Islamic architecture of Turkey (standing in for Iran, which she has not visited since being interrogated at the Tehran airport in 1996). Since 9/11, Neshat has embraced her role as a political artist, evident in the newer photographic series in “Facing History”: “Book of Kings” (2012) and “Our House Is on Fire” (2013), an homage to the revolutionaries in the Green Movement and the Arab Spring, respectively. Still, she raises more questions than she answers. This is part of Neshat’s brilliance as an artist; like the women she portrays so heroically or the history she attends to in more recent work, layers of truth and complexity lie beneath the surface. Although the Hirshhorn’s historical angle is relatively neutral, it may be a fitting stage for what Neshat’s work asks us to do, which is to look more deeply.
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