Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Paradox: Shirin Neshat and Laurie Anderson

Two artists: one an expatriate from Iran, one a born-and-bred Midwest girl. Two ways of depicting their art, but one common theme between them: paradox.

Shirin Neshrat was born in Iran in 1957 to a well-to-do "westernized" family. She was educated in both European culture and the beauty of the ancient Persian culture, which she has illustrated so beautifully in her art. Her parents sent her, at the age of 17, to study art at the University of California. She and her husband founded the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, but she did not work as an artist until after she visited Iran after the revolution of 1990. Profoundly affected by the contrasts and complexities of the new Islamic lifestyle, she began photographing and filming Iranian women, their culture, their place in the world.

"Persian culture is based on quite different values to the Islamic one. It is less stiff, more poetic and bookish and very old. The new government brought a very strict, pure form of Islam into the country. They wished to erase Persian history and to replace it with a general Islamic culture." (Das Kunstmagazin, 2000, No. 4, p. 24). Her still photographs show the paradoxes of repression and freedom, of traditional piety and a larger spirituality. “Artpopulos” has uploaded a slideshow of her still images and frames from some of her video works, which gives a very good idea of her art.

The paradox of the veiled woman and the Islamic revolutionary is very powerful. In one interview she says that she opened "a pictorial discourse between feminism and contemporary Islam." She photographs within the boundaries of Islamic society, with respect, and calls herself a "passionate researcher," not an expert. (from a catalog of her work at the Serpentine Gallery, London, 2000)

Neshat moved into the realm of video in the 1990’s, when she began making two-screen museum installations, showing the paradox of Iranian Islamic culture, with men free
to act in the public space and women hidden, veiled, and often voiceless, yet fervent and alive. Caught between two screens, the viewer has to decide what to focus on, and inevitably makes comparisons about what they are seeing. Encouraged by the success of these installations, and in collaboration with filmmaker Ghasem Ebrahimian and musician Sussan Deyhim, she began making short videos like "Zarin," which illustrate her mastery of visual detail and her storytelling abilities as well. Here is a YouTube interview of Neshrat talking about this movie and her vision as an artist: (move the slider to 20:25)

One of her latest projects is a full-scale movie, “Women Without Men.” Here is the New York Times review, which describes both the visual impact and the emotional landscape:
/14women.html?ref=movies The trailer can be seen at:

The work I am reviewing is “Turbulent,” one of Neshat’s two-screen video installations, first shown in 1998. In our text, Margot Lovejoy points out that the traditional “grammar” of film is changed, or, perhaps, undone, when a work is created using more than one screen. “The constraints of single-screen narrative film are thrown into a new territory of hybridity.” (Digital Currents p.144)

In Neshat’s “Turbulent,” one screen shows an Iranian male vocalist (played by Shoja Azari) singing in the traditional Persian style, with an audience of appreciative men listening to him in a large auditorium. The other screen shows a veiled Iranian female (vocalist and composer Sussan Deyhim) standing in front of the same auditorium, with no one in the audience. Her face is never turned completely toward the camera. Each singer gives a moving, virtuoso performance. However, there are contrasts. The woman's uses special electronic effects like digital delay; the man's is simply amplified in the normal fashion with a microphone. The man sings first, is applauded; then the woman sings while the man stands quiet. (Listening? Ignoring? Unaware?)

The paradox is obvious; the film brings up the questions of gender roles an
d cultural power. Both the music and the videography accent the differences in the two situations. In museum installations, the two performers were shown on two screens on opposite walls, making the viewer choose what to focus on.

While the differences of gender roles were obviously presented, I heard in the music other meanings. The man’s solo illustrated the traditional Persian virtuoso style and performance. The woman, singing wordlessly to an empty auditorium, was in a sense freed to experiment, and the electronic effects and “unexpected” sounds seemed to me to be a metaphor for moving beyond the constraints of society and tradition. In the few seconds of silence at the end of the video, we see almost all of her face.

Laurie Anderson was born in Illinois in 1947, attended Mills College in C
alifornia (which has an excellent music department) and eventually graduated from Barnard College in art history. She then earned a MFA in sculpture from Columbia University. Her drawings and sculptures are displayed in various museums, but she is known for her performance art. (Her first performance-art piece was a symphony played on automobile horns). She is also a techno-geek, and has invented several musical instruments, including the tape-bow violin, a particular voice filter, and the Talking Stick, which is a 6-foot long midi controller. (She ran up against the FBI when she innocently FedExed it to a museum in Chicago when George W. Bush was in town.)

Like Shirin Neshat, Anderson is interested in the human condition, and in one work, “Stories from the Nerve Bible,” she asked her audience “to confront the future and to determine whether there is hope for human progress or whether we will sink only more deeply into the violence and social upheaval we are experiencing globally.” (Digital Currents p. 270). In 2008 she did a world tour, “Homeland,” in which she commented on the state of America and its place in the world.

Despite her focus on performance art, she became a pop icon with her music video “O Superman,” and has landed recording contracts with major labels. "Good Morning, Mr. Orwell" was the first international satellite "installation" by Nam June Paik, on New Year's Day, 1984. Paik saw it as a rebuttal to George Orwell's vision of 1984. The project linked WNET TV in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris live via satellite, as well as hooking up with broadcasters in Germany and South Korea. It aired nationwide in the US on public television, and reached an audience of over 25 million viewers worldwide. Included in this installation was a re-make of Anderson’s “Excellent Birds (This is the Picture)” which she performed for Paik’s video in duo with singer Peter Gabriel. The choreography and backgrounds are her signature style.

I chose this particular performance to focus on because it has both similarities and differences to Shirin Neshat’s “Turbulent.” And it contains paradoxes. I can see why Nam June Paik wanted to include it in his installation. The refrain-like theme, “This is the picture” and Anderson’s whispering, “Watching out, watch out,” might well have been a reference to Big Brother (Wikipedia: In the society that Orwell describes, everyone is under complete surveillance by the authorities, mainly by telescreens. The people are constantly reminded of this by the phrase "Big Brother is watching you", which is the core "truth" of the propaganda system in this state. Since the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the term "Big Brother" has entered the lexicon as a synonym for abuse of government power, particularly in respect to civil liberties.)

Anderson brings hidden things like government surveillance out into the open and names them.
She uses both the visual and the musical to make her impact. Just her own stylized appearance, with masculine tie and white suit, spiky hair, yet very feminine makeup, make it hard to put her into a category (Is she gay? Straight? Defiant? Artistic? What does this mean?) and so gives her a lot of power to be herself. Her very individualized way of looking at and reflecting the world seems to me to have much in common with Shirin Neshat’s gaze.

In looking at the two videos, I was struck at once by the opening frames: each contains a single man and woman. In Neshat’s video, each performer is wearing the prescribed Iranian clothing, with the woman veiled and the man in western dress. They are separated by two screens; there is no contact, no interaction between them. In Anderson’s, the two are dressed in the “hip” style of the 1980’s, not at all in the “prescribed” dress of American polite society. They are close together in the same space, and are interacting and commenting to each other. While the external props and filming are different, to me both videos said something very powerful about the situation of the women in each video. And it wasn’t simplistic, like “The first woman was repressed and the second was free.” It was much more complex than that. Both female singers were expressing themselves fully. It seemed to me that each artist was showing her audience a reality, and leaving us to think about the meanings. Plural. While both artists use their art as commentary on society, neither seems to have an axe to grind (which bores me really fast).

I liked the fact that their works had so many layers, both of sound and sight. I especially liked the surrealist touches. I had to watch and listen to these videos many times to be able to focus on all the elements they contained. But I was never confused; rather I was drawn into each work and felt comfortable there.
I learned that both artists want to be able to clearly communicate with their audiences. Neshat said in one interview that she always wanted to make art “that my mother can understand.” And Anderson said in an interview that she wanted to “jump across to someone and they go, “I know what you’re talking about!’”) (Mike Schneider, Night Talk, 2008)


Obviously the style and media of the two artists are different—Neshat’s film work seems to me to be solidly based on her view as a photographer. In “Turbulent” her photography is in sharp focus and realistic, but takes advantage of the play of light and shadow, camera angle, and background to make stunning visual images. The weight seemed to me, to be with the visual art. In contrast, Anderson’s video, while using her artistic training in creating lighting effects, animation backgrounds, and other visual components of the film, seemed to me to be weighted most heavily on the side of the music. She was the composer, she conceived the soundscape. She is also the performer, and much of the work depends on her choreography and her facial expressions (or, sometimes, lack of them). How Peter Gabriel got into this remake I’m not sure of, but I liked her interplay and her choreography with him.

Both videos pulled me into a new area of art—not created on a canvas or molded from metal or clay, but alive and moving with sight and sound. Today at the Nevada Museum of Art I looked at some video installations and saw them in an entirely different light.


Shirin Neshat
Egoyan, Atom. Essay in the catalogue for the first major museum solo exhibition of Shirin Neshat at the Musée D’Art Contemporain in Montreal (Women of Allah and other stills) (Women Without Men) (Turbulent)

Laurie Anderson (Laurie Anderson website) (Biography)
c (Night Talk interview) (L.A. on the Exploitation
of Women)

No comments:

Post a Comment