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surreal realities from the other side

dan edwards: shirin neshat, women without men

Dan Edwards’ full interview with Shirin Neshat can be found at: www.danedwards.net

 Mahdokht detail, Women Without Men Series (2004) Mahdokht detail, Women Without Men Series (2004)
photo Larry Barns, Shirin Neshat, Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York
RECENT TALK OF PALESTINIAN “AGGRESSION” IN GAZA, AT A TIME WHEN HUNDREDS OF MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN WERE BEING SLAUGHTERED BY ISRAEL’S HIGHLY SOPHISTICATED MILITARY MACHINE, IS JUST THE LATEST EXAMPLE OF THE ONE-SIDED VIEW WE RECEIVE OF LIFE IN THE MIDDLE EAST. FOR DECADES THE WEST HAS POSITIONED ITSELF AS THE VICTIM OF ISLAM’S SUPPOSED ANTIPATHY TO DEMOCRACY, EVEN AS WE HELP STYMIE POPULAR MOVEMENTS THROUGHOUT THE MUSLIM WORLD. IN THIS CONTEXT, ARTISTIC VOICES FROM THE MIDDLE EAST PROVIDE AN IMPORTANT OPPORTUNITY TO SEE THESE CULTURES FROM THE OTHER SIDE. MIXING MAGIC, TRAGEDY, HISTORY AND POLITICS, THE FIVE-VIDEO SERIES WOMEN WITHOUT MEN BY US-BASED IRANIAN ARTIST SHIRIN NESHAT OFFERS A SHARP REJOINDER TO ONE-DIMENSIONAL IMAGES OF IRANIAN WOMEN AND THE NATION’S MODERN HISTORY.

Neshat’s videos are based on Shahrnush Parsipur’s 1989 magic-realist novel of the same name, set against the backdrop of the US and British-backed coup in 1953 that toppled the secular progressive Dr Mohammed Mossadegh after he nationalised the country’s oil reserves. It was partly her desire to explore this period that drew Neshat to the project. “I found I wanted to return to this historical moment and touch on how the American government had a direct relation to the overthrow of a democratic government, which eventually led to the deep resentment of Iranians against Americans, and indeed paved the road for the Islamic revolution. I had no interest in making a documentary film or an approach that would be a history lesson, but rather I found it interesting and a challenge to build these events as a background to my story.”

Each of Neshat’s videos portrays a female character from Parsipur’s novel, which traces the fate of five quite different women eventually brought together by chance in the city of Karaj, a short distance from Tehran. The videos vary greatly in approach, but none is strictly realist. “Parsipur’s style fit my work perfectly, as she is known for her surrealistic literature…all her work has one foot in society, history and politics, but is also profoundly timeless, philosophical and universal in expression,” enthuses Neshat. Described by the artist as one of Iran’s “foremost contemporary female writers”, Parsipur was imprisoned by both the Shah and the subsequent Islamic regime before fleeing Iran to live in exile in the US.

Neshat’s videos “give a glimpse into the nature of each woman” rather than extrapolating the plot of Parsipur’s novel. “I basically took each woman’s dilemma and tried to reveal her spiritual, psychological, social or sexual issues", says the artist. “Since each woman’s problems and aspirations were different, I created totally different narratives and stylistic approaches.”

women without men

Mahdokht, the first video made back in 2004, is the most abstract in Neshat’s series. Playing out simultaneously across three screens, it explores the split desires and tormented nature of a young woman terrified by sexuality, yet obsessed with fertility and children. In the novel, the character resolves this contradiction by planting herself in a garden and becoming one with nature.

Although Mahdokht contains striking imagery—notably the crazed central character knitting in a forest strewn with yellow wool—the video is the least successful of the five. The thematic and narrative relationship to Parsipur’s novel is a little too elliptical, and the symbolism too wide open to interpretation. While the other works stand up as discrete viewing experiences, Mahdokht makes little sense without some prior knowledge of the character.

In contrast, Zarin (2005) is a striking horror movie exploring the psychology of a prostitute suffering from anorexia. She is so alienated from her work and her own body that her clients become blank, faceless monsters. In an unbearably visceral scene in a public bathhouse, the young woman attempts to erase her withered frame and sense of guilt through frenzied scrubbing, until she is reduced to chafed, bloodied mass.

Munis, Women Without Men series 2008, Shirin Neshat Munis, Women Without Men series 2008, Shirin Neshat
courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York
Neshat’s final three videos were completed in 2008. Munis most successfully draws together the novel’s magic-realist style, the videos’ commentary on the lives of Iranian women and the historical backdrop of the 1953 coup. The central character is harangued by her conservative brother as she listens to radio broadcasts reporting unrest on the streets of Tehran. Unable to go outside and participate in the demonstrations, she anxiously paces the rooftop of her home. When she witnesses a fleeing protestor shot on the street below, Munis steps off the roof, engaging in a conversation with the man in their shared moment of death. The video beautifully weaves together her personal tale and the broader historical setting, in a quiet reflection on the frustrated possibilities of Iran’s shattered democracy.

Faezeh unfolds as a nightmare of brutality and ruined happiness. A young woman constantly returns to the scene of her own rape, an indictment of the impossible expectations placed on women to maintain their ‘purity’ in societies that often turn a blind eye to sexual violence.

In the final video in the series, Farokh Legha, Neshat adopts a more realist mode, and once again evokes the ’53 coup as a moment of curtailed possibilities. The middle-aged central character hosts a party in a grand house surrounded by an orchard—a symbol of life and fecundity in an otherwise barren landscape. The party is rudely interrupted by armed troops, some of whom sit down to enjoy a lavish meal while their counterparts hunt down and shoot ‘opponents’ outside.

Some time later, the host returns to her house, now deserted and coated in a thick layer of dust. Discovering a young woman lying prone in a garden pond, Farokh Legha takes her inside, where the girl flickers with life. As the camera slowly pans across the room, the cobwebs fade and flames dance in the fireplace once again. The final image seems to be one of hope, a sign that Iran’s culture, as well as the ideals of the nation’s short-lived democracy, live on despite the traumas we’ve witnessed.

book to video to film

While Farokh Legha marks the completion of the Women Without Men video series, Neshat is currently completing a feature film also based on Parsipur’s novel. Utilising the same actors and Moroccan locations as the videos, the artist says the feature will take a more narrative-driven approach that foregrounds the tale’s historical context.

Part of the attraction for Neshat of a two-stage project lay in exploring the mechanics of storytelling in two quite different environments. “I have been very interested in how the experience of viewing the story may change completely due to the setting—a theatre versus a gallery or museum space”, she explains. “So in my construction and editing of the videos and the film, I’ve tried to address this issue. Once I finish the feature it will be up to the audience to draw parallels and distinctions between art and cinema.”

In exploring Iran’s sexual politics and culture, as well as Western complicity in the crushing of Mossadegh’s government, Shirin Neshat has helped kick open the narrow window through which we typically view Iran in the West. Her videos stand as a provocative memorial to a crucial turning point in the nation’s modern history, and the women who have survived the vagaries of Iran’s political strife. The coming feature promises to be another intriguing thread in the tapestry of images Neshat has woven from and around Parsipur’s fantastical novel.


Women Without Men, video series, director Shirin Neshat, based on the novel by Shahrnush Parsipur; Faurschou gallery, 798 Art Zone, Beijing, China; Oct 25, 2008–March 1, 2009

Dan Edwards’ full interview with Shirin Neshat can be found at: www.danedwards.net

RealTime issue #89 Feb-March 2009 pg. 17

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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