After-Images of a Revolution
By: Dr. Negar Mottahedeh, 2003
Shirin Neshat, Women of Allah (1994), Turbulent (1998), Rapture (1999), Fervor (2000).
Gita Hashemi, Of Shifting Shadows: Returning to the 1979 Iranian Revolution through an Exilic Journey in Memory and History, Exisle Creations, 2000, CD-ROM.
To hear Shirin Neshat speak about her work as an artist at the 2002 Society for Iranian Studies meeting in Bethesda, Maryland, where she also screened her most recent piece, Tuba, one would gather that she has received a great deal of criticism from her expatriate Iranian audience. Born in Qazvin, Iran, in 1957, this darling of the New York art scene said at the meeting that she considers herself a nomadic artist whose lifestyle informs her art. Though the images she has portrayed in still photography and on 16mm film generally depict Iranian subjects, she claims that her work is not a social critique of Iran, but rather her own inquiry into Iranian culture as it changed after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Arguing that the artist's responsibility is neither to validate nor to critique social and political ideas, she sees her art as a way of constructing a relationship to her own country of birth from the outside.
When Neshat first returned to Iran in 1990 after the Iranian Revolution, she found herself both shaken and stimulated by the ideology that had gripped her country of birth. The outcome of her multiple visits thereafter-a series of photographs and film installations-reflects on questions of gender and identity under Islamic rule: "I found them [women] to be the most potent subjects, in terms of how the social and political changes caused by the revolution affected their lives, how they embodied this new ideology, and how they were managing to survive the changes." Hence women, and often veiled women in public spaces, became the focus of her installations, creating images that could, if evaluated uncritically, feed into and proliferate stereotypical representations of Middle Eastern cultures not unlike earlier traditions of orientalist art.
Her first still work, most notoriously serialized as Women of Allah (1994), portrays female figures whose photographed bodies bring together text, veil, and weapon. The concepts that enter the frame are in total conflict: the veiled female body, often stereotyped in Western discourses as submissive, illiterate, and backward, not only speaks here but it speaks both poetically and with arms. As Jonathan Goodman writes: "The gun barrel pointing out between a pair of beautiful feet in Allegiance with Wakefulness (1994) is a powerful corrective to the notion of Iranian women as passive beholders of political change. A poem is written on the soles [of the feet], an excerpt reads 'I pray for you guardian of the liberating Revolution.' The image makes an ambiguous statement, one calculated to disturb our presuppositions about her [Neshat's] stance." Invested in its rigid presuppositions about the limited number of possible interpretations available for understanding the repercussions of the Islamic revolution, much of the Iranian expatriate community criticized Neshat's work for constructing stereotypical images of Iranian women and creating art that was in support of the repressive Islamic regime and its warring tendencies. Neshat moved on from photography to look for a universal, plural thematic that would intersect with the specifically Iranian cultural motifs that captured her interest. Her work for the screen shows this effort in its attempt to engage with a poetic language that is at once minimalist and humanist, in the spirit of director Abbas Kiarostami's work, but that is also uniquely powerful in its investments in the questions raised by the category of gender.
The conflicting concepts once brought together in a single image in her black-and-white photography moved now to the gallery screen. In Neshat's Turbulent (1998), two screens facing each other project distinct oppositions. The screens' separation across a gallery floor reflects the dichotomies of gender relations in musical performances in Iranian society. Shoja Azari, Neshat's longtime collaborator, dressed in white, acts the part of a conservative male singer (Shahram Nazari's music dubs the scene), invoking the poetry of the thirteenth-century Sufi, Rumi. He faces a packed auditorium. His music, considered acceptable by the current regime, maintains the status quo. The camera mimics this stance and remains motionless throughout the scene. The opposite screen shows Sussan Deyhim, Neshat's other longtime collaborator, dressed in black, singing her own part. Contrary to the male singer, Deyhim has her back turned to an empty theater and in singing breaks every rule. The camera encircles her as she performs a bizarre series of primal vocalizations, songs, and cries. The empty theater suggests a public's common adherence to the law that forbids women to perform solo under the rule of the Islamic Republic.
This piece, like the two others that make up this series, works through the gender dichotomies structuring most societies, Middle Eastern or not (male-female, fixed-moving, traditional-unconventional, white-black). Oppositions are the axes around which her work revolves.
Rapture (1999), which explores additional dichotomies, is inspired by the novel Ahl-i Ghargh [Being brave enough to drown] by Moniru Ravanipur. The novel tells of a day when the sky turns black, when the seawater floods the town folk's homes, and men, hapless and panic-stricken, flee, leaving the town's women abandoned with their children. The women drum, dance, and pray to halt the onslaught of disaster. The novel celebrates women's mystical abandon and bravery. Rapture partially reproduces Ahl-i Ghargh. Two black-and-white screens, one populated by one hundred women, the other by one hundred men, and projected on opposite walls of a small gallery space, pitch the dichotomies of male and female against each other.
— engage in senseless acts, move an object about as they march
— do ablutions for prayer
— walk about in orderly fashion in an enclosed fortress and then in circles
— watch and wave, as if to the women on the opposite screen.
— engage in acts of prayer and ululation
— stare out as if in amazement at the men
— disperse and walk through the desert
— carry a boat to the sea
— board the boat and sail off.
In this piece, the women may be veiled, but their bodies and acts of will give expression to an interior life that rises above the confinement of the cultured body in ululation and in words inscribed on skin. Together, the veiled bodies accomplish one goal: They bring the boat to sea. Six of them sail off, and we are left wondering if this represents the sacrifice of the many for some or the martyrdom of a few for all. Typically, Neshat refuses to take a position. But the installation celebrates the ability of women to brave all odds and to act with mystical abandon. Turbulent and Rapture leaves us with no doubt on one count: Neshat's work adheres to a fundamental belief that transformation comes where the pressure is most intense. Transformation, and hence creativity, is neither systematic nor rational, but arises from sites and bodies on which the most pressure is applied.
While men and women are separated between two opposing screens, we are left, as gallery visitors, in a space in between. Editing the two reels together, we observe that it is the women's ululations, the women's musical sounds, which cross the boundary between the two separated worlds. The site that we inhabit constitutes a third space, the only shared space between the two screens, the space of sound. Positioning the viewer in this space in between adds a critical dimension to the questions that Neshat's work raises in the gallery space: Who is the spectator in this piece? What is he or she doing in the narrative? And is the installation, as many viewers have understood it, an ethnographic document of the cultural practices engaged in by the other? Are these practices as lodged in "the real" as the vibrant imagery suggests? Is the installation, then, an authenticating catalog of the exotic rituals, the strange spaces, and the mystifying actions of the other?
If the shared space, the space in between the dichotomies of male-female, nature-culture, rational-mystical abandon, is the space of sound, then it seems important that one pay attention to what music and sound is contributing to our understanding of the piece and our positioning within it. Here in particular Sussan Deyhim's reverberating voice, her cries, bridge the two sides, bringing to the visual a sound that belongs to no place, to no specific culture, but to a global space that the abandoned gallery visitor must occupy in his or her physicality. But does the universality of the space in between make it an impartial site?
The viewer's space is also a space traditionally occupied by another filmic element, namely, the edit. The viewer, standing in between two screens, is forced to make decisions about what to include and what to cut out from the visual. To watch the action on one screen means that the viewer must turn his or her back to the other at any given time. The viewer must choose, then, between the male spectacle and the female one. Neshat forces the viewer to choose when to edit and hence how to piece together a story unfolding on two separated reels. While I would argue that the rhythm of editing is a learned habit in contemporary cultures and that, therefore, many of the editing choices are already predetermined by what films and what types of film codes the spectator has internalized, the viewer nevertheless has the right to choose. Each choice produces meanings: Do the women take off because they cannot comprehend the actions of the men? Or do they just take off, leaving the men helpless and bewildered in the face of an impending natural disaster? Like the process of reading hieroglyphs, the way in which the story is grasped depends on the spectator's piecing together of the narrative.
As such, the space in between designates the subject as part-technological and part-reverberating (human) body. But neither part here is deemed objective. In that sense, the installation not only reflects on the ways in which humans construct the other in fantasy, but also on how technology embodies a subjective valence. The constitution of the narrative over two opposing screens alerts us to the fact that what we see, even as a technologically mediated spectacle, always remains a fantasy of our own making. The reels themselves leave the plot and the ending of the story ambiguous. Ours is the irrational bringing together of a tale that reflexively forces us to interrogate the images and the fantasies we impinge onto the other's life. Our fantasies reconstruct the screened.
Fervor (2000), the third black-and-white installation in the series on gender dichotomies commissioned by the Whitney for the Whitney biennial, deals with the question of sexual taboos and indeed plays on the viewer's visual, fetishistic pleasure in the life and rituals of the other. This is the first installation in the trilogy in which the screens are set side by side, as if to suggest that the sexual desires and the pressure of social taboos on the desires portrayed in the installation are equally problematical for both men and women in what we presume (from the cut and the color of the chador) to be Iranian culture.
Fervor is set in an ambiguous and unrealistic space that is part theater, part coffee shop, part political rally, and part religious gathering. As is usual under the rule of the Islamic Republic, a dark curtain separates male and female space. The two leads notice each other through it, but they are bombarded by the voice of the leader on stage telling them to keep their (hetero-) sexual desires under wraps. Though both people clearly desire one another, and peer across the boundary that separates them, it is the female that is constructed as the desiring body and the troublemaker by the leader at the gathering. Frustrated with this account, the woman walks out, it would seem in protest. What ensues after she exits and meets her beau on a path in the wilderness is left to the viewer's imagination.
The leader's account is of the prophet Joseph, a story that has appeared in different versions in many sacred texts over the centuries. In the Persian tradition, this "best of stories" suggests that one of Joseph's many trials was his seduction by the wife of the pontiphar-that pontiphar who, after the slave trade, became Joseph's master. Joseph, whose purity is unquestioned, overcomes this trial, certainly, but in the retelling of the story, the leader makes it clear that it is the female's sexual guile that causes trouble for the pure prophet, not her love interests own sexual desires.
Of the three installations in this black-and-white trilogy, Fervor emerges as the one that seems to be the most realistic in its portrayal of the other on the visual track-of her sexuality, her strange practices, her religious rituals, her taboos, and her exoticism. But the paradox that haunts this installation is the story that forms its kernel. The sacred and historically mutable story, in its renarration on Fervor's stage, demonstrates the human capacity to manipulate a tender myth and to turn it into a device aimed at controlling the scapegoated, stereotyped other. The installation takes us to task, in fact. Facing a divided screen, we are asked, once again, to edit together a narrative-a story not unlike the myth told by the leader on stage. Reflexive in many ways, Fervor asks that in enacting the task usually executed in editing suites, we come to terms with what are distinctly our fantasies. We are called on to think through, in fact, how our fantasies, based on preconceived stereotypes of the other, transform and thus diverge from the simplicity presented by these "moving hieroglyphs" on the screen and in sound. For what exactly is real (authentic) in what we hear and see in this installation? To believe that what we see are documentary or ethnographic images to be taken at face value is to miss the point.
Gita Hashemi's Of Shifting Shadows compares to Neshat's early work in its tactile engagement with the effects of the Iranian Revolution on women and questions of sexuality. While in Neshat's work Muslim sexuality is portrayed as essentially bearing on questions of spatiality in Islamic cultures, Hashemi's work situates gender and sexuality as the very categories through which the Islamic Republic's governmentality should be scrutinized. Informed by the work of the Moroccan theorist Fatima Mernissi, Neshat's work positions gendered figures in dichotomous relations in spatial opposition across the gallery floor. By contrast, Hashemi galvanizes the history of the Iranian Revolution, haunting its afterimages with the voices of women who suffered agonizing pains (torture, exile, death) while others were busy celebrating an auspicious transition of power.
Hashemi's four virtual women-Bita, Goli, Mina, and a silent fictional authorial figure-each explore their memories of the Iranian Revolution and a life of exile in forty-eight poetic and narrative scenes in Persian and English. The scenes, intentionally nonlinear and nonchronological, are made up of sound and video segments, animations, written scripts, spoken words, posters, and other archival visual materials. Juxtaposed and intimately linked, these narratives, reproduced interactively for CD-ROM, explore the factuality and the chronological specificity of memory and history, of exilic flight and lives lived under a repressive regime. "The narrative is a factual/virtual account of the Revolution, the history that gave rise to it, and the layered displacements that it brought to many lives," Hashemi writes. Questioning the possibilities of factual historical narration directly, Hashemi's interactive work addresses the politics informing notions of origin, continuity, and arrival in conventional historical accounts. "The origin," she writes, "is not the pronominal. The origin is not a point. It is a continuum. It has no fixed coordinates. No ethical primacy." Though Hashemi draws on archival footage to represent the history of the Iranian Revolution, her fictional author claims to be constructing a nomadic memory that is not only informed by a multiplicity of perspectives but that also calls into question the authenticity of historical representation and of personal recollection. In that sense, the interactive construction of what I hesitate to call "the narrative" (for it goes beyond that) suits her attempt to represent what is truly an over determined history.
Bita's story, which feels like a disjointed reconstruction of a series of dreams and is thus self-consciously a fictional segment in the piece, is the only voice accompanied by the moving image of a female figure. Mina and Goli's voices speak of real events, both historical and personal, but their voices speak over images of women whose connections to a real moving body, and hence a real life, seem questionable at best. The author figure never speaks and only cryptically reproduces written slogans from the Iranian Revolution alongside poems by the thirteenth-century Iranian poet Sa'adi. Too, she scripts seeming non sequiturs about the nature of historiography and memory. She has neither body nor voice, but her forceful opinions about how memories should be constructed and told are referred to frequently by the voice associated with Goli.
Gita Hashemi, an Iranian artist who has been living and working in the U.S. and Canada, has been actively involved in bringing art to politics. Working on a range of issues from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the "war on terror" in Afghanistan, she has been involved in several projects such as Creative Response, a team of artists, writers, and educators working against the occupation of Palestine (http://creativeresponseweb.net) and the Post Exile Collective's "The Word Room," where surfers are encouraged to record their responses to the current tragedies of war (http://www.wordroom.net). Hashemi has also helped co-curate the "Trans/Planting- Contemporary Art by Women from/in Iran" exhibit (see a review of this exhibit in Radical History Review 82, winter 2002). But in Of Shifting Shadows, she interactively shifts the terms of political engagement. Her work functionally transforms the meanings of an array of cultural and political phenomena such as popular revolutionary slogans, cultural beliefs, pronouncements by key Islamist figures, news clips of the revolutionary period, and documentary evidences of government-supported violence by incorporating them into critical feminist exilic recollections in visual and narrative forms. In their new frameworks, these materials take on new critical meanings.
Each segment opens to a window that then enlarges in line with a voice-over, as if to allow the viewer to peer into an unsequenced moment in the fictional narrator's life. Mina and Goli's segments, which more emphatically narrate the refugees' escape to Canada after the Iranian Revolution, all begin with a series of dancing hands, each time gesturing a little differently. Their segments clearly take issue with the human rights violations of the Islamic Republic, and here, women's rights are pointedly human rights. Each segment associated with Mina and Goli's narratives incorporates the gesturing hands as if to signal a critique of the ways in which many on the left, and Michel Foucault in particular, supported the Islamist regime and, by extension, its asphyxiation of women's rights. Writing about the Iranian Revolution, Foucault lauded the populist zeal by which "the new" was brought to power, naming the Iranian Revolution, "the revolution of bare hands." The true revolution of bare hands, it would seem, is the revolution brought about in the uprooted lives of Hashemi's characters, women who because of their sex and their political involvement in prerevolutionary struggles were tortured, violated, and ultimately forced into exile. Hashemi juxtaposes the populist slogans hailing Khomeini and his government with documentary reels of government-supported stonings for acts of adultery. Khomeini's handwriting wallpapers a shifting photomontage of a veiled comic character in Goli's window. Such juxtapositions are at the very nerve center of Of Shifting Shadows. And though the fictional author suggests that meaning is an impossibility, it would seem that the viewer is called to task to critically construct sense out of these very paradoxes that made up a revolution and its afterlives.
If the representation of Iranian Muslim women is said to be essentialized in Shirin Neshat's work, the act of linking the experiences of four women, who in the final reading emerge as one in Gita Hashemi's work, essentializes the experience of all women during and after the institution of Islamic rule in Iran. I have suggested that these acts of essentialization are strategies of representation simultaneously undercut by the self-reflexivity of the technologies used in each woman's art. In Neshat's work, it seems, what we see is not representational art, but a series of hieroglyphs in image and sound that can be rendered stereotypical if not taken as intentionally coded signs generating a multiplicity of meanings. In Hashemi's work, the juxtaposition of sources and media, together with the nonlinear constitution of the four recollections, provides a plurality of possible interpretations. In this process, the lives, recollections, and bodies of women provide the crucial political touchstone. The construction of sense, nevertheless, is left to the viewer/reader. Positioning us at this crossroads and entrusting us with the burden of political responsibility, these works simply bring us to a critical understanding of the ways in which the category of gender can be deployed in exploring the repercussions of "a political spirituality," which Foucault once claimed came to power after the populist revolution that overtook Iran in 1979. The epistemic shift that takes place in our critical engagement as we interactively experience these works should tell us, at least, that it is the repercussions that made all the difference in the world.
Negar Mottahedeh is an assistant professor of film and literature at Duke University. She received her doctoral degree from the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. Her thesis focused on the history of visual productions in nineteenth-century Iran. Her works have appeared in Camera Obscura, Iranian Studies, and Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. She is currently working on a monograph on national variations in cinematic language and the new Iranian cinema.
I want to thank Michelle Lach, Ifeona Fulani, Amit S. Rai, Mazyar Lotfalian, and Gerry Mischke for helping me think through these works over the years.
In "Between Parallel Mirrors," Hashemi critiques "Foucault's seemingly 'neutral' analysis of the power relations at work in the Revolution in an effort to foreground the category of gender."
Michel Foucault, "Iran: The Spirit of a World without Spirit," trans. Alan Sheridan, in Michel Foucault: Politics, Philosophy, Culture, Interviews, and Other Writings, 1977-1984; Michel Foucault, "A quoi revent les Iraniens?" in Le nouvel observateur, no. 726 (1978), 48-49; Michel Foucault, "Téhéran: la foi contre le chah," in Michel Foucault, Dits et ecrits: 1954-1988, ed. Daniel Defert and Grancois Ewald (Paris: Gallimard, 1990).