HIRSHHORN MUSEUM | MAY 18 – SEP 20, 2015
“Thus we begin to catch a glimpse of the paradox of freedom; there is freedom only in a situation and there is a situation only through freedom,” said Sartre, and such is the angst that informs the work of Iran’s most celebrated artist, Shirin Neshat. Twenty years since her iconic portraits of women veiled by hijab and Farsi scripture first appeared, Facing History places Neshat’s complete oeuvre in the full context of the history of her birth country. Thoughtfully organized by the chronology of events that inspired the work, each project introduces Iran’s most iconic historical moments through a combination of text, visual evidence, and artifacts. The narrative begins with Iran’s first democratic uprising crushed by the ’53 CIA coup, continues to the ’79 Islamic Revolution, and concludes with the controversial ’09 election and the resulting Green Movement.
Facing History resists the simplistic notion of Neshat’s works as representative of female struggle under Iran’s government—as she has only experienced it through travel—without reducing its urgency and authenticity. The artist reflects upon the complexities of life in a culture that, after many waves of diaspora, has been painfully divided between those who stayed and those who left. Each side derides the other, either for lacking the will or desire for freedom, or for abandoning their heritage for comfort. Her practice refutes such simplistic dichotomies: she is a complex individual, not merely a woman, an Iranian, or an émigré. She is not a politician, but a conscious artist in a very political situation. Her fixation on Iran and its history is not an anthropological study, but a human quest for identity.
Munis and Revolutionary Man (2008) is a single-channel video set during the unrest of the ’50s. The protagonist, Munis, commits suicide and her jump becomes a flight to a fictional world where she can be the activist she wished to be. United with her male counterpart, a murdered rebel, in a poetic dialogue, Munis whispers: “I […] had hidden you in my eyes, And from that moment on, I never saw you again. […] At last […] you were safe with me. At last with me, No one […] dared to call you a traitor.” Munis seeks to preserve her personal version of these inflammatory events as she experienced it, as the story will likely be continuously rewritten to satisfy the ever changing figure in power. Just like Munis, the history Neshat is trying to preserve is her own, and yet nothing separates it from a fairytale but its power to dictate one’s identity.
Then came revolution, rewriting history and destroying all conceptions of national identity. The iconic photography project Women of Allah (1994 – 1996) is inspired by the artist’s return to Iran after an eventful twelve years that included the revolution, the hostage crisis, and the Iraq war. Neshat found a country not only with a new regime and a new name, but with a new character. So were born her famous women, hidden under hijab and text. Neshat employs two contrasting female poets: Farrokhzad—the idol of Neshat’s Iran, controversially sexual, Western, a modern rebel thirsty for life—and Taherzadeh, the new regime’s idol, utterly alien to the artist, Muslim, traditional, Eastern, revolutionary, daydreaming about martyrdom. In Untitled (1996), the woman is the object of desire, her face covered with Farrokhzad’s text. In Speechless (1996) and others employing Taherzadeh’s text, the woman willingly becomes the revolutionary sacrifice: motherly, subjugated, utterly and secondary. In both, the cover of the text renders the womens’ skin unattainable. The work is angry, reflecting an objection to the cliché imposed on the artist based on her assigned gender and nationality. Whether it is the idol of the past or the horror of the new, the individuality of the woman—frequently played by Neshat herself—is robbed by stereotype.
In the two-channel video installation trilogy that follows—Turbulent (1998), Rapture (1999), and Fervor (2000)—Neshat continues to explore and object to the narrow space left in between the contradictory binaries. One reality is presented from two opposing perspectives. The screens are placed in opposite ends of the dark room and the viewer is in the artist’s position, in the void between. In each, the male causes the chaos, the unrest, and injustice, the dominated female endures and observes until finally she revolts. Unexpected, earthly, Dionysian, she flees.
In the post-2009 election unrest know as the Green Movement, Neshat faced the human longings of Iran’s post-revolutionary generation—a group supposedly raised on revolutionary ideology to be different. Touched by the movement, she shifted her focus away from individual interests to contemplate social structures. In Book of Kings (2012), a photographic project employing Women of Allah’s style—portraitures covered with Persian poetry—she uses Ferdowsi’s eponymous epic to symbolize the Iranian national identity. She created a simple hierarchical society with three categories of citizens: the villains (the authorities), the patriots (young, hopeful revolutionaries), and the masses (the passive bystanders). The ranks are separated by size of the text. Here the separations are obvious, but what unites all layers of society is the shared weight of the text. Once again, the complications of the human condition abound, and the separations are illusory.
As the Green Revolution was suppressed and the Arab Spring stolen by geopolitics, Neshat stepped back and reflected. In another photographic project employing her iconic combination of calligraphy and portraiture, My House is On Fire (2013), she focuses on the elderly in Egypt to explore lives spent in the midst of constant upheaval. Whereas her subjects in the first project, Women of Allah, reflected anger and the last project, Book of Kings, reflected determination, they are now simply exhausted. This older generation of subjects is obscured by text from a group of now dead activist poets; the text is so heavy that it blends into their skin. Akhavan-Sales’s Cry reads “My house is on fire […] Alas, would any of these kind neighbors rise for help? As this cruel fire/burns my foundation I shout, scream, cry.” So the artist—who has spent so much of her own life meditating on the injustice of social and political upheaval—paints the bitter cries, beyond borders and time. It is the poem of universal, eternal human longing for freedom.
The last piece, Soliloquy (1996), a quiet, two-channel video installation, reflects on each aspect of the artist’s life—her past in Iran and her present in New York—and epitomizes the dynamic between the unity of human longing and the social divisions that prevent it. The Eastern woman, imprisoned and surrounded by tradition, a source of nostalgia, imagines a version of herself in the West, free yet lost in chaos and foreign rituals, constantly looking back home. Once again the two characters are screened on opposite ends of the room and the reality exists only in between. The dichotomies are fiction, but the anxiety is undeniably real.
In his Bilingual Blues, Gustavo Perez Firmat wrote: “The fact that I / am writing to you, / In English / Already falsifies what I / Wanted to tell you // My subject: / How to explain to you that I / don’t belong in English / Though I belong nowhere else.”
Such is the complexity of Neshat’s yearnings and our homeless existence in this global world. Facing History, by providing so much context, offers a chance to destroy preconceived notions of division, and wonder at the abyss between two falsely drawn worlds.