What a thrill to finally see a collection of Shirin Neshat’s videos at the Hirshhorn Museum in the exhibit, “Facing History”. I have been drawn to Neshat’s imagery since seeing her work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. As an Iranian born woman living in the United States, she is able to communicate the many conflicts of a life lived in two cultures. See this NPR write up for more on the show.
This was a powerful exhibit, and I was especially interested in Neshat’s choices in her 2 channel video works because of the possibilities she sets up with screen locations.
For example, in “Turbulent“, she frames Shoja Azari singing a traditional Iranian song in front of an audience of men. On the screen directly across from this screen is the back of Sussan Deyhim who stands in the same, but empty performance space. The gallery audience sits along the walls in the middle which means that one must turn from left to right to view each screen. Neshat directs one’s attention by aural cues and actor activity. As the piece progresses, we watch Azari first while also checking to see if there is any change on the second screen. Then Deyhim begins her performance and Azari and his audience looks on. Again, I found myself looking back and forth waiting for more interaction between the two actors or more obvious reaction from one to the other. By the end of the piece, I realized that this was a commentary on gender and cultural issues. However, I felt some dissonance from feeling that I would miss out on an important part of the story by turning my head to view either screen.
The two channel set up became more involved as I progressed through the chronological show and then I understood how powerful it could be when viewing the last video in the exhibit. In “Soliloquy“, Neshat walks in two worlds, a modern Western city and an ancient Middle Eastern city. The soundtrack is subtle with looping sounds from each location and bits of traditional song. Toward the end, the action and sounds collide as Neshat walks into a modern cathedral with robed congregants singing in a circle. This was an amazing moment in the piece as she is excluded from the circle and the other screen showed her above a mosque performing a ritualized act of cleansing. I was transformed by this setting because both the visual and aural spoke clearly about the conflicts of being at home in one’s culture and an outsider in another. This piece also was incredibly intimate and Neshat’s presence was captivating. The show closes on September 20,2015.