Shirin Neshat at the Newcomb Gallery

Prospect 1 Log # 3: Shirin Neshat at the Newcomb Gallery, Tulane University, 11.20.08 By: Brian Boyles

We do a Country radio show every Sunday up at Tulane.  Yeah, that’s right, DJ Toney Blare and his Queen Dru-Nancee, they’re doing a Country show.   I know.  See, I haven’t really paid my (figurative) dues at the station since I exercised my alumni rights and re-joined two years ago.  I admit that.  So when they stick me with the Country show, I get it.  I’m not mad.  But we do get bored.  I mean, you can’t exactly kill ‘em with that format, you know?  We have a broad enough knowledge and some basic views on the genre, definite respect, by all means, but Country just isn’t where we’re at.  There’s a limitation to it, a certain ceiling you hit, and the cracks we make are sporadic and short.  We love Hank Williams and Merle Haggard and the outlaw fringe, and we try not to slip into corny in the remaining 2 hours.

I bring this up because we ducked into the Newcomb Art Gallery a few weeks ago before our show to see Women Without Men, the collection of films by Shirin Neshat on display as part of Prospect 1.  This was on the first weekend of the biennial, and Neshat was surely on my list of artists to see.  But that visit was rushed and we watched about 3 minutes of “Zarin,” which I think I saw in Hiroshima a few years ago.  Better come back when we have time, I thought. 

So when I heard that there would be a reception for the show this week, I figured I’d make the trip up there after work and watch the other films, see how they felt in a crowd.  My initial thought from the earlier visit—that the sound overlap between the different galleries was unfortunate and detrimental—disappeared with the presence of so many people, a good thing.  However, the night outside was crisp and I was feeling a little impatient and a little like stomping around the stomping grounds with a coffee, so I settled on seeing one piece.  Because I figure you should be able to do that, regardless if the film is part of a series, a retrospective, a group show, whatever.  Sit down and take in the work by itself, without relying on continuity or the curator’s notes to guide you.  I know Neshat’s career fairly well, so I chose to see one of the newest films to find out where she was at. 

Munis was made in 2008 and takes place during the 1953 coup that installed the Shah.  People are in the streets and a young woman is in a room, listening to a radio (the broadcast is subtitled, the ensuing dialogue is not).  A man enters the room and yells at here, finally unplugging the radio violently.  Outside, people march in a black and white dream tempo, demanding that Yankee Go Home and that Dr. Mosaddegh’s government be reinstated.  Next, back in full color, the young woman is seen on a rooftop.  She hears the chants, then closer footsteps and the crack of a rifle.  She peers over the edge and watches a man writhe in the courtyard.  He looks up at her and she jumps.  For a moment she seems to fly and then she falls, landing on her back next to the man. 

“How did you get here?”  she asks.  They discuss memory and she says she is numb.  He says there is only distance here.

Again in black in white, the woman is in the street, joining a mostly male crowd to face the Shah’s soldiers.  The movement of the protesters and the soldiers alike feels like modern dance, not fully engaged, bloodless, a drama of masks and close-up.   There is a massacre.

Back in the courtyard, the two bodies lie together and continue their stilted dialogue (which feels a little like spoken dialogue that sometimes happens in modern dance, actually).  It ends with her promising him a place “where no one dared call you a traitor.”  Then she (or her spirit) gets up and dashes. I watched the film twice, and then read the handout, which told me that this was part of a continuing series of films based on the novel Women Without Men by Shahrnush Parsipur.  The woman in the film lives in the home of an ultra-religious brother, and the man in the courtyard was a journalist.  You know what?  That gave me some clues, but it didn’t widen the meaning a damn.  For real, I hope this goes somewhere for Neshat, and I respect her decision to focus on a longer narrative and to include spoken words (many of her films are heavy on gazes and the movement of groups), but this film barely went anywhere from the opening to the ending.  At some point, I wonder if the same could be said of the artist’s work to date. The oppressiveness of Iranian society, particularly its brutal treatment of woman; the rituals that alternately enslave and liberate them; unrequited magnetism between oppressed individuals; intersections with the outside world; these are the themes Neshat has drawn from for quite awhile, and they are certainly fertile, worthy, and important.  They do not, however, constitute works by simply showing up.  Instead, they can devolve into gestures, shortcuts that benefit from the political sympathies of the Western liberal, but ALSO the Western Establishment which relishes the graceful demonization of an Axis member.  Nowhere is this clearer than in the treatment of that moment when democracy first fell in Iran.  We get a two-dimensional character sketch that shows us what we already know about that moment, with no complication beyond a boilerplate post-colonial narrative and some obtuse psychological dance-speak.  And the whole thing is buried in a reference to a novel, which gives it an escape hatch from meaning.  Dig this official handout/interpretation/guidebook passage:  “(Munis) realizes that [only?] in death is it possible for her to gather courage, determination and strength to break out of the traditional woman’s role and come close to the political struggle marking the country.”  In death?  That’s where she’ll get courage?  That’s where she can break from tradition and join the struggle? 

Like doing the Country show, the film left me pretty blank.  There was that well-worn melody/landscape, but nothing lurked, nothing threatened, nothing came into focus or took me somewhere else.  Do I believe those days in 1953 were devastating, consequential, tragic?  Yes.  Did I believe that on the way in?  Pretty much.  Will I always associate the girl Munis with that time?  Not really.  She and the film of the same name played out like a brief encyclopedia entry, a standard verse-chorus-vers-chorus ditty from Nashville.  Point being, I shouldn’t have to say, I like that song because it evolved from Appalachia, Africa, Hollywood, and thus carries a weight.  Or, I like it because that guy is a real outlaw, alright.  When I like the song, it is because it breaks my heart or carries me through or makes me laugh, whatever the name on the album cover.  What Neshat does here (and I glanced at the other films, I admit) is retread under the guise of Grand History.  The result saps the meaning out of that moment, flattening it out into the obvious, same ol’ song. 

That is a bad thing to say about important shit like revolution and music.  Probably won’t do that radio show much longer, I know that.