Shirin Neshat’s extensive survey, on view at The Broad through February 16, covers 26 years of work in photography, film, and video. All of it reckons with grand-scale themes of history, politics and religion, gender, exile and home, but its impact is felt most deeply on an intimate, visceral level. Her work has the concentrated power of fable, myth, or imagist poetry.
Neshat left her native Iran in 1975 at age 17, landing first in LA, then attending UC Berkeley before moving in 1983 to New York, where she continues to be based. Her formal vocabulary and central preoccupations were largely established in her first major photographic series, Women of Allah (1993-97). The large, black-and-white, staged images are selectively inscribed in ink with text and ornamental pattern, turning the figures within them into vehicles of cultural transmission. In one stark double portrait from 1996, Neshat stands holding hands with her young son. She is completely sheathed in a chador-like cloak, while he is naked but for traditional Persian floral designs tattooed, as it were, upon his skin. Their opposed states of concealment and exposure, constraint and expression, emblematize the gender division in Iran after the Islamic Revolution, a major thread in Neshat’s work for at least 15 years.
In Turbulent, a stirring two-channel, 10-minute video installation from 1998, a man sings a Rumi poem to an audience in a small auditorium, and with gorgeous fervor a woman sings a wordless song to empty seats in the same hall, as per Islamic prohibitions against women’s performance in public. The socially silenced woman and the man endowed with a public voice face each other from separate screens on opposite walls; viewers occupy the charged space between them.
Neshat distills her palette to inky black and brisk white, and her subjects to essentials – body, hands, eyes, gesture, shoreline, stone – then choreographs their interplay on an immersive scale. The effect can be astonishing, as in the video installation Passage (2001), a rare work in color, in which a circle of women pulse rhythmically on their haunches as they dig a grave in the sand with their hands. The undifferentiated individuals function as a single organism, a mechanism to enact ritual.
Neshat’s photographic work from the last decade has tended to turn outward, to text-enhanced portrait series of populations – Egyptian, Azerbaijani, and American – afflicted by overt political trauma or less tangible cultural pressures upon their identity. In contrast, her video and film from recent years has become even more interior and oneiric. In several durational pieces, a lone female character embarks on a metaphorical quest, often driven, like Neshat herself, by the dynamics of a divided self seeking resolution, reconciliation. Estrangement from homeland and family from an early age marked the artist’s work profoundly and continues to imbue her evocations of the tension between individuation and belonging with inescapable poignancy.