DUALITIES: Who Sees/Who is Seen?

DUALITIES: Who Sees/Who is Seen?

By: Lynn Crawford, Art Critic and fiction writer

Culinary writer/historian Claudia Roden gives me an excuse to start this entry with food, specifically, the blend of sweet and tart found in certain Persian dishes (Apples stuffed with split peas and beef; pickled carrots with garlic and mint; feta with quince jam; eggplant, garlic, and pomegranate; walnut frittata with mint and parsley; leeks with lemon sugar). In her Book of Middle Eastern Food, Roden traces the heritage of the cuisine’s opposing flavors:

“Reading quite recently about ancient pre-Islamic Persia of the Sassanid period and its Zoroastrian dualist religion, which is based on the two enemy forces of good and evil, I was struck by the similarity between the early philosophy of the Persians and the principles of harmony which they apply to their food.

The Zoroastrian belief is that their god Ahouramazda created the world. The spirit of creation which pulled matter out of nothing awoke a force of resistance, giving birth to a spirit of evil, Angromainyous, whose creative and malicious urge was to destroy the harmony of the universe. In this religion, creation could exist only in the equilibrium of the opposing forces which it had aroused.

It is this same equilibrium, poised between the vinegar and the sugar, the quince and the meat, which the Persians of the Sassanid period reflected in their dishes. Both ancient and modern Persian dishes blend opposite flavors and textures, coupling sweet with sour or spicy, strong with mild.” (1)

Persian culture (music, literature, drawings), and establishing states or points of equilibrium between opposing things, feature prominently in Neshat’s work; she details elements of a rich heritage at risk of being obliterated by Iran’s current Islamic regime.

In her videos Turbulent, Rapture, and Fervor, she constructs and explores dualities between masculine and feminine in ways that do not privilege one over the other or attempt to blend them together, but explore possibilities of balance. All works are shown on separate screens and feature a feminine and masculine “narrative.” Each depicts men and women channeling emotions (love, doubt, fear, reverence, passion) and physicality into a focused activity that results in a performance, ceremony, event, and/or game. Images, visceral music, and narrative are woven deftly together. When the credits appear, those of the female are in Farsi and the male, English.

When viewing at these videos, ask: who sees; who is (and who is not) seen.

Consider the man and woman in Turbulent. He sings facing the viewer, with the audience assembled behind him. She, screen opposite, sings to an empty room (it is forbidden for women to sing solo publically in Iran). Both performances are potent and accomplished but also quite different. The man’s is structured, ceremonial. When finished, he gives a professional nod, easily acknowledging the expected applause. The woman’s singing, in contrast, is frenetic, mysterious, yet technically masterful. It reaches outside familiar sounds and structures, but does not falter into incoherence (and definitely not into anything like self-destructive Madness). A mysterious framework stands behind her execution, allowing her performance to venture into the unknown and suggest a kind of spiritual internal strength and freedom.

While she sings, the male watches (from the screen on an opposite wall), in ways I read as curious, surprised, and at times enraptured. But we are not sure if he actually sees her performance or hears it and imagines the visuals. (I once saw a photo of Saudi men clustered together at the window of a shopping mall built for women, trying to catch a glimpse, even though the building’s exterior blocked outsiders from seeing in.)

Rapture depicts activity by groups of men and women on opposing screens. The men enter and occupy something architectural (a fortress) and women congregate in nature (on a beach). Both groups are engaged, absorbed, in an organized activity. Think of honey bees; social insects who live and work separately and together, and communicate, build, defend, and cooperate.

The work generates powerful momentum (underscored by a percussive, gracefully urgent, soundtrack). The men stream into the fortress, assemble, and seem to engage with a set of rituals and eventually some sort of physical conflict. The women watch them, holding up their hands so we see their palms and forearms. After a while, they raise their voices together, grabbing the men’s attention. The men, interrupted by the sound, stop what they they are doing, and apparently are about to do, and turn toward the women. The women’s ululation, unexpected, derails them and diverts their attention, causing them to change position; they move to the building’s edge where they can watch the women. At this point:

The men change from actors to viewers.

The women change from viewers to actors.

The women, moving nimbly in their hijab, assemble on the beach and prepare a boat for launch. At the end, some of them get on a boat and we see them bob off into the distance. We do not know where this boat will go. But it goes. The men in the fortress watch the boat depart, engrossed, some moving their hands, perhaps waving goodbye, cheering them on, or beckoning them to return. We see the men’s bare forearms and hands as well (as previously mentioned) as the women’s. But more importantly, we see the women’s bare feet. One set dances on top of a drum. All the women on the beach are barefoot. We see their feet at the edge of the water, digging into the sand, as they prepare the boat for launch. The feet give a sense of grounding, while the purpose of their task, sending the boat to the women off somewhere, references a metaphorical flight toward things unknown.

Fervor, a highly charged piece about a man and woman, and the ways they dance around taboos, urges, and strictures, appears on a split screen. Male and female are unmistakenly different but operate, here, side by side. The camera dwells on the faces of both the man and the woman (striking, beautiful, expressive). The two characters pass one another on the street. and then later attend a meeting where they sit on separate of the room divided by a curtain. They cannot see, but strongly sense, one another. At the meeting, they listen to a story from the Qur’an about Zoleikha and Yusef in front of a painting depicting this very scene. Zoleikha apparently seduces young Yusef with her eyes. After outlining the tale, the narrator starts a chant (“Curse on Satan” ), which both the men and women in the crowd repeat heatedly, animatedly. Perhaps the men and women really do condemn, and wish to curse, Zoleikha; perhaps some of the men are caught up in the excitement of the group, the sound of the chant, the fists punching the air. The female leaves and the male follows her.

The title, Fervor refers to the palpable feelings between the two lead characters but also to the rush of judgment generated in the meeting itself, the drama of the picture, the related story, and the rush to denounce.

Incidentally, here are different summaries I found of the story. The first:

Joseph lived all his life confronting schemes made by the people closest to him. His brothers plotted to kill him, but they amended it to exiling him. This happened to him while he was a boy. He was sold into the slave market in Egypt, where he was bought for a nominal sum. Then he fell victim to the attempted seduction by a great man’s wife who, when her wish was foiled, sent him to prison, where he remained for some time. In spite of all this, he at length approached close to the Egyptian throne and became the king’s chief minister. He then began his call to Allah from the position of the ruling authority.(2)

And the second is a children’s version:

Here Zoleikha fell in love with a man she saw in her dreams and traveled to Egypt to find him. Yusef was a beautiful boy loved by his father, but his brothers threw him into a well. He was saved by people passing by and ended up in Egypt. Zoleikha met Yusef and asked for his love. When Yusef denied her, she imprisoned him. What becomes of the imprisoned Yusef and Zoleikha who loves him? (3)

Neshat is a master at asking the viewer to slow down; think, feel, reflect; consider this, then that.

For example, a woman being forced to wear hijab is something we can view as sexually repressive. But the problem here is not the hijab itself but the law demanding women wear it. This form of dress empowers many Muslim women, for whom it functions, among other things, as a symbol of freedom from Western thinking and values. Consider the possibility that a Western lack of restriction can provide its own set of problems, including alienation, scarcity of reverence and/or devotion.

Again, returning to the earlier question: Who sees? Who is seen?



1. Claudia Roden, The Book of Middle Eastern Food, New York, 1974

2. http://www.alim.org/library/biography/stories/content/SOP/2/11/Yusuf%20(Joseph)/Summary%20of%20Joseph%2526

3, http://www.childrenslibrary.org/icdl/BookPreview?

Trenton Doyle Hancock, interview with Paola Ferrario

Trenton Doyle Hancock, interview with Paola Ferrario


The Former and the Ladder or Ascension and a Cinchin’, 2012 | Acrylic and mixed media on canvas | 84 x 132 x 3 inches | Copyright the artist. Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York and Shanghai.

“My work is always being talked about as autobiographical, but in the beginning I insulated the autobiography with fantasy. You would have to get through all these codes that did not allow you direct access to the source material, to the subjects I was trying to comment on or protect. In some ways my [mythologies] did a disservice to my ideas, deflecting from the poetry of pure forms-like [the pattern of] my grandmother’s floor-that I encountered at home and that were beautiful. I have learned that if I create a lot of narrative, the work takes a different trajectory. The stories in my early paintings and installations needed to be told at the time I made them, but now everything has funneled back to something that’s real for me, close to myself.”

–Trenton Doyle Hancock, interview with Paola Ferrario

Return to Reality: Q+A with Trenton Doyle Hancock from Art in America

Exhibition Opening April 7, 2013 at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Exhibition Opening April 7, 2013 at the Detroit Institute of Arts


Shirin Neshat, Munis, (Women Without Men series), 2009, © Shirin Neshat, Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Shirin Neshat, an Iranian American artist living in New York City, is widely acclaimed for her extraordinary video installations and art photography, yet her collected works are rarely considered as a singular production or displayed together. This mid-career retrospective includes eight video installations and two series of art photography. Through visual metaphor and compelling sound, Neshat confronts the complexities of identity, gender and power to express her own vision that embraces the depth of Islamic tradition and Western concepts of individuality and liberty.

A richly illustrated catalogue will accompany the exhibition as well as a diverse series of public programs.

This exhibition is free with museum admission.

Iranian Activist Shirin Ebadi Awarded Nobel Peace Prize

Iranian Activist Shirin Ebadi Awarded Nobel Peace Prize


Iranian Activist Shirin Ebadi Awarded Nobel Peace Prize. Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi at her press conference at the International Federation of Human Rights headquarters in Paris, after she was awarded the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. © Corbis

Shirin Ebadi is the the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in the award’s 102-year history. Ebadi, who presently lives in exile, was praised around the world as a courageous champion of political freedom after the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded her the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize.

“There is no difference between Islam and human rights,” said Ebadi. “For anyone who pursues human rights in Iran, fear is a constant threat from birth to death. I have managed to overcome that fear.”

Ebadi, who also is known for her writings, was one of Iran’s first female judges, serving as president of the city court of Tehran during 1975-1979, which were the doomed years of the Western-backed Iranian monarchy, overthrown by the Islamic Revolution of 1979, when she was forced to resign. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 she has been an activist for democracy and the rights of refugees, women and children.

As an attorney, she represented families of writers and intellectuals killed in 1999 and 2000, and worked to expose conspirators behind an attack by pro-clergy assailants on students at Tehran University in 1999. Ebadi, who was jailed for three weeks in 2000, has been a forceful advocate for women, children and those on the margins of society. She turned her law office into a base for rights crusades and assaults on the establishment on issues such a persecution of dissidents and now-rare punishments such as stoning and flogging for social offenses. She has taken cases dealing with domestic abuse and the rights of street children. Her writings have touched on rights for refugees, women and child laborers. Excerpted from www.peaceheroes.com

Read Shirin Ebadi’s Autobiography

Purchase her latest book, The Golden Cage: Three Brothers, Three Choices, One Destiny

There will be a book signing before her April 7 lecture at 4 p.m. that day. Lecture is free with registration. Click here for more information and to register

An Interview with Esther Shalev-Gerz

An Interview with Esther Shalev-Gerz


© Esther Shalev-Gerz

“Voices are an important material for me, because until not too long ago, voices were hard to capture. No one teaches us to speak. We are taught to write and to read, but not to talk. Usually, when we speak in class we are kicked out. Our talk is still the wild element and can reveal profound things about us. You have writers who write, singers who sing, but talkers? No. Most of my work is based around making somebody talk, and every time I find a different way of making this happen…For me as an artist, speaking is almost the utmost format through which we reveal our thoughts about the world. The voice is also the first thing that the child hears. In the womb, the ear develops before the heart. I discovered this not too long ago. The voice is something that anchors you to the world more than other things.”

–Esther Shalev-Gerz, in an interview with The Art Newspaper

Read the full interview here

For further reading, visit Esther Shalev-Gerz’s website

The Future as Cultural Fact

The Future as Cultural Fact


Praise from Amazon about Arjun Appadurai’s new book, The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition, which was published in March 2013:

“A sobered visionary of cultural globalization.”
- Red Pepper
“An influential thinker of our times.”
- Partha Chatterjee, Columbia University, New York
“Arjun Appadurai is already known as the author of striking new formulations which have greatly illuminated contemporary global developments.”
- Charles Taylor, author of ‘Modern Social Imaginaries’

This major collection of essays, a sequel to Modernity at Large (1996), is the product of ten years’ research and writing, constituting an important contribution to globalization studies. Appadurai takes a broad analytical look at the genealogies of the present era of globalization through essays on violence, commodification, nationalism, terror and materiality. Alongside a discussion of these wider , Appadurai situates India at the heart of his work, offering writing based on first-hand research among urban slum-dwellers in Mumbai, in which he examines their struggle to achieve equity, recognition and self-governance in conditions of extreme inequality. Finally, in his work on design, planning, finance and poverty, Appadurai embraces the “politics of hope” and lays the foundations for a revitalized, and urgent, anthropology of the future.

For further reading, explore Arjun Appadurai’s article “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” Public Culture, Spring 1990 2(2): 1–24. Full text available here.

The Skoghall Konsthall, 2000

The Skoghall Konsthall, 2000


Alfredo Jaar, The Skoghall Konsthall, 2000, Skoghall, Sweden © Alfredo Jaar. Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York.

The Skoghall Konsthall is a work by Alfredo Jaar. Below are the artist’s notes about the project.

Excerpted from www.alfredojaar.net.

A living culture is one that creates.

Skoghall is a small community in search of an identity. Up until now, its identity has been strongly identified as a Paper Mill town. In fact, most of Skoghall has been built by the Paper Mill, including most of the housing and the church.

It is time for Skoghall to present to Sweden and to the world a new image, a contemporary image of progress and culture, beyond being a dormitory for the Paper Mill workers. An image of creativity and actuality. An image of a dynamic and progressive place where culture is created, not only consumed. A living culture is one that creates.

The Skoghall Konsthall

I propose to design and build a new, contemporary structure to house the new Skoghall Konsthall. This structure will be built completely in paper produced by the Paper Mill, in close collaboration with local architects and builders.

The design will reflect the best of contemporary Swedish architecture in its minimal elegance and respect for the environment. It will also reflect the generous commitment of the main local industry in the creation of a forward looking structure and institution that will project Skoghall into the future.

The Opening Exhibition

The opening exhibition will feature the first exhibition ever held in Skoghall of young emerging swedish artists from Stockholm, Malmo and Gotenburg. The Konsthall will be officially inaugurated by the Mayor of the City, in the presence of the entire local community.

The Closing Ceremony

Exactly 24 hours after its opening, the Skoghall Konsthall will disappear, engulfed in flames. The burning of the structure will be pre-planned and will satisfy the most demanding security requirements.


By its paper nature and design, the Skoghall Konsthall will probably be one of the most advanced contemporary paper structure ever created for contemporary art. But it will also be one of the shortest-lived structures ever created for contemporary art.

I am hoping that this combination of creativity and ephemeral existence will perhaps help define the importance of contemporary art in our lives.

And it is my hope that the extremely short life of the Skoghall Konsthall will make visible the void in which we would live if there was no art. And this realization will perhaps lead the city of Skoghall into the creation of a much-needed permanent space for contemporary creation and projection.

For further reading:
Visit Alfredo Jaar’s official website
“Artists are Thinkers”: Alfredo Jaar on Creating New Ways to Look at the World


GLOBAL IMAGINARIES is a recurring lecture series hosted by Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The “imaginary” is a sociological term that describes the unspoken understanding between individuals who agree to function within the same ethical, cultural, and political frameworks in a society. The “global imaginary” expands on this notion to describe the social networks emerging between people from all over the world, assisted by technological innovations such as the internet. The lecture series was established to provide a platform for artists and their communities to enter into a wider conversation about socially engaged art.

Organized in conjunction with Detroit Institute of Arts’ 2013 Shirin Neshat exhibition, “Individual Realities” was the inaugural installment of the GLOBAL IMAGINARIES series. This program aimed to explore the underlying notions that shape our expectations of society and urge us to consider art as a social medium to navigate the imaginary.  The lecturers included several prominent artists whose work focuses on the role of art within the social and political sphere, as well as a human rights activist and sociologist of culture who discussed the role of art in shaping the global imaginary.

We invite you to join the conversation. Your thoughts, criticism, and discoveries are central to broadening the dialogue beyond the walls of the lecture hall. On this Web site, you will find lecture videos, information about our speakers, and a forum for further discussion. Explore, share with friends, leave a comment, and contribute to posts as we collectively reflect on the impact and role of socially engaged art in today’s world.

Sponsored by Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art and The Center for the Study of Citizenship at Wayne State University




Keynote Speaker: Arjun Appadurai : POSTPONED

 Stay tuned for rescheduled date Fall 2013


Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University, discusses art and artists whose work functions to raise social awareness by focusing on issues of identity and cultural production.


Neshat Wednesday, March 27
Artist Lecture: Shirin Neshat
7:00 p.m., DIA Detroit Film Theatre

Shirin Neshat’s work oscillates between the personal and universal, transcending preconceptions of culture, nationality, ethnicity, and gender. The Iranian-born Neshat talks about her work as it relates to the global imaginary based on her twenty years of giving voice to these issues through her extraordinary career.


Jaar Wednesday, April 3
Artist Lecture: Alfredo Jaar
7:00 p.m., DIA Detroit Film Theatre Auditorium

Artist, architect, and filmmaker Alfredo Jaar investigates ways that art can be used as a tool to awaken consciousness about social and global conditions that advance justice and how his multimedia installations solicit empathetic responses.


ebadiSunday, April 7
Lecture: Shirin Ebadi & Shirin Neshat
Conversation between Shirin Neshat and Shirin Ebadi, moderated by Hamid Dabashi
5:30 p.m., DIA Detroit Film Theatre

Shirin Ebadi received the Nobel Peace Prize (2003) for her pioneering efforts to support democracy and human rights in Iran for nearly 50 years. Shirin Neshat became a politically engaged artist in the 1990s with photography and videos that addressed gender in Iran. Ebadi and Neshat will discuss art and human rights in a conversation moderated by sociologist of culture Hamid Dabashi.


Shalev-GerzWednesday, April 10
Artist Lecture: Esther Shalev-Gerz

7:00 p.m., DIA Detroit Film Theatre Auditorium

Esther Shalev-Gerz , born in Lithuania, educated in Israel, and now living in Paris, uses  photographs, videos, and multimedia installations, to investigate the relationships between cultural memory, citizenship, and public space.


HancockWednesday, April 24
Artist Lecture: Trenton Doyle Hancock
7:00 p.m., Marvin and Betty Danto Lecture Hall

Celebrated for his complex installations that include absurdist parables, Houston-based artist Trenton Doyle Hancock makes paintings that address his roots as a black artist. His newest efforts show domestic settings that are set on -end by a satirical take on life.