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