19 October 2019-16 February 2019, The Broad, Los Angeles
I Will Greet the Sun Again is a major retrospective of the photographic, installation, and film and video works of the Iranian-born and New York-based artist Shirin Neshat. It spans from her early Women of Allah series of photographs, through her many video and film works, up to a three-gallery installation of parts of her feature-length film currently in progress, Land of Dreams, which surreally imagines a Iranian-run office of census-takers and dream-collectors, who are charged with interviewing and gathering data on citizens of the American Southwest.
Neshat first rose to attention in the New York art scene in the 1990s, in a period which experienced a growing critique of the artworld’s exclusions of women artists and artists of color. Neshat’s work, as the catalogue notes, has been especially “discussed from postcolonial and Islamic/Iranian cultural perspectives”; but in her more recent work, such as the films Tooba (2002), Illusions and Mirrors (2013), and Roja (2016), those concerns have somewhat retreated in favor of exploring nature, ritual, and dreams, as well as more autobiographical motifs.
The Women of Allah series (1993-1997) offered photographic representation of Iranian women, but framed and limited to narrow swaths of visibility by the coverings of the chador. Photographs such as Bonding (1995) and Guardians of the Revolution (1994) reveal only hands, inscribed with Persian decorative motifs and poetic texts by women;
Untitled (1996) and Identified (1995) exhibit hands along with parts of the face in close-up; while I Am Its Secret (1993), Rebellious Silence (1994), Unveiling (1993), and Speechless (1996) focus on the face, using it as a surface for poetic inscription.
Offered Eyes (1993) bears a text written circularly in the white space around the iris and pupil of the eye, suggesting desire or seduction darting out as a look through a veil or curtain.
Another work from the Women of Allah series, Allegiance with Wakefulness (1994) exposes the soles of feet, a provocative image in Persian and Arabic culture, given the symbolic connotation of baseness associated with the feet. In Allegiance with Wakefulness the barrel of a gun pokes out between the feet, which also bear an inked Farsi text.
Neshat would again use such imagery much later in her photograph Rahim (2013). Here, rather than gesturing aggressively to the viewer, the feet are mute and impassive, for they were photographed in a morgue and carry an identification tag tied to the toe.
This latter work inverts the earlier photographs’ reference to the Islamic Republic’s propagandistic employment of the concept of martyrdom in the service of the regime during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. The reprise of the foot imagery in Rakim, instead, inflects “martyrdom” with new notes of protest and revolt in the name of liberty, alluding to the young people killed in the Arab Spring protests that gripped Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and other countries of the Middle East and North Africa in the early 2010s.
In her photographs, Neshat seizes upon the powerfully gendered coding of the body in Persian culture to unsettling but also lyrically arresting effect. Video works such as Turbulent (1998), which won the International Prize at the 1999 Venice Biennale, and Rapture (1999) broaden her up-close look at the gendered spatiality of the body to encompass gendered divisions in architectural and urban space as well. Thus, for example, employing a dual-screen installation, Turbulent parries a performance by a male performer singing a song before an all-male audience against the passionate, abstract vocalizations of experimental musician Sussan Deyhim, performing in a dark, audience-less auditorium.
Neshat uses an analogous pairing technique in Rapture, where a group of white-shirted men move about a fortress while on a facing screen a group of black-robed women push a boat down the beach to the water.
The male and female singers in Turbulent and the groups of men and women in Rapture alternate between activity and static waiting, thus seeming to observe, listen to, and tacitly react to one another, though they are actually in discontinuous, physical separated spaces.
Possessed (2001), however, illustrates the explosive social forces unleashed when such separations are transgressed. A woman with her hair loose and uncovered by a chador, wanders through the streets and into a public square. Her emotions become more and more frenzied, until she lets out a scream.
Her madness agitates the crowd in the square, who begin to threaten the woman and each other, as they take sides about whether to attack the madwoman or let her be. Neshat’s film ends uncertainly, with the woman still in a trance, unaware of the violence she has unleashed not so much by what she has said or done, but by who she has become: a woman out of place in gendered space.