Exhibition Review: Shirin Neshat at Gladstone Gallery
Shirin Neshat, Dreamers at Gladstone Gallery May 19 - June 17
Written by Madeleine Leddy
Shirin Neshat can’t go home. But this is a situation she has probably grown used to, given that she has spent nearly half of her 60 years of life in exile.
The Iranian photographer moved to the U.S. as a 17-year-old, five years prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in her home country—an event that effectively prevented her from returning home until 1993. Neshat adopted America as a second homeland and embraced a dual identity as an expatriate, a member of two cultural communities that have—especially in recent years—found themselves at odds with one another.
Neshat’s identity is a balancing act, and her work, while not explicitly political, calls into question the power structures that have caused this identity to become a conflict zone. Her approach has intrigued academics from both artistic and political theory backgrounds, and some literature even exists relating her art’s message to the theories of Edward Said and other twentieth century thinkers. In Neshat’s recent work, there are echoes of Said’s conception of “Orientalism” and the cultural difference between East and West; even if the evocation is unintentional, it is clear that Neshat works from a legacy of hearts and minds that have tackled this question.
Her current installation at Gladstone Gallery consists of three distinct parts, which, when taken together, explore anxieties that currently surround both American and Iranian identities. In the gallery’s main viewing room hangs a series of sepia-toned, blurry chest-up portraits. It appears to tackle the former identity: the subjects are all older, white, and bare-shouldered, the plaques below each photograph bearing typical Anglo-American first names (“Tammy,” “Tim,” etc.).
A stark white hallway separates this space from a smaller, light-filled atrium, where the viewer is confronted with a different kind of portrait. In this second part of the exhibition, there is no series, but rather a single haunting image. The photograph, a still from the short black-and-white film, Roja, that constitutes the third part of the exhibition, is large and vertiginous. A young, black-clad woman stands alone, in front of a spacelike concrete structure (its purpose is unclear from the photo—is it a warehouse? An aircraft hangar? The ambiguity is probably intentional) in an otherwise deserted landscape. The young woman is Roja Heydarpour, a journalist and fellow Iranian-American, and New Yorker. Her enormous eyes and willowy frame exist in a barren limbo, and the frozen take reels the viewer into this limbo—the liminal space between identities.
The spatial organization of Gladstone Gallery prohibits a truly coherent transition between the exhibit’s three parts. The 15-minute film plays in a small projection room adjacent to the entryway, before the main viewing space where Neshat’s “American” identity is explored. Ideally, it seems allowing visitors to take in the facial portraits and film stills before arriving at the film would make the most logical sense; then again, one of Neshat’s messages appears to be that identity is hardly fixed, and so this exercise in jumping between media, re-traversing the room of American faces after encountering the frozen Roja Heydarpour in order to finally see her in action, could also be construed as integral to the artist’s concept.
Roja makes for an appropriate finale to the exhibit, since it is the sole independent part that juxtaposes Neshat’s two identities within a single work. A surreal jaunt between scenes—an older white man, possibly one of the series’ subjects, singing himself into a frenzy on stage; the same man suddenly lashing out at Heydarpour, who grows teary during his performance and watches, subjected but aware of her assailant’s vulnerability, as he yells accusations of dishonesty and cunning at her; and finally a sceneHeydarpour in the desert landscape that we have come to know through the single still in the outside gallery, a landscape she traverses on foot and in which she encounters another woman.
The woman is older and dressed in a black hijab, seemingly representative of the “Orient” in the way that the old man from the opening scene represents the “Occident.” Neshat has listed Man Ray and Miguel Buñuel among her influences, and she takes cues from the early Surrealist aesthetic. As the two women—one older and stereotypically “Eastern,” the other young and seemingly torn between two worlds—stare each other down, our perspective periodically fuses with that of the younger woman, whose vision is distorted by what resembles a layer of thick glass. The result is a haunting image of the older woman’s veil-framed face, which undulates and refracts and morphs into an unstable mass, something resembling a formless white mask with pulsating, shifting features. It is as if the Western part of Roja Heydarpour’s identity—perhaps, we can assume, representative of that part of Neshat’s own identity—has distorted the way she looks at her ancestral culture.
Dreamers is powerful and relevant, especially in light of the recent travel ban that effectively prevents Neshat from returning to Iran for the time being. From a completely apolitical standpoint, too, the work speaks volume about difference and traversal—about the pressure on a new generation of dual-identity individuals to make peace with their parents’ past and reconcile their two worlds in the future.