Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Shirin Neshat's Photos and Video Installations

I can't remember if I have posted this paper before or not. I wrote it while I was at NYU and at the time, I didn't really think I was writing anything particularly charged for American culture, although I knew Neshat's was a controversial voice within modern Islam. But today it's controversial in both. So I'm posting this in honor of 9/11 and of tolerance, and because I can't take any more videos watching the towers fall. I just finally stopped dreaming about it a couple of years ago.

And I'm also publishing it as a way of talking about the role of the women and women's continued struggles within their own cultures. Which should not be confused with why we're at war. War only makes this worse for everyone. Not better.

A lot is lost in formatting transferring this from a beautifully laid out manuscript with photos and italics, etc. I have just copied and pasted the article for now. If you are following this from Facebook, I have also posted the pictures in a folder with roughly the same title as this article, so feel free to peruse those, or just go out and look on the web. There are a lot of beautiful Neshat pictures to be found.

Have a peaceful 9/11.


PROLOGUE

And this is I
a woman alone
at the threshold of a cold season
at the beginning of an understanding.1

In the early 1990s I remember having a conversation, probably one of many, with a co-worker of mine at a battered women’s shelter. She was explaining that as a woman of color, it was not her job to educate white feminists about the realities of her life. This was a charge that I was hearing more and more in activist communities and attempts by white feminists to reach out to women of color were, for a time, viewed with a degree of suspicion about motivation and political efficacy. I didn’t know what to say to those charges at the time. After all, I was—and still am—a white feminist, struggling to do the best I can for the empowerment of all women. I felt that I understood her frustration. If we spend all of our time in translation, what room is left for other kinds of dialogue? But if we refuse to be a bridge to one another, if the “Other” refuses to represent herself, then understanding one another across lines of race, ethnicity, and gender hits some very significant roadblocks. As these conversations were happening at the personal level, among activists, co-workers and friends, they were also occurring in the social sciences, including among anthropologists and ethnographers, whose day to day work of studying the “Other” was coming into question in light of post-colonialism and concerns about orientalism.

This is one of the difficult paradoxes we face as academics, activists, and also as artists. As ethnographers study cultures and are expected to report on them accurately, artists are frequently face tremendous pressure to represent their “communities” appropriately, whether those communities are based on gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, etc. Ethnographers are coming more and more to embrace the notion of subjectivity, bringing their own cultural biases and backgrounds out into the open for scrutiny. A number of new strategies are being employed to make the constructions of culture, of identity, more obvious and so to try to neutralize their potentially harmful social and political effects. Where do artists, particularly hybrid artists—the “hyphenated” artist, the artist in exile—fall within these expectations?

Iranian photographer and filmmaker Shirin Neshat struggles with these issues on a regular basis. As the gaze of world politics has turned increasingly to the Middle East, and particularly to the condition of women in Islamic countries, artists such as Neshat have seen their public profiles raised significantly. Neshat has been referred to as the new “darling” of the art world2, which has put her in the difficult position of juggling her own subjective perspective against demands for “accurate” and “authentic” representation. Neshat herself is well aware of the pressures placed on her as an artist in exile and the price she pays for her high level of visibility. At a recent NYU event, she posed to the audience and her fellow panelists a number of questions, or even challenges, about the expectations placed on artists.3

Is the artist capable of translating one culture to another?
Can (and should) the artist bear the responsibility.
What is deeply personal?
How does the evolution of the work parallel the life?
What is the risk of others looking to the work for “real truth” rather than the artistic inquiry?
How can the artist truly be a bridge between cultures?
How can you be critical of your own culture and critical of western idea of your culture?
How can you avoid reiterating stereotypes about culture while still speaking truth?

The ethnography of female subjectivity
I would argue that to be a woman in any patriarchal society is to inherently be a kind of ethnographer. As a matter of survival, the “Other” must study and understand a set of social constructions and learn to navigate those constructions like a “native”. She must, whenever possible, take what she has learned and try to translate it to her fellow “Others.” Despite living in a post-structuralist era, I cannot completely abandon the idea that we create structures which then in turn, create and construct us, and patriarchy is one of the most enduring structures of perpetuation and creation, holding the feminine as the perpetual “Other.”4
Likewise, the artist is also both anthropologist and ethnographer, taking a distanced view of the world around her, recording, describing, attempting to understand and translate. That women’s novels and creative work are being accepted into the canon of ethnography affirms the important work of observation that artists, and in particular women artists, do as part of their very existence.5 In The Republic, Plato charged that all poets are thieves, parasites whose false work comes from “stealing” from the legitimate work of other members of society. Andre Gide, likewise referred to writers as “counterfeiters,” a charge my own friends have jokingly leveled against me more than once. Thus have artists and ethnographers faced similar struggles and criticisms

Some pose the question then, is a feminist ethnography possible? Is it ethical? But my premise is that it is actually a redundancy. And then what about the ethnographic work of a feminist artist? Are we looking at ourselves looking at ourselves looking at ourselves . . .? The project of feminist ethnography in that case is not merely to bring women into the picture, to create what Deborah Gordon calls an “anthropology of women”6 but to look at our own societies in which we dwell as the perpetual “Other” as the object of our studies.

Neshat, whose photography and video work explore the conditions of women’s lives in post-revolutionary Iran, rejects the responsibility of authentic representation, but also looks for universality. Her work deals in the constructions of binaries, including male/female, nature/culture, East/West, public/private and then creates an in-between space for the viewer to inhabit. She sees her work as building a bridge between East and West but is wary of too much responsibility being laid at the feet of the artist.

Performativity and cross-genre writing
For me, it is similar to raising a question and then creating a framework to post that question.7

One of the great promises of Performance Studies is the capacity to write across genres. The exciting possibilities suggested by Women Writing Culture, including fiction, memoir, and even theatre as forms of ethnography, made me want to try my hand at pushing the boundaries of the academic paper. Just as Women Writing Culture was a response to the charge that women don’t push the form of ethnographic writing, that felt like a charge that I, as a writer, wanted to take up on my own. In Unmarked, Peggy Phelan calls for a writing that is in itself a performance. Not merely writing that is about performance, but writing that lifts itself from the page and becomes a performance in its own right.

Performance’s challenge to writing is to discover a way for repeated words to . . . enact the now of writing in the present time.8

As I envisioned this piece, I wanted to write as cross-generically as possible, for my own reasons as well as out of a desire to adequately render, represent and perform Neshat’s work, combining elements of poetry and playwriting with academic writing and research. Neshat’s photographic work, including the Women of Allah series frequently employs poetry and she talks repeatedly about the inherent poetry and lyricism in Iranian culture. When once asked whether she identified more with a priest or philosopher, Neshat replied “a poet.”9 Thus I have chosen to incorporate the work of Forough Farrokhzad, Iran’s most celebrated modern feminist poet,10 whose work Neshat frequently references as well. I did not necessarily always choose the exact poems or lines that Neshat features in her work, but rather let Forough enter fully into the conversation, her words as a floating commentary, another way of understanding the issue at hand.

As a performance artist, I wanted a piece that would speak, project, declaim within the work. Neshat’s video work makes use of dual screens to literally place viewers between two different sets of conditions, subcultures. I wanted a format that would perform a similar function visually, replicating her style, but also to treat Neshat’s own voice poetically, perhaps replicating the way in which the artist goes about her work while the critic simultaneously applies his or her own “gaze” over
the artist’s shoulder.

By placing Neshat’s own words (usually) at the center of the page, I wanted to place her between worlds—standing between home and exile, her interventions and questions as she moves between the worlds, her “otherness” always graphically in front of us. In Neshat’s video work, the space between the screens is read as an intermediate cultural position, a transitive “third space.”11

I envisioned a dialogue. What I ended up with was a cacophony—artists and critics and academics noisily arguing across the page, as if I had assembled them for a Judy Chicago painting or a Caryl Churchill play. At first intuitively, and then intentionally, I chose to write a metanarrative as an argument among scholars (such as Judith Butler or Edward Said) and artists (Neshat and Farrokhzad) alongside the commentary and critical analysis, placing myself as the moderator of this conversation, adding commentary wherever I could.

The director Anne Bogart describes artistic choices as a sort of violence, as they eliminate possibilities12. Each time I make a choice about format, I steer the work away from one genre and into another. Toward an academic paper and away from a surrealist poem. Toward a panel discussion and away from a piece of theatre. But you also have to trust the integrity of the work and that it will ultimately take the form that it needs to, and not the one that you have stubbornly become attached to.


The Veiled Women of Allah

Shirin Neshat initially became known and celebrated artistically for a series of photographs entitled The Women of Allah. The series featured women covered in the chador (the veil), frequently juxtaposed with guns and with text on various parts of the body, often on the face, of the subject (usually Neshat herself).
The Women of Allah has been the subject of a good deal of discussion, celebration, and criticism, and frequently of misunderstanding. While the text used in the photographs is poetry from Iran its juxtaposition with the chador causes people to assume that the text is Koranic.14

Some critics have mistaken the photographs as a call to militancy. One described the message of Women of Allah as “displaying a level of [female] acquiescence such that it carries with it a built-in threshold beyond which a woman would just let the revolver do the talking for her.”15


Neshat has described the photos as representing a feeling of betrayal by the revolution. Women played an active role in the Iranian revolution and the chador itself was not always seen as a symbol of repression, as understood within the West, but rather as a symbol against the Westernizing of Iranian culture, against the influences that had corrupted the regime of the Shah.

During the Iranian Revolution, in which Iranian women revolted against “oriental” stereotypes, the veil become . . . a way to identify with Islamic Values . . . We began to see images of proud militant Muslim women carrying heavy machine guns. These representations were powerful and shocking and definitely shattered the classical western image of Muslim women as weak and subordinate.17


At the same time, she has also come to be self-critical about what she calls the “naivete” of these pieces as she came to understand “the true nature of the revolution and the horrific events that had occurred ever since.18
Stereotyping is a two-way street. The East has a caricature of Western feminism in its collective mind—the devil’s work, some say—but the West also has its own caricature of Muslim women—oppressed prisoners of religious dogma.”19

I say they are very powerful. I’m not saying that they are not repressed, but you cannot diminish these people to nothing.20

The changing nature of Neshat’s understanding of her own work no doubt comes from her concerns about adequately representing Iranian culture without promoting stereotypes. She, like so many artists, activists, and ethnographers discussing women in the Middle East attempt to balance very real issues of women’s oppression against Western ideas of Muslim women as helpless, powerless or passive. Where some critics have accused Women of Allah as violent and militant, others, she says, have accused her of trying to make people feel sorry for Middle Eastern women.21 Feminists and scholars within Islamic countries similarly struggle for a model that liberates women while respecting and working within their own cultural traditions, working against charges of “Westernization”.

Muslim women are past the stage of defining themselves for or against Western feminism. They’re looking for their own ways to deal with their society and women’s place in those societies.22

The veil itself is a very loaded symbol, one especially open to stereotyping and misunderstanding. In Frayed Connections, Fraught Projects: The Troubling Work of Shirin Neshat, writer Lindsay Moore describes the veil as a site of ambivalence and anxiety, challenging “easy equations between individualism, feminism and cultural expression” as well as the “complex interaction of social discourse and personal agency that constitutes subjectivity.”23 It is almost a site of horror for Western feminists, to whom it seems the ultimate iconic representation of women’s oppression--the denial of their bodies, the control of women within public space, a way of silencing them and rendering them virtually invisible. When pressed to find any positive political or social use of veiling at all, the deflection of the male gaze is one of the few points for Western feminists to concede. But the veil can also have the effect of confounding the Western gaze as well. In post-colonial terms, the veil can be seen as a resistance to Westernization of Islamic cultures, and in particular, the West’s own highly sexualized (and potentially “objectified”) view of femininity, a view that goes hand-in-hand with orientalism.
Eastern women are “the creatures of a male power-fantasy. They express unlimited sexuality . . . and above all, they are willing.”24

Women, and often veiled women in public spaces, become the focus of her installations, creating images that could, if evaluated critically, feed into a proliferate stereotypical representations of “orientalist art.”25

And so while Neshat articulates her own understanding and ideology in using the chador in her work, as both a positive and negative symbol, she is no doubt aware of the strong visual (and visceral) power in that symbol in presenting her work to a Western audience, leaving critics to argue over interpretation.

No one is thinking about the flowers,
no one wants to believe that the garden is dying,
that the garden’s mind is slowly
being drained of green memories,
that the garden’s senses are
a separate thing rotting huddled in a corner.26

Neshat ultimately found photography too limiting for the ideas that she wanted to explore. Photography, she found, fixed the gaze as well as the meaning, describing the end result as “rigid, monumental and final.”27 Through the images in the Women of Allah series she explored the more idealistic (some, including Neshat herself would say naïve) images of women exhibiting strength both within and in spite of the chador. With her video work, Neshat sought more ambiguity, a space for the viewer to enter with their own subjectivity.

In opposition to the men, who stay within their inner boundaries, the women become very brave.28

The first of her video work was a trilogy of films, Rapture, Turbulence, and Fervor. These installations positioned the viewer between two screens, one depicting a “male” scene and the other a “female” scene. Interestingly, whereas ideas about public vs. private space dominate gender roles within Islamic societies, all of the settings in Neshat’s film work take place in the realm of the public. Thus in each of the films there is an element of transgression as the women venture out into the public, and therefore “masculine” realm.

Rapture contrasts a gathering of men on one screen with a large gathering of women going to the beach in the other. At times there appears to be some apprehension on the faces of some of the women, and a sense of giddiness in others. In another series, we see on one screen, a man singing to a full auditorium, and on the other, a woman singing in the same auditorium, empty, due to the prohibition on women singing in public. The films are arranged in such a way that one is standing still, almost “watching” as the other is performing.

And so there are moments when men and women come together, even when they are separated by screens and reels of film and physical apparatus. In the “staging” of the dual screened pieces, there is a way in which the films seem to comment on one another. At times men and women are brought together within the image, either as groups or individuals, whether for a funeral ritual (as in Turbulent) , or two people encountering one another upon leaving a sermon on the dangers of desire (Fervor).


At that point I thought it is time to close this chapter of masculine/feminine . . . questioning the whole notion of extreme taboo around sexuality, desire and how that has been deeply internalized both within the private space as well as the public space.30

By watching two screens simultaneously, the viewer becomes a subjective participant in the installation, forced to make constant choices about which screen to watch, which elements to pay attention to. Once again, we are faced with the violence of choices. Something is always left out. It is impossible to ever get the full experience, but it is not only a question of seeing one entire reel of film, but also the juxtaposition of the two images and the way in which each film interacts with the other. In this way, the films mirror the ethereal nature of performance, for it would be difficult, if not impossible, to sit through one of installations and experience it in exactly the same way each time. Neshat describes the process for the viewer as emotionally and psychologically demanding. “You have to decide which part you are going to sacrifice.”31

Subjectivity and Representation

The combination of psychic hope and political-historical inequality makes the contemporary encounter between self and other a meeting of profound romance and deep violence.”32


Said wrote that “no production of knowledge in the human sciences can ever ignore or disclaim its author’s involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances.”33 One of the ways in which Neshat insists on her own subjectivity is by placing herself within the work. It is clear in the Women of Allah photographs, where there is a single female subject in each piece. Neshat chose to place herself as the subject within these photographs. The photos are clearly constructed and “posed” for and do not attempt to represent women within any kind of ordinary social setting. Placement of herself in the photographs, she has explained, helps to keep the images personal and from becoming polemical.

Using herself as a model allowed the artist to become an act of meditation on the symbols of modern Iran. She cloaked herself in both the veil and the language of debates, leaving the western viewer on the outside of the discourse.34

In the video work, in which there are large groups of women—I almost hesitate to impose the interpretation, but seemingly interchangeable, non-individuated women buried under the chador—we frequently spot Neshat herself within the images. In Fervor for example, it is Neshat whose face we notice looking away from the crowd, as if trying to see through the curtain to the men on the other side, and it is she who leaves the lecture and ventures off alone. As she has described her work as her own coming to terms with a culture that should be hers but has become very alien, it is tempting to view these images as representing her own disorientation and disjointedness in trying to “reassimilate” herself.

Investing my own flesh somehow seemed to guarantee a sense of intimacy that prevented the work from becoming a propaganda or documentary piece.”35

Placing herself in these photographs is an attempt on the part of Neshat, artist in exile, to place herself within the context of a significant event within her homeland. Neshat came to the United States to study art in 1978, just before the Iranian Revolution, and did not return home again until the early 1990s. It’s not hard to imagine that in such a position, Neshat would wonder what it must have been like to participate in the revolution and what her life might have been like had she spent those years in post-revolutionary Iran rather than the US.


Writing about her experience being “hyphenated” or what Lila Abu-Lughod calls a “halfie,” Kamala Visweswaran details her visits to India, the act of “being there” and writing about one place from the position of being in the other.37 In Fictions of Feminist Ethnography, she describes wearing the sari and all of the social implications it carries, including class, age, occasion, etc. “If I looked Indian,” she explains, “surely in a sari I must be Indian.”38 Putting on the sari, as Neshat puts on the chador, is one way of “stepping into” the other culture. As the saying goes, “clothes make the (wo)man.” Like Neshat, Visweswaran navigates the worlds of East/West, where she must deflect both criticisms of westernization in her feminist work while also deflecting the West’s hunger for knowledge about third world women.39
One of the main criticisms leveled against Neshat, particularly with the Women of Allah series, has been her the deeply personal nature of the work, thus failing to speak “authentically” for all Iranian women. Perhaps, ironically, it is the way in which the veil itself erases traces of individuality, thus causing the Western spectator to expect these photos to be speaking archetypally. Moore, whose own critique of Neshat’s work encapsulates many of these criticisms, sees in Neshat of “projection of idiosyncratic yet generalizing versions of culture.”40
Neshat’s high profile in the contemporary art world, and so the infinitely consumable nature of these “Iranian” and “Islamic” images, make a problematization of her perspective imperative. 41

The backlash against Neshat’s work has also come, no doubt, from her increasing visibility, being referred to as a “darling” of the art world. “Iranian women are increasingly, the exotic ‘new’ in the art market . . . chic commodities of postcolonial discourse.”42


These are, in fact, some of the very questions that ethnographers face and point to both the criticisms and anxieties faced by both the “hybrid” artist and “hybrid” ethnographer. Lughod’s “halfie” experiences a “blocked ability to comfortably assume the self of anthropology” and is caught in the unenviable positions of both “speaking for and speaking from” her original culture.43

And so we come to the messy, intricate nexus of orientalism, representation, ethnography and art that an artist such as Neshat finds herself in. While some critics see Neshat’s subjectivity as naïve and irresponsible, she herself struggles to defend the personal, individualistic nature of her work.

Neshat’s images posit an unself-conscious
standing in, speaking for and false complicity
with a generic “Iranian woman.”44

I am not an expert on Islam. I am not an ambassador of all Muslim women. I am an artist living in New York and this is my point of view. Please don’t make me bigger than I am because it’s not fair to the women living in Iran. They can tell you a lot better than me about their situation.45

Charges of promoting orientalism are likewise leveled within these critiques, the tendency to generalize about the culture of the “Other.” So in an odd circular reasoning, Neshat’s failure is that she creates an image of a generic Iranian woman while failing to speak for all Iranian women with her “highly idiosyncratic images.” Marilyn Booth worries that the “heavy burden of orientalism on gender studies,” combined with the need to battle stereotypes, “carries a danger that one will reify stereotypes in the very process of shattering them.”46 Visweswaran explains that the sociology of gender assumes a social construction that requires women to see themselves as part of a social grouping as well as defining themselves by biology, insisting that a woman be “both unique and typical of her culture.”47 This is exactly the trap that we see artists such as Neshat placed in. Whereas the photographs were accused simultaneously of militarism and passivity they have also been viewed as essentializing gender. “Much of the Iranian expatriate community criticized Neshat’s work for constructing stereotypical images of Iranian women and creating art that was in support of the repressive Islamic regime and its warring tendencies.”48. Leery of the pitfalls of representation as a political act, Peggy Phelan suggests that “representation follows two laws: it always conveys more than it intends, and it is never totalizing” despite the drive to “arrest and fix . . . the images of the other.”49

Neshat’s beautiful worlds are dangerous because they tug at a Euro-American desire for the cultural Other that has not been exhausted.50

There are a number of ironies in such a criticism of Neshat’s work. The first is that in the West, we understand the struggle of Muslim women as a struggle for individuation within their culture. Yet an artist such as Neshat is expected to realistically represent the situation of women in Iran, despite the fact of her exile (it has now been 25 years since she left Iran) and her own struggle to fully comprehend the situation of life in a country that is very changed from when she left. Arguing that "the artist's responsibility is neither to validate nor to critique social and political ideas" Neshat uses her work to create "a relationship to her own country . . . from the outside."51

The risk of visibility . . . is the risk of any translation . . . the appropriation by (economically and artistically) powerful “Others.”52

“If we had to constantly define ourselves in opposition to the constructs of otherness thrust on us, then that would be the surest way of othering ourselves. The moment we allow ourselves to be subsumed within categories of otherness, we automatically empower what we are set against.”53


Abu-Lughood talks about narrowing ethnographies down to a personal level, of doing an ethnography of a single family, for example, and how they deal with the situations of their culture.54 Yet does that really cure the reader’s hunger for generalization? Or does it mean that we extrapolate from a smaller and smaller sampling? In the work of an artist such as Neshat, we see this need to generalize at work. Rather than looking at Neshat’s work as speaking for women in Iran, it could be seen ethnographically as representing the perspective of exiles. In that regard, by Abu-Lughod’s standards it could well be a valid ethnography of a small sampling (in this case one artist) within a cultural context. In presenting the perspective not of a post-revolutionary Iranian woman, but of an Iranian woman in exile, we see the struggle of the hyphenated individual as they struggle for a stake in the events of their countries of origin and reflect on the possibility of ever returning.

Neshat’s masquerading of the Self as Other acts hegemonically, by replacing the testimonies of women who participated. 55

A strategy of domination pits the “I” against an “Other” and once that separation is effected, creates an artificial set of questions about the knowability and recoverability of that “Other”.56


The “Third Space”

In fact, the criticisms of Neshat’s work fail to take into account the Americanism of her perspective, the other side of her hybrid consciousness. Neshat herself has an ambivalence toward the veil. Having been outlawed decades before she was born, Neshat had probably never worn a chador as part of her daily life until embarking on her photographic and video work. The fact is that she herself does not identify with women in Iran, despite any feeling that she should be able to do so, since it is her homeland.

By no means do I feel like any kind of an expert or ambassador of one or the other, but as an Iranian living here, I feel that I am invested in trying to understand some of the basic ideology rooted in that part of the world, which is difficult to comprehend from here.57



Is it the case that subjectivity is one more form of privilege, existing only for those who are considered “unmarked” within a culture—for men and within the West, for “white” men who do not feel the pressure of representation? Is it the responsibility of the hyphenated artist, ethnographer, citizen, to always be the spokesperson, the symbol for their culture and to act with absolute authenticity? In fact, the hybridity of her identity is precisely one of the binaries that Neshat herself struggles to come to terms with when discussing her work.

Helene Cixous suggests that women explore a “third space,” removing themselves from “the fixed categories and identities they have inhabited.”60 Of course there are overt parallels to an artist such as Neshat. The very nature of her visual work is such that it creates a third space, an appropriate place of removal for an artist who is living between two worlds, neither of which is fully her own. Cixous recommends that subject “go out into the other in order to come back to itself.”61 For the hybrid, hyphenated halfie, there is no choice in the matter.
Recognizing that representations are, themselves, a construction of reality, Amy Shuman indicates that the goal of feminist work is a “more or less faithful reproduction of an external reality to which we all have equal and unbiased access.”62 At a time when linguistics and anthropology are certainly moving away from ideas of fixed signs and knowable external realities, it seems inconceivable. Shuman herself suggests “a shift away from concerns with the accuracy of interpretation, which are in essence attempts to fix meaning.”63
We cannot remedy the gap between representations and experiences; our attempts to give voices to silenced women do not remedy their marginalized disposition.64


While Neshat may reject attempts to pin on her the responsibility for exact and authentic representation of Iranian women, she nonetheless seeks universality in her work, hoping that her audiences speaks a basic human desire for freedom. It is in her attempts to speak to a universal audience that she is the most open to concerns—her own and those of her critics—about reinforcing stereotypes.
The recent challenge for me has been to create work that while remaining uncompromisingly authentic to the roots of the subject, do not become too ethnographic, and do not alienate those who are not quite informed about the culture . . . I’m interested in juxtaposing the traditional with the modern . . . the desire of all human beings to be free, to escape conditioning, be it social, cultural or political, and how we’re trapped by all kinds of iconographies and social codes. I try to convey these elements, to convey a sense of human crisis and emotion. One feels surrounded by these kinds of pressures in Islamic culture. They are not necessarily good or bad, but they are very real Islamic conditions.”65

Universalism comes up over and over again when Neshat discusses her work. At a time when postmodernism rejects the possibility of universalism, Neshat seems to see it as a correction to orientalism. That universalism can be seen as erasing differences, does it also erase the voice of the “other” or even orientalizing it? As Peggy Phelan might ask, when is representation exoticizing?

Neshat’s work deals with binaries, showing us two very different sets of realities of the same situation. As such, it relies heavily on subjectivity of the viewer as well as the viewed. It is here that the artist loses control of the work, allowing the viewer to enter into the work and draw their own conclusions. It is here that universality “succeeds” or “fails”. Neshat ambivalently suggests the hope that there is a universal underpinning in her work, while also repeatedly rejecting attempts to fix meaning to the work, insisting on the positionality of the viewer.





If “oppositions are the axes around which her work revolves,”66 then what is between the binaries? “The shared space, the space in between the dichotomies of male-female nature-culture, rational-mystical abandon.”67 It is Cixous’ “third space.” It is also the distance between east and west, ancient and modern, home and exile. With the attempts to use “tradition” to remove women from public life after the fundamentalist revolution of 1979, the conversation across time is also an important one. Who’s history? Which fundament? In the dialogue between East and West, who’s idea of “progress?” And in the case of the artist in exile, caught between these locations and these identities, the ultimate question is which voice and who’s story?


I am not an activist. I am not a feminist.
I am a woman artist from Iran, living here.68



Life is perhaps
a long street through which a woman holding a basket
passes every day.

Life is perhaps
a rope with which a man hangs himself from a branch.
Life is perhaps a child returning home from school.69

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