The first Hirshhorn Museum exhibition organized under the watch of its recently appointed director, Melissa Chiu, is structured around three turning points in Iranian history. “Shirin Neshat: Facing History” contextualizes the artist’s work around the 1953 ouster of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, the 1979 revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power and the abortive Green Movement of 2009, which raised and dashed hopes of more democratic, secular-leaning governance.
A history lesson is never unwelcome, especially now, with the United States attempting to forge a new relationship with the regional powerhouse. Americans with a simplistic or monolithic view of Iran as a dangerous theocracy are generally oblivious of the role played by the United States, and the CIA, in the overthrow of the democratically elected Mosaddeq and the decades of misguided support for the brutal, corrupt and ridiculous regime of the Shah. The Iranian government is horribly oppressive, of course, but Iranian society is vibrant and artistically rich, with women representing well more than half of the student population at the university level.
Unfortunately, the historical focus of the show doesn’t always serve Neshat’s work well. Historical photographs and even a newsreel give visitors a sense of these epochal events, but Neshat’s work isn’t particularly documentary in its focus. At its best, it is a kind of poetic descant to history, reimagining it in a lyrical and reflective mode. The exhibition’s approach also threatens to make Neshat into a conduit, or worse, a martyr, of the tragedies of Iranian history, inviting us to indulge the superficial and aggrandizing view of the artist as someone who suffers on behalf of her people. Finally, the historical organization also emphasizes an uncomfortable aspect of Neshat’s career: Her recent work is not nearly as powerful as the work she was doing two decades ago.
Framing the show as an ambulation through history, however, does accomplish a few curatorial ends. Most of this work is already familiar to art lovers who have been paying attention to the trends of the past 20 years. Almost everything in the Hirshhorn exhibition, including the seminal videos made in the late 1990s, was also seen less than three years ago in a Neshat exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts. So how to reframe it? How to make it new?
The curators have opted to give the work a bit of back story, highlighting dramatic historical photographs from Iran, and source material particular to Neshat’s body of work. The latter includes Neshat’s own (visually magnificent) copy of the great Persian epic, the “Shahnameh,” which inspired one of her most recent projects, the 2012 photographic installation “Book of Kings,” and a collection of mid-century portraits of Iranians that informed the look of her 2008 film “Munis.”
This is filler, and it has the unwanted effect of foregrounding process, and the artist’s biography, when the work — which deals with historical tragedy on a grand scale — should be the sole focus of our attention and sympathies. The “Book of Kings” photographs, for example, recall the Green Movement, in which dozens, if not hundreds of people were killed, many more arrested, and which took an unfathomable toll on the civic aspirations of an entire generation of young Iranians. It is useful data to know where Neshat found the images that appear as body tattoos on the “villains” depicted in her photographs; but given how perilously pitched on the abyss of cliche this work already is, the artist would be wise to keep a lower personal profile.
It’s painful to say that, because Neshat’s early work is so successful. In 1993, after living in the United States for almost 20 years, Neshat (now 58) started making photographs of women with elegant Persian poetry inscribed on the white spaces of their faces, feet and hands. This recalled a tradition of painting with henna on the skin, but it also opened myriad interpretive possibilities for thinking about women in Iran. Some of the women brandished guns, and so some viewers saw the work as explicitly supporting the Iranian revolutionary movement; others saw the writing as a violation of the female body, an inscription of power brutally imposed on the figures in the photographs. If you read Persian, the writing was revealed as poetry, and the interpretation became more complex, with the text suggesting, perhaps, the inner, poetic life of women whose opportunity for self-expression was limited.
And the images were beautiful, expertly rendered and organized with the blunt force of great poster art, or advertising. The “Women of Allah” series became Neshat’s brand, and it is a successful one, allowing both simplistic and subtle readings to coexist, and thus enabling her art to circulate at multiple levels in the art business.
A triptych of videos she produced from 1998 to 2000 only deepened admiration for the artist. All three works dealt with the divide between male and female, and all three used two screens to physically emphasize the gulf between the sexes. In “Turbulent,” a male singer performs to an auditorium of men, followed by a female vocalist singing in an empty hall. The screens are separated so that one must always choose where to look, tuning in and out of the video tracks. This simple formal device is powerful: We know we are always missing something. It also helps structure the singing as a kind of competition, forcing us to turn our backs on one artist or the other. And it makes gender a matter of allegiance, while underscoring how little true communication there is across the divide of sex and desire.
These early videos were non-narrative, but a few archetypal narrative elements emerge and recur in later works, including her feature-length film “Munis.” Among these is the figure of a woman, or women, leaving, whether that’s the mysterious group of black-clad women pushing out to sea in a boat in the 1999 video “Rapture,” or the young woman who seems to commit suicide, yet rises from the pavement to leave the scene of her own death in a 2008 video related to the larger film “Munis.”
Obviously this image of departure must in some way relate to Neshat’s own personal trajectory. Neshat left Iran when she was 17, was educated in the United States, and though she returned to Iran a few times in the early 1990s, she has since 1996 felt it too unsafe to visit her homeland. But it may also be a cautious way to broach the anxiety of an artist who uses the trauma of history as subject matter. Neshat processes history as personal tragedy, often seeming to inhabit her own imagined Iran as an alienated wanderer, moving through crowds, riots and violence in a ghost-like, disengaged manner. Perhaps she is saying: Yes, I know as an artist working in the West that I can always leave the scene of the crime behind.
This is dangerous territory. Artists have always had history at their disposal, as material, as inspiration and as the substrate in which they, like all of us, live and breathe. But there is a difference between that and the abuse of history as material ready-made with emotional content, easy to process and repackage and sell to an audience that requires the cheaper sentiments. At times, especially in more recent works, one senses Neshat approaching that line, perhaps not quite crossing it, but getting close.
The “Book of Kings” project certainly verges on the manipulative. Here, Neshat returns to the photo-text combination she used in her early work from the 1990s, making photographs of three classes of people she sees as elemental to the 2009 political protests: the “masses,” the “patriots” and the “villains.” This borders on caricature, and one is tempted to believe that the artist is using these black-hat, white-hat labels in a complicated game of parody or irony. But if there’s irony here, it is inscrutable.
The most recent work on view, the 2013 “Our House Is on Fire,” is the only moment when the artist uses a relatively straightforward documentary approach, photographing older and elderly Egyptians who have suffered through the political unrest in Cairo. Again, their faces are lined with text, but it is fainter than the text used in “Women of Allah,” so subtle that from a distance it appears more like the old horizontal lines on a black-and-white television than calligraphy. One wants this work to do something, be more ambitious, aim for something deeper. But in the end it feels like Neshat has simply applied the Neshat brand to another country, processing its suffering in her usual style without adding much to the wall of sad, painfully weary faces.
One can strain at a redemptive interpretation of these images. Perhaps the artist is visualizing her trademark fading from view, and this work will emerge as a turning point leading to something else we haven’t seen before. But the most obvious reading is also the most troubling: The thin, feathery lines of text read like static on a screen, creating a kind of fuzziness or blur. They enact a style of imagery that is losing its power the longer we look at it.
Shirin Neshat: Facing History opens at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on May 18. For more information visit hirshhorn.si.edu.