At some point in an artist’s career, questions regarding longevity begin to surface. Particularly a contemporary artist of renown can be judgmentally scrutinized. She must be able to elaborate upon a signature style that first propelled her into the spotlight, yet at the same time persist in technical innovation and newly provocative content. Nearing the twentieth anniversary of her New York debut, Shirin Neshat, in her recent exhibition at Gladstone Gallery, Book of Kings, adeptly challenges and speculation about her work’s currency or its resonance.
Perhaps it is a testament to the severity of ongoing political tensions between the U.S. and Iran, or an indication of fortuitous timing on Neshat’s part, that international news was teeming with reports of Iran’s nuclear program, the assassination of its scientists, and maritime suspense along the Strait of Hormuz during the exhibition’s opening. Such happenstance surrounding the artist’s work is not new. The premiere of Neshat’s award-winning film, Women Without Men, coincided with the 2009 post-election protests in Iran. The plot of the film centered around what may arguably be the foundational moment for Iran’s ongoing struggles with toppled leadership and corrupt regimes: the 1953 CIA-British sponsored coup-d’état, which deposed the country’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. Although she had been working on the film for five years, the opening of Women Without Men appeared to be tailored to celebrating the beginning of Iran’s Green Movement.
The film also seemed to mark her natural progression from video artist to filmmaker, and it did not seem unreasonable to estimate that Neshat would, much like Julian Schnabel, abandon art and exhibition practice nearly altogether. Her first exhibition of new photographic and video work since 2009, Book of Kings represents a response to both Iranians and Arabs who are bravely fighting, against punishment of death, for their rights to determine the governance of their nations.
In 40 x 30 in. LE silver gelatin prints, the medium close-up portraits of contemporary Iranians are reminiscent of Neshat’s early photographic style of confrontational subjects in forward gaze. Entitled Masses, Neshat juxtaposes them with larger portraits called Patriots, perhaps metaphorically splitting the subjects between the great numbers of people affected and those directly involved. The signature stark black and white image remains visually stunning yet severe, relating the seriousness and importance of the current moment in Iranian history and elevating the defiant Iranians of the Green Movement as well as the youth of the Arab Spring to the status of the legendary heroes of the Persian Shahnameh, or Book of Kings.
Installed in a grid tailored to the gallery’s west wall, Masses intentionally overwhelms the viewer with its scope and repetition. Male and female portraits are hung in alternation, underscoring the suggestion of Neshat’s work that both genders are repressed under Islamist rule. Similarly, Book of Kings brings to the foreground Neshat’s continued concern with the loss of traditions that fall outside the Islamist endorsements of cultural production. Written between 977 and 1010 AD, the Persian Book of Kings, is Iran’s great national epic poem that preserves the legendary and historic past of Iran before its Islamic conquest in the seventh century.
On the opposite wall, there was more variation in the application of Persian script upon the surface of the four Patriots images. Minimized on some areas of the subject’s skin, inflated on others, and then separated by lines that may imitate pagination, these images particularly emphasize the series’ underpinnings to its textual origins. In addition to the words of the Shahnameh, text from contemporary Persian and Arab poems have been inscribed on the subjects, further uniting the present with the past.
Isolated in a separate space in the gallery are images Neshat calls the Villains. Arguably they are the most arresting, combining Neshat’s hallmark, straightforward portrait with new variation. From parts of the body to full-scale portraits, the skin is given the further treatment of reproduced imagery of battalions of equestrian soldiers. The style of these drawings implies a version of the Shahnameh, or another medieval manuscript. Throughout Neshat’s photographic oeuvre, texts are applied to the surface and then rephotographed, symbolically sealing text and image and suggesting that identities may be influenced, constrained, or perhaps even determined by their social and historical texts. Therefore, the Villains are inextricably identified with the images of war marked upon their bodies.
The video component of the exhibition, OverRuled, is a filmic version of Neshat’s contribution to the Performa festival last November. In the characteristic split-screen format of many of Neshat’s videos, it carries on her indictment of Iranian governmental censorship of Persian forms of culture, a major theme of her work since the beginning. Panned by critics, the dialogical performance with many actors was too theatrical and not embedded in the indistinctness that often characterizes performance art.
There have always been performative elements in Neshat’s work, from her photographic series, Women of Allah, in which she donned the chador and performed as a militant Muslim, to her richly layered, emotive video trilogies.
However, Neshat is not by definition a performance artist primarily concerned with live art. Her last performance work, Logic of the Birds, was commissioned a decade ago. Scheduled to open in September 2001 at The Kitchen in Chelsea, it was postponed until the following month due to 9/11: this work, too, hauntingly resembled the local and international turmoil of the moment.
That period was a major turning point for Neshat as an artist, who has expressed her feelings of sadness, anger, and horror, both as a New Yorker who witnessed the attacks and as a Muslim all too aware of the effects of wrongful profiling afterwards. Before 9/11, her images and videos were intentionally ambiguous, always serving to raise questions regarding perceptions of Muslim identity and the politicized spaces of women’s bodies in a repressive society. After 9/11 Neshat’s ideas about being a “political artist” changed, even equating the artist’s address of political issues as a moral responsibility. However, Book of Kings, far from being a commentary on the relations between the US and Iran, does not take sides—except with the Iranian people, who are ultimately caught between them.