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Shirin Neshat:

In Shirin Neshat's Turbulent (1998), two screens are projected opposite each other in a room. In one projection a man stands on the stage of a theater in front of an audience of men. He sings with much intensity a love song that is a poem by the 13th century mystic Jalal al-Din Rumi. To listeners who do not understand the Persian language it could easily be mistaken for a pop song. Opposite him on the other screen a veiled woman (Sussan Deyhim) waits in shadows. When he is finished the woman steps forward. While his passion was for tradition, hers is for a rebellious individualism. She is also in the same theater, but it is empty. She sings a song with no words, it consists of howls that pulse with an ancient power.

Shirin Neshat's artworks are metaphorical examinations of the political conditions of her native Iran. Her symbolic and deeply spiritual tales are told with sensuous imagery, choreography and music. Often the sexes are separated in two different screens to create a tense dialogue of differences. Gestures and sounds that attempt to reach across the divided screen dramatize the difficulty of communication between the sexes. Most of the discussion of Neshat's work has overlooked the important use of the voice as a tool of expression. Music and singing—as a universal and emotional idiom—grant the audience entrance into many of the complex issues she addresses.

Developing a relationship between sound and image in Neshat's films and videos is a collaborative process with the composers. Neshat has worked with vocalist/composer Sussan Deyhim on most of her films. Both were born in Iran but live as expatriates in the US. They have known each other for 17 years and have collaborated for the last 7 years. Today's Iran is a vastly different country from the one they both left shortly before the Islamic revolution in 1979, and the shared experience of being strangers to their homeland underlies the collaborative working process. As Neery Melkonian has written, they both live in the state of in-betweenness, "where a new understanding of relations between constructs such as homeland/guestland and foreigner/native become possible."

Neshat left Iran in 1979 to study fine art in the United States. Ten years later, a visit to Iran inspired Neshat to begin exploring the experiences of women under religious rule in her artwork. She burst onto the art scene in 1993 with a series of provocative photographs of herself wearing the chador and posing with weapons. Onto these images she inscribed Iranian women's poetry and religious texts that argue against, as well as defend, the veil. Using herself as a model allowed the artistic process to become an act of meditation on the symbols of modern Iran. She cloaked herself in both the veil and the language of these debates, leaving the western viewer on the outside of the discourse.

Deyhim was born in Tehran to an aristocratic family that was very progressive. She started out as a dancer for the Pars National Ballet, affiliated with Persian National Television, between 1971 and 1975 where the choreographer in the company would combine traditional Persian folkdance with Western classical music as well as avant-garde musical influences. She won a scholarship to MUDRA, Maurice Béjart's School of Performing Arts, and subsequently performed with Béjart's Ballet of the Twentieth Century in Brussels. Eventually she settled in New York and started to experiment more with vocalization. Growing up she had been exposed to a huge variety of musical traditions from India, Egypt, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the trance ceremonies of South Iran, the latter having an especially profound effect on her compositions for Neshat. These early musical influences taught Deyhim to see that "performance and shamanism are connected."i Singing is used by Deyhim as a meditative force joining the spiritual and physical when they are divided, a condition exemplified in Neshat's narratives.

Ululations, screams and panting breaths all swirl into a feverish challenge to the Shi'ite Muslim law that women should not sing in public. In Turbulent, the woman's wordless song needs no translation to be understood by listeners of any background. Deyhim's vocal conjuring transcends the restrictions placed on her expression and enraptures the man and his audience. She defiantly grasps the microphone while the camera spins around her in an ecstatic whirl.

The complex expressionism of ululation can be viewed as a metaphor for Neshat and Deyhim's approach to the voice in their collaborations. Though the women in the films do not speak, they are far from silent. They are able to translate a huge range of emotions with ululation, among other vocalizations. Ululation is a piercing cry sung only by women that is made to pulse rhythmically via an undulation of the tongue. It is an articulation with power far greater than words could ever convey. In the Arabic tradition it is heard at celebrations as a rally of exuberance. In religious music it is often sung at the climax of a performance when the musicians have reached an ecstatic fervor. In the Persian tradition it takes on more doleful tones. Funerals are marked by its sorrowful echoes, and with an added edge of anger it can also be a scornful reprimand.


Shirin Neshat, Passage, 2001. Courtesy of Barbara Gladstone.

Sufism emphasizes an immediate and personal unity with the soul of God. Deyhim wanted to harness that tradition in her compositions for Neshat." I have sought to evoke and live the vibration, for I believe the vibration is the essence of the Sufi way of traveling through time, in cosmic space, which transcends all other parameters."ii

This vibration is often found in the poetry of Rumi. In Turbulent it is used to symbolize tradition and civilization but in Pulse (2001) the mystic's poetry is sung by a woman in the privacy of her home to an altogether different end. In the 16mm film, a recording of a Rumi poem is played on a radio and transports a woman (actor Shohreh Aghdashloo lip-synching to Deyhim's singing) to a place free of restriction, an echo of the transcendent experience of Sufi mystics.

Divine love, a nuanced concept in Sufism, is often portrayed in sensual and ecstatic language in Rumi's poetry and the dervishes are transported to rapturous heights in their meditation. His poetry inspired the Mevlevi Order of Whirling Dervishes in the 13th century, and they still perform the same ritual spinning to hypnotic music today in the South of Iran. Reference to Dervish spinning is made in Neshat's choreography of movement. In Pulse, a single woman is transfixed in her motions. In other films this movement extends to whole groups that act as though hypnotized. Bands of women move in trance-like and repetitive ways always in unison, whereas the groups of men perform more rigid movements such as walking in lines.

Neshat creates in Pulse a highly erotically charged atmosphere but with the subtlest of gestures, which the woman controls because of her sense of internalized taboo. Neshat explains that the spark of sexuality can also be a subtle resistance and transcendence. "I attempted to create a body of work that dealt with the type of candid sexuality that occurs when everything is so controlled. Every once in a while something happens in the most intangible way that creates that kind of electricity."iii The actress almost appears to be making love with the radio. Her singing allows a moment of unguarded sexuality which is emphasized by the heart-beat rhythm of Deyhim's music. The camera zooms in and out following that cadence. The viewer comes within intimate proximity of the actress, voyeuristically sharing in her fantasy.

Unlike most of her works in which music and image develop in a integrated creative process, Neshat made a film in 2001 as a visual text for which a score would be composed later. The composer was to be the prolific Philip Glass, who has scored numerous films, including Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, Martin Scorcese's Kundun and Stephen Daldry's The Hours. Considered one of the leading figures of minimalism, his compositions are characterized by "repetitive slowly evolving passages that tend to transfix listeners and make them lose their sense of time."iv His musical narrative unfolds loosely, often in cyclical arpeggios that combine harmonic and rhythmic language in the same structure. In 1997 Glass composed the music for a 3D animated opera directed by Robert Wilson that used 114 Rumi poems in English translation as the libretto, so he was familiar with one of Neshat's major inspirations.

Passage (2001) was the result of this collaboration between Neshat and Glass. The film presents an eternal cycle of birth and death, in which a group of women dig out a grave with their bare hand, clutching at clods of dirt to the soundtrack of a hypnotic chant. A group of men travel in a funeral procession, carrying a white shroud. They start from the coast and travel over the hills of the desert to the women anticipating their return. The camera cuts from men to women and back, never showing them together until the final scene. Again Neshat emphasizes the alienation between the sexes, even when the film is only a single projection. A little girl, dressed in white, plays alone by building a circular mound of rocks away from the adults. It is clear the death had been a tragic one and the whole community mourns the loss but in different ways: the men with rigid resolve and the women with instinctual ritual.

The only sound uttered by any of the actors in the film is when the women vocalize their grief in ululation. Their wail is like a fresh wound but it is also a healing catharsis. A path of fire ignites around the adults and leads off-screen. The fire surrounds the men and women joining them for the first time in grief. Even at her most grief-stricken Neshat presents the possibility of hope and rebirth. In all her projects, Neshat and her musical collaborators seems to be echoing Rumi's words: "From this world of separation / to union, a world beyond worlds!"v

i. Sussan Deyhim Biography, (official Sussan Deyhim web-site:, February 14, 2003).
ii. Richard Di Santo, To Evoke and Live the Vibration: in conversation with Sussan Deyhim (web-site:, October 28, 2001)
iii. Marine Van Hoof, Shirin Neshat: veils in the wind (Artpress, no. 279, May 2002), 39.
iv. Bryan Reesman, Philip Glass (Mix: April 1, 2002) web version.
v. Jalal al-Din Rumi, Look! This is Love: Poems of Rumi, translated by Annemarie Schimmel (Boston / London: Shambhala, 1991) 76.


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