Goodman Gallery, London: 7 October – 4 November 2023
Review by Sana Nassari
The Fury, at the Goodman Gallery in London, is the latest exhibition by Shirin Neshat (born 1957), Iran’s most celebrated artist. It consists of a series of black and white photographs that were shot in 2022, and a double-channel monochrome video installation, accompanied by a soundtrack which includes an elegy sung by an ethereal female voice.
The photographic portraits in The Fury are widely considered to be a continuation of the 1990s series Women of Allah, which brought Neshat to fame. Yet, besides monochromatism and the inlaid calligraphy, which are the most repeated visual characteristics of Neshat’s artworks, it is hard to find any conceptual resemblance between these two series. Minimising and formalising the elements of exoticism around the Middle Eastern female figure, and moving towards a diverse ethnic, cultural and gender perspective, The Fury focuses on revolt, dignity and self-retrieval to suggest a different reading from the female characters of Women of Allah.
The layout of The Fury is perfectly consonant with the themes and elements that are always present in Neshat’s artworks, especially the idea of juxtaposing contradictions. Eleven black and white photographs on the ground floor portray still, female figures, while in the basement the structure of the video installation puts everything into movement. Two massive screens, located at the opposite ends of the hall, simultaneously show the same scenes of a short movie from different angles. Viewers find themselves in the middle of an artwork, actively engaged with scenes which have to be chosen by them – if they look at one screen, they will lose a few seconds of the other, making every viewer’s experience unique. Aesthetically, the double-screen video installation has a lot in common with Neshat’s photographs, not least the kohled eyes of the filmed protagonist which parallel the vegetal scrolls of the calligraphy in the photographs on the upper floor.
In Neshat’s work, calligraphy is used as a form that represents messages beyond the meaning of the written word. Knowing that her Western viewers are not able to read Persian, she deliberately uses the calligraphy as an element of Islamic art which has the potential to convey her message – challenging sexuality, the body, the veil. Neshat does not try to impress the viewer with her technical skill. She uses very ordinary handwriting to veil the exposed skin of her women with poems, making it hard for the viewer to distinguish skin from text. Unable to focus on one layer, perplexed by the juxtaposition of image and text, a tension is created in the viewer’s mind. On the other hand, the text, legible or not, unveils the mute thoughts of female subjects whose gaze might also disturb the mind, establishing a circuit of transferrable tensions around the inscrutability of the women in these portraits.
Shirin Neshat is a contemporary artist, not because she lives and works in the present, but because she moves at the same pace as her people, although she has been away from Iran for almost all her adult life. While addressing the controlling behaviour of the Islamic regime, she has left both the veiled and Unveiling phase behind, and entered the era of reclaiming dignity. During the revolutionary movement of Women, Life, Freedom in Iran, and possibly concurrently with executing the photographs and video installation in The Fury, the students of the Art University in Tehran published a statement which finished with this sentence: ‘We have nothing to say to you but one word: No.’ I believe that Shirin Neshats’ portraits of women, in both the photographs and video, are repeating this one word, time and again: No.
Photo courtesy of Shirin Neshat & Goodman gallery