TitleReconciling art and politics through tragedy

Shirin Neshat: Women without men

16 Apr 2010

■ Pooyan Tamimi Arab

After the end of art; after the end of master narratives inscribing forever in stone what art is or should be, a space opened up to reconcile art and politics in new ways. But the warnings of art critics Clive Bell , that to associate art with politics is always a mistake, or Clement Greenberg , that true art exclusively follows its own internal logic and that political art can be dangerous ideological kitsch, are still relevant for contemporary artists. How can art do justice to political concerns without being reduced to political philosophy or history? When avant-garde artists as Picasso liberated themselves from the limits of European traditions, a more universal concept of art emerged that could include all cultures and times. Suddenly, the museum was a place where ancient artifacts were not merely relics of the past, but relevant and interesting for the present. In theory, one could say that contemporary art, as opposed to modern art which I believe started already with Goya and Turner and probably ended after 1960, has continued to include new forms, and its essence is the affirmation of plurality in the art world. More than ever, artists can wander in museums and select what fascinates them and do with it whatever they please. Works of art don’t have to look in a specific way, or be created via a particular medium. Anything, yes anything, can be art, as Arthur C. Danto has put it – in theory, that is.

Today, Iranian artists have no real choice to act otherwise. If politics cannot be avoided, then they are forced to seek a balance between political content and artistic form, with its own, usually sensible, content. And the word ‘balance’ already implies that the fusion of politics and art requires good taste, which is something on which we cannot and perhaps should not easily decide a priori

Shirin Neshat’s new work, her first movie that has already won the Silver Lion for best director at the 66th Venice Film Festival, does not argue against Danto’s philosophy of art, but recognizes that the phrase ‘anything goes’ is specific to a context where freedom of expression is relatively normal. On many occasions, as well as the screening of Women without men in New York City, Neshat has talked about why her art cannot but be involved in political matters. For her, ‘anything goes’ is a luxury that she cannot afford, because everything that is connected to Iran, including her work, automatically becomes political. This is not new to Neshat’s work. Her famous picture series called Women of Allah and many of her video installations refer heavily to injustice in Iran, and in particular injustice directed against women. Raised in Iran, Neshat left the country around the time of the 1979 revolution to study in the West. She returned years later and was inspired by the great transformations that had taken place in her absence to make art about Iran, Islam and gender. She has worked six years to finish Women without men, a long and difficult process that she described as giving birth, and its delivery comes at a time where Iranians are, once again, highly sensitive to political content.

Today, Iranian artists have no real choice to act otherwise. If politics cannot be avoided, then they are forced to seek a balance between political content and artistic form, with its own, usually sensible, content. And the word ‘balance’ already implies that the fusion of politics and art requires good taste, which is something on which we cannot and perhaps should not easily decide a priori. Neshat’s movie proceeds elegantly on this tightrope by employing both visual poetry and references to Iranian culture and history. She believes that film is one of the most perfect mediums because it allows for the combination of various art forms, including visual art, theater and music, into one Gesamtkunstwerk. The aspiration of Neshat’s Gesamtkunstwerk is to transcend its time specificity, and in doing so do justice to the sovereignty of art. In the case of Women without men, a tragic interpretation reveals how the interests of art and politics are reconciled.

In Women without men the celebration of the sovereignty of art coincides with telling a story about the politics of Iran from the perspectives of four different women, based on the magic realist novel written by Sharnush Parsipur (who is also in the film as the Madame of a bordello). The story is tied to a very specific time and place, focusing on the coup d’état of 1953, a pivotal moment in Iranian modern history. Each one of the women must live in an Iran where male domination is the order of the day.

Zarin works as a prostitute and suffers from anorexia. Munis is interested in politics and has a desire to leave her house to see what is going on in her country, but her brother wants to force her into marriage and keep her at home. He wants to marry himself and wants to marry off his sister. The movie starts with her suicide, jumping of the roof of their house, but magically she comes back to life after being buried. Now she can leave the confines of her house to meet a young activist, a communist. Although she is not ideologically convinced herself, the young activist and his friends fascinate her. Humorously, when she is allowed into their quarters, she sits quietly as the men discuss important political matters. Faezeh is an innocent girl whose world changes after she is raped. The women leave the city, except Munis who feels compelled to witness the unfolding political events, and go to a magical orchard, where they meet Fakhri who decided to buy the abandoned villa with the garden. Fakhri loves to sing, but her husband, a general, does not care for art. After meeting an old love, she decides to leave her husband and surround herself with people who love the arts. She is disappointed when her old suitor turns out to have brought his Western fiancée with him to her party.

In general, the colors in the movie can be described as antique, but occasionally the viewer is perplexed by a bright blue dress of a girl that is contrasted with black and white, or with suddenly vast and beautiful natural landscapes, or a woman dressed in black among demonstrating men dressed in white. We see close ups of the beautiful Faezeh, and beautiful close ups of the broken face of a lonely man. We see terrible beauty, for example the extreme contrast between the healthy and soft skin of a young boy who looks at Zarin’s pale, weakened and bleeding body. By presenting history through these images, the ambition of the movie is to simultaneously speak in a universal and timeless language, the language of Boccaccio’s Decameron or Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Boccaccio, shocked by the black plague in the fourteenth century in Italy, dedicated his book to all those women who did not enjoy the same pleasures and opportunities as men did and presented them as speakers, as intelligent individuals worthy of listening to. In the Decameron they escape from Florence and stay at a villa. Here, in the safety of a garden, seven women and three men tell each other stories. In Women without men, like in the Decameron, we are confronted with deceit, love, struggle and fear. The women can be seen as acting personifications, playing their part in timeless allegories. The movie’s poetry is strongly visual. The women find a temporary safe haven in the villa surrounded by a magical orchard. Like Boticelli’s Flora, here in this beautiful garden of Venus, after being chased and raped, Faezeh can rest and flourish. When she meets Munis’ fundamentalist brother again, with whom she once wanted to marry, the viewer realizes how she, like Flora, has undergone a metamorphosis and now prefers a colorful dress to her black chador.

Sandro Boticelli. Detail of Primavera, rape and subsequent flourishing of Flora. 1482, Uffizi, Florence.

But the primavera does not last long, because the brute force of the outside world enters and disturbs their house. Comedy is used to humanize the scary presence of armed soldiers and their prima facie brutish looking leader who turns out to be a lover of his country’s poetic culture. As they enter the villa, elsewhere the democratically elected president Mossadeq is removed from power and the Shah is reinstated with the help of the West. But throughout the movie, Neshat intentionally avoids demonizing any group. The soldiers are not presented as faceless killers. Instead, Munis tragically mourns the death of a young soldier. Slowly, Zarin and the orchard die as well, and with them a country infected by a political bubonic plague.

As Zarin floats softly in the magical orchard of fantastic colors and water, we are reminded of a pre-Raphaelite work by Millais, Ophelia. Zarin lives in the margins of society, detached from the world and yet suffering in the world. She was, as Shakespeare famously wrote, ‘As one incapable of her own distress’ (Hamlet IV:7). It is easy to forget the words of men, but hard not to remember the silence of Zarin, who does not speak in the entire movie. Her image burns itself into the viewers’ memory.

Sir John Everett Millais. Ophelia. 1852, Tate Britain, London.

Neshat’s visual poetry can be connected to older traditions, and its meaning thus transcends a specific political event or the particular mood and style of the artist. These loose connections, some explicit references and others only accessible through implicit associations, are reminders, or hints, that the movie is interested in reconciling art and politics, the universal with the particular, the timeless with the historical. When we interpret the movie tragically, we must recognize the cyclical aspect of human history, which means acknowledging that the same human struggles have and will continue as long as we inhabit a world.

But a tragic interpretation of Women without men however should not be thought of as being politically fatalistic, because the movie does not only capture the oppression of women in Iran but also their resistance to accepting an unhappy life. Today, this resistance lives on. The movie was dedicated to the struggles of the Iranian people in the twentieth century, beginning with the constitutional revolution of 1906 and still continuing in the form of the Green movement. Iranian people such as the women in Neshat’s movie are strong like the great Near Eastern fields of wheat. No matter how often they are trampled and stepped on, they keep rejuvenating and continue to grow.

Tehran Review
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