Shirin Neshat, The Fury @Gladstone

JTF (just the facts): A total of 10 black-and-white photographs (framed in black and unmatted), hung against light grey walls, and 1 video installation, on view in a darkened room.

The show includes the following works:

  • 5 digital c-prints with ink and/or acrylic, 2023, sized 62×48 inches (or the reverse), in editions of 5+2AP
  • 5 digital c-prints and acrylic, 2023, sized 75×50 inches, in editions of 5+2AP
  • 1 two-channel HD video installation, 2022, monochrome, sound, 16 minutes 15 seconds

(Installation, detail shots, and film stills below.)

Comments/Context: In September of last year, 22 year-old Mahsa Amini died after being arrested by Iran’s morality police. Her crime was allegedly wearing her headscarf too loosely, and at her funeral, Kurdish women removed their legally-required headscarves, and began chanting “women, life, freedom”. Amini’s death, and the resulting reaction by women across the country and around the world, quickly blossomed into a broader movement centered on the condemnation of the many ways the lives of women in Iran are still closely restricted by the government.

Sadly, Amini’s story isn’t an isolated incident, and the photographer and filmmaker Shirin Neshat has spent the better part of the past thirty years weaving the struggle for gender equality in Iran into her artistic practice. Neshat’s “Women of Allah” series is perhaps her best known, capturing the growing militance of women in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution, with many subjects provocatively posed holding guns and covered with the artist’s signature calligraphy (often conveying the words of feminist poets). Neshat has long understood the significance of the female body as a battleground, going back even further to her “Unveiling” series (from 1992), whose bold and deliberate disobedience seems grimly prescient given the contemporary circumstances.

While the work in this new show titled “The Fury” was made in the spring of 2022, before Amini’s death, Neshat was clearly wrestling with many of the same themes and realities that coalesced so forcefully just a few months later. “The Fury” consists of both a short film (Neshat has become more and more of a filmmaker in the past decade) and a series of large scale black-and-white photographs, the two connected but not overlapping (the photographs are not stills from the film), with the film providing most of the heft of the project.

The film takes as its subject the treatment of female political prisoners in contemporary Iran, and while Neshat’s aesthetics are consistently lush, the layered plot here is grim. The story opens with a woman with dark eye makeup and a sequined dress sensually dancing while a soldier slowly smokes a cigarette and watches – the setup initially feels seductive, but the power dynamics are obviously off and he watches with the cool distance of someone in charge. The woman then leaves the room and walks through the streets of Brooklyn in a kind of daze, with the everyday passersby in the neighborhood looking at her like New Yorkers do – curious about this woman in the fancy dress in the middle of the day, a bit wary, and perhaps even wanting to help but not entirely sure what to do. The story then jumps back to a flashback mode, where the woman is now in a large warehouse surrounded by police or military officers; she’s essentially naked and forced to dance for them, while they sit stonefaced around the edges, smoke cigarettes, and watch with bleak leering attention (or boredom.) She does her best to please them, twisting and turning, and even getting close to one man, before it becomes clear that she is covered in bruises and scratches, and her dance becomes a stumbling effort not to pass out. The story then jumps back to the streets of Brooklyn, where the nearly naked woman returns to the same street in a crazed wide-eyed trance, and now the neighbors connect to her more actively (one screams in shared anguish), and slowly turn into a kind of lumbering zombie army that follows her down the street (like in the Michael Jackson “Thriller” video), and eventually rips up the place in a quasi dance-like riot, ending with the rhythmic smashing of a car windshield.

Neshat’s film certainly points light at the darkness of the ways female political prisoners have been tortured, assaulted, and even raped while in custody, and at the ongoing traumas that continue to haunt those (like the woman in the film) who have left Iran behind. What I found slightly off however was the placement of the agency in “The Fury”; the woman in the film is a victim (and an object) during the entire flow of the narrative, and the truth of her injured body and mind ultimately provide the catalyst for the uprising (and implied destruction) of the surrounding society. And while Mahsa Amini might also be a martyr in this way, the internal logic of “The Fury” feels a bit reactive, at least in comparison with recent events on the ground. Yes, there is a spark of outrage that occurs, but the women of Iran have risen up and bravely refused the play the powerless role that the government and the larger male-dominated society have created for them. The action lies in their hands, and they’re courageously leading the fight, rather than waiting passively for the mob to take over.

A similar sense of friction, particularly with regard to agency, runs through the photographs of female nudes that make up the rest of the project. Half of the nudes are intimate and relatively close up, where haunted faces peer out at us and hands protect bodies, Neshat’s calligraphy faintly covering the skin like shadowy ghosts – like the woman in the film, these are women who are seemingly still very much processing the traumas inflicted on them. The standing nudes are more puzzling, at least in terms of artistic intent. These nudes feel deliberately objectified, with the range of personalities leading some women to stand and cover their vulnerability and others to pose with more defiance, knowing they are being observed but quietly refusing to give in to shame, fear, or any number of other emotions. Of course, we know that a woman made these photographs, and perhaps the models are playing the “role” of being a persecuted woman, but a subtle dissonance remains. As examples (or portraits) of women trapped by their circumstances but still standing tall (or even as prisoners being forced to stand nude, as in the film), their fury (both individual and collective) is remarkably blank and muted.

To phrase it another way, what makes me uncomfortable about “The Fury” is that the women are portrayed as suffering and enduring (perhaps even passively), while the actual women of contemporary Iran are loudly and publicly taking action, so when taken as political statements, the tone of the works feels mistimed. Maybe it is simply the events of these past few months, and the shift in perspective that has taken place, that has made Neshat’s works feel somewhat backward looking. In fighting for their own autonomy, safety, and dignity, the women of Iran have started to reclaim their agency (imagine the bravery it requires to joyously dance without a veil on Instagram or on the sidewalk knowing you will be jailed), and as much as Neshat’s project was made with real support and empathy for that ongoing struggle, the mood of the moment seems to have shifted.

Collector’s POV: The photographs in this show are priced at $75000, $85000, or $90000, while the video installation is available at $200000. Neshat’s prints are regularly available in the secondary markets, particularly I Am Its Secret (edition of 250). Recent prices at auction have ranged from roughly $3000 to $115000.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 17 x 21 cm, 192 pages, with 87 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by the artist and ... Read on.

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