Shirin Neshat

There is a lot to find interesting about Shirin Neshat’s ‘Dreamers’ video installation at the National Gallery of Victoria, and yet there is much to be disappointed by.

As it is typically the case for projected digital video installations, viewers find they have walked into an already progressed work. If there is the intent by the maker to tell a story – even with a non-linear narrative structure like that of Dreamers – one would need to sit through a second screening. With Dreamersbeing a trilogy projected in three spaces, the viewing process is a somewhat disjointed experience amplified by the viewers’ brief comings and goings.

Sarah (2016) is the first room of the trilogy. It opens with a female face looking up from a water-submerged body. The same woman is then seen roaming around a smoke-filled forest, passing a smoldering fireplace (the only remains of a house) and nearby, scattered on the grass, are locks of hair. Standing still, the back of a woman disappears in the thickening smoke.

There are two scenes in this film that made it worth persisting through its almost thirteen-minute duration. One is a distant long shot of visually distorted soldiers marching towards the camera. The second is a group of women fully covered in black cloth walking towards the camera in what looks like a grieving procedure of faith. Both these scenes remind me of the empathetic directorial style in movies by Japanese directors Kenji Mizoguchi – particularlyStreet of Shame (1956) – and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985).

The second room screens Illusions and Mirrors (2013). In the opening sequence we see the ocean’s crashing waves, like fingers, trying to allure a woman (actor Natalie Portman) into its depths. In the distant sand dunes is a figure, which – because of its distortion and movement – looks like a smudged animated pencil drawing. I enjoyed this for its sheer ambiguity.

After a number of scenes of Illusions and Mirrors, we find the woman standing in the room of a stately home in ruins where a seated woman, herself, confronts her. The camera pans around the room. Seated on benches next to Portman is a small group of people staring at her; a bigger confrontation is now in play.

There’s a chilling strangeness in the air like the type that has been splendidly created by David Lynch in his film Blue Velvet (1986). Neshat’s cinematic treatment, the simple fuzziness of the shot, is what creates the right oddness here – until it is interrupted and spoilt by the camera sharpening its focus to reveal a rather bland and inappropriate group of faces.

The standing woman (Portman) now walks up a stairway in a shot that is blurred and this, refreshingly, brings back its oddness. She follows a man until she comes across two distorted figures slouched on a couch, one mothering and stroking the other (Madonna and Child). The child snarls nastily at the woman standing, yet when the child is in focus she is, once again, the woman herself. We are taken back to the ocean and its crashing waves to end this thirteen-minute film.

Dreamers concludes with Roja (2016), the third room of the trilogy. A shirtless man sings The Seekers’ hit The Carnival Is Over before falling into a rant at an Iranian-American woman in the audience: ‘I think you should come onto the stage, you’re going to be exposed for the cunning deceiver you are.’ His body language like a carny is over the top, but because of its intense confrontational nature, it turns out to be the strongest performance in the trilogy. The woman runs out to escape the shaming, we then see her standing in front of the marvelous The Egg theatre in New York before running towards a lake where an older woman is waiting. The older woman moves back only to move forward to push the younger woman away and after a few more scenes this fifteen-
minute video fades to black.

Neshat’s blatant homage to Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s experimental short film Meshes of the afternoon (1943) to realise her trilogy is, for me, the failing. Her interweaving of dream and reality, search and observation, is tedious. It is a pity that the artist didn’t take the opportunity with Dreamersto explore the medium further and give us a visual experience that wasn’t restrained and overridden by concept. Neshat’s direction only acts to sabotage her work’s aesthetic strengths. The distorted images show us what was possible, but her use of theatre and dance was ultimately a clumsy distraction. Contrastingly, her feature films Women Without Men (2009) and Looking For Oum Kulthum (2018) are to be applauded for their clarity, suggesting that Neshat works best when engaging with the narrative form.

EXHIBITION
Shirin Neshat: Dreamers
Until 19 April 2020
NGV International, Melbourne

 

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