Shirin Neshat: The Fury
On ViewGladstone Gallery
January 26–March 4, 2023
Shirin Neshat’s impassioned and lyrical show The Fury at Gladstone Gallery is in black and white and rainbows of gray. Warm gray in the photographs that hang, halo-lit, in the first room; icier gray in the dual-channel video The Fury (2022) which, despairingly facing itself on two walls, is installed in the back room. The Fury and Neshat’s photographs (all dated 2023), which are respectively titled after the woman pictured in each—Flavia, Marry, Seema and so on—reference female political prisoners in the Islamic Republic’s regime in Iran. Subjected to torture, sexual assault, and rape while imprisoned, many of these women commit suicide after being released. Beyond the specific reference to the Iranian situation, Neshat’s work speaks to political trauma everywhere. The cultural and historical context that grounds her work paradoxically makes its lament universal.
This isn’t to say the exhibition is comfortable, cathartic, or particularly approachable. Nothing here flinches from passion or affective emotion. (And why should it? To keep us feeling okay?) The standing portraits in particular, which a gallerist described to me as “full frontal female nudity,” force the viewer into an almost performative interaction. This performance takes place in your eyeballs: the photos are printed at near life-scale and installed low enough to extend the plane of the gallery through and into the photographic space. You immediately become conscious of your eyes running down the women’s bodies, seeking breast and pubis, returning guiltily to the vulnerable and defiant gaze of the model. She says wordlessly, you are complicit.
Video installation almost always creates audience awkwardness—who hasn’t groped around in the back of a darkened gallery and accidentally stood two inches in front of a stranger? When you walk between the two projections at Gladstone, it feels a bit like entering a stage and not knowing your line. Small wonder most viewers I observed stayed near the entryway, eyes darting left to right to left as if, instead of entering the metaphorical theater, they preferred to stay seated in the front row of the American Open. Viewers looked back and forth, but nobody can actually see all of one of Neshat’s two-channel videos: you have to choose at each moment which side you’ll watch. If you watch one screen through and then the other, well then, you’ve missed the story anyway, because they are only complete when they stare each other down.
The Fury opens with an eye-line from screen to screen. A smoking hot man gazes at a beautiful woman, and she looks back. I mean that he is smoking a cigarette, and he is hot, but not in a good way. He just seems vaguely mean, a fact exaggerated by his military uniform and extensive bars and medals. The woman holds his gaze and dances in her tight, lacy dress, all her movements on a vertical axis. Her hands twirl delicately up and down and her hips undulate around that same line, following the voice of an ethereal singer. (Interestingly, her dance is symmetrical, but the singer’s phrases are anything but. Rather, they are a traced line across a landscape.) The gaze is rarely broken and becomes a tunnel between the two actors—they look at each other across the vast expanse separating their highly stylized gender expressions. But the weird fact of the camera lens means that the viewer can meet the eye of either performer, simply by looking in their eyes on one screen or the other. These gazes are more layered than those of the subjects in the photographs: I felt the energy of looking flow out, but then the tide turned, and I felt the being seen flow in, watery and erotic. The only release is when the characters look away, for when they do, the story progresses. It’s as if gaze, that connecting tube, suspends time and history.
Neshat’s installation, and the situation in which she places her audience, is a formal expression of dichotomy, an enduring motif in her work. Here, the dichotomy is masculine–feminine, torturer–victim, and so on, but the significance is also between. There, Neshat finds all that we cannot see, imagine, experience, understand about someone else. And it is there that Neshat is asking you to look. At one point, the Fury, all but naked, dances in a concrete-floored warehouse. Scattered around her sit twenty or so ice-eyed military men, each more decorated than the last. Their gazes are so hard, so full of judgment. Under this onslaught, the woman begins to spin, delicate steps, wrists and hips lithe but also brittle. She goes faster, and on one channel Neshat cuts to a POV shot from the dancer’s body: the men fly dizzily, around and around, skittering across the screen. On the other channel, a wide shot shows her from, as it were, the male perspective. Arms outstretched, meter-long black wig twirling. You can watch one screen or the other; you can also look between, keep her figure on the periphery of your field of vision, and watch the men get tossed, as if under the spell of her furious limbs.