The fundamental things apply

Islam and feminism, East and West, men and women. Shirin Neshat's powerful video art deals with the great unresolved, and maybe unresolvable, oppositions of our world.
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The Independent Online

For the last couple of years Shirin Neshat's video installation Turbulent has been going around the world - around the Western art-world at least - causing a stir. And rightly. It's an entirely transfixing piece of work. It features two Iranian singers. It's a kind of song contest.

For the last couple of years Shirin Neshat's video installation Turbulent has been going around the world - around the Western art-world at least - causing a stir. And rightly. It's an entirely transfixing piece of work. It features two Iranian singers. It's a kind of song contest.

A pair of wall-size projections, black and white, face each other from either end of a gallery. On one, a man sings at a microphone, straight to camera, an all-male audience visible behind him. He sings a traditional, heart-breakingly yearning love song. He sings it, it seems, to the woman on the screen opposite - who stands back turned, unresponsive, head covered in black chador, facing an empty auditorium.

He finishes. Applause from his audience. He bows. Pause. Then the woman begins to sing, an extraordinary improvised vocalisation, which sounds sometimes like low drumming, sometimes like the cry of gulls, with brief tunes breaking in. She doesn't turn to him, never looks at him, but the camera turns round her as she sings in isolation. The man watches her motionless. Both screens begin to fade. All over in 10 minutes.

The basic situation of this highly charged non-exchange we recognise, I suppose. It's like a wooing rite, in which the man pays his suit, and the woman seems to ignore him, and - but it's cut short there - before any further wooing. And the basic question is: who is the stronger? Of the two sorts of strength here, which is the stronger?

And perhaps the chief secret of this work's success is that it finds a new and very forceful embodiment of the man-woman thing - a subject contemporary art doesn't much do. That, and the quality of the musical performances. And it's got something to do with Islam, too, of course.

I guess contemporary art has been waiting for an artist who could do the interesting subject of Islam. Neshat is it. Now in her early forties, she was born in Iran, went to art school in the USA, got stranded there by the Iranian revolution of 1979, worked as an artist in New York, subsequently made return visits to Iran and began what she describes as "a visual discourse on the subjects of feminism and contemporary Islam - a discourse that puts certain myths and realities to the test, claiming that they are far more complex than most of us have imagined".

By a coincidence of scheduling, the active British art-goer can catch a good deal of Neshat's work at the moment. She has currently two near-simultaneous shows - one at the Serpentine Gallery in London, the other at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. Both include Turbulent, which is the main thing. Both present more recent video pieces alongside. At the Serpentine there's Rapture and Fervor. At the Fruitmarket there is Soliloquy. Along with the double-screen, the single-word laminate title seems to be a trademark.

The works at the Serpentine, all in black and white, make a kind of trilogy. The man-woman dichotomy is a constant. So is the unresolved duality and the unbridgeable gap. But compared to Turbulent, Rapture and Fervor are big productions - with large casts, episodic stories, a direction and filming that approaches the full-blown language of cinema, and with correspondingly long credits at the end.

Rapture has a more explicitly mythic scenario - suggesting Pasolini doing Greek tragedy. A chorus of men in a fortress confront a chorus of women in a desert. There are some exciting large-scale movements of human bodies, plus male chanting and female tabulation. The chadored women look great against the sand, like crows in a field. The two parties watch each other from screen to opposing screen, but they never get together. In the end the women set out to sea in a boat. The men wave goodbye.

At the centre of Fervor is a scene where men and women gather in a meeting house and sit in different halves of the hall, adjacent but totally separated from each other's view by a black curtain hung down the middle (the two screens, here set side by side, reflect this division). But all are harangued by the same speaker from the same podium - his message is the suppression of desire - who dodges from one side of the curtain to the other, whipping each audience up by turns in a fervent communal chant abjuring of Satan. Around this scene there's a rudimentary love story, between a couple who never make more than eye contact.

Now it seems to me that the strongest things about these films are the most basic. The facing screen device, for instance, with the figures on one screen addressing and responding to those on the one opposite. The best moments in Rapture are when the women are lined up at the front of their screen and the men are too and they just face each other off. And that would have done as a piece by itself, almost.

Or again, while the stories aren't so interesting, the films have one very strong bit of content: direct gender confrontation and specifically gender segregation. I suppose this is particularly powerful because - outside public lavatories and some schools, clubs and swimming pools - formal gender segregation has gone from Western life, and it feels outrageous, but also like an ancient destiny. I remember being very disturbed the only time I personally experienced it. But as a dramatic trick, it's a knockout. The separate-but-unified chant climax of Fervor is another terrific moment.

In other ways, though, these two don't match up to Turbulent. They lack its charismatic performances. They lack its human particularity. They proceed at a high, symbolic level. I cannot see how they could give a Western viewer much sense of the actual complexities of Islamic society because, though they're full of ambiguity, it's an entirely archetypal ambiguity.

Indeed, I think that's what makes Islam such a great artistic subject for Neshat - the way it permits this grand archetypal business. The citation is certainly presented ambiguously in Neshat's work: is it a mark of women's bondage or women's strength? But the abiding feeling it carries is, what a superbly archaic motif. You couldn't give the Aeschylus treatment to people who didn't feel very remote.

What's more, the drift towards narrative cinema seems a wrong move. There are some neat bits of filming, but the neatness is always a bit laboured, and besides the world is full of neat bits of filming. The point is precisely not to compete.

Art video is essentially a primitivist movement. Its great virtue is to cut away the amazing sophistication and slick formulae of cinema, to recover the original force of the moving image. If it looks a bit raw often, well and good. And when it aspires to cinema, bad. It invariably turns into something like an advert, a pop video, a dream sequence or (the very worst) a film by Peter Greenaway.

Soliloquy, the other piece at the Fruitmarket, is the most cinematic of the four. It has (perhaps uniquely for an artist's film) a separate credit for an art director. It seems to me disastrous. Soliloquy is in colour. It uses facing screens again, but the basic dichotomy now is not male-female but west-east. The artist appears as the double protagonist, her Western and Eastern selves. On one screen, dreamy, statuesque, beautiful in citation, she drifts through locations in New York. On the other screen, ditto, somewhere in Turkey. The two selves watch each other compassionately, exchange glances sometimes. Each finds herself somehow an outsider. The whole thing is an object lesson in arty weightlessness.

In either art gallery, you turn back again to Turbulent. It is still very good. Perhaps it was a fluke (but all good art is a kind of fluke). Perhaps it will be the only really good work this artist does. Actually, that happens quite often nowadays. But there are so many artists working today, the overall supply of art requires no more.

Shirin Neshat, Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London W2, to 3 Sept, admission free. Fruitmarket Gallery, 45 Market Street, Edinburgh, to 23 Sept, admission free