Veils of meaning unravelled in black and white

Shirin Neshat | Serpentine Gallery, London
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The Independent Online

On the screen, a man and woman walk towards us in black-and-white along a desert road. They look as though they might meet, but merely exchange glances and pass on. The narrative cuts to an auditorium. The same pair gaze at each other across the audience; she rises to leave; he starts as if to follow her, but doesn't. Credits roll.

On the screen, a man and woman walk towards us in black-and-white along a desert road. They look as though they might meet, but merely exchange glances and pass on. The narrative cuts to an auditorium. The same pair gaze at each other across the audience; she rises to leave; he starts as if to follow her, but doesn't. Credits roll.

Vertigo? Suspicion? Notorious? No, but you're on the right lines. The film is by the Iranian film-maker Shirin Neshat and is called Fervor. (If thwarted love stories are not your thing, you may plump for one of Neshat's other movies, Turbulent or Rapture.) It isn't just the work's one-word title that is suggestive of Hitchcock: the sharp camera angles, chiaroscuro lighting and split narrative all call to mind Hitch at his most mannered. Mention this to Neshat and her face lights up. Hitchcock is her favourite director, and she was recently struck by the resemblance of certain shots in Rapture to scenes in The Birds. Gurgling cineastes can spot references to other directors, too. One scene in Rapture is shot in the same Moroccan fort that Orson Welles used for Othello.

There's nothing odd in any of this, other than that the things that Neshat makes aren't films. They are video installations, included in the artist's first solo show at London's Serpentine Gallery. Sit in front of them - the Serpentine has been kitted out with bench seats for the occasion - and you may find yourself puzzling over just what it is that you are looking at. Artists like Douglas Gordon often refer to Hollywood in their work as a way of playing off the expectations of film against the actualities of video. Gordon's re-splicing of a 1940s' film noir turns a piece of cinema into something that isn't a piece of cinema; an artwork that defines itself as art by defying cinematic conventions like narrative development. But what about Fervor?

Neshat's film can be viewed on several levels. First, it is a story of unrequited love, with beautiful actors, beautiful mises-en-scene and a narrative that has a beginning, a middle and an end. Then it is a political document. Neshat was forced into exile in the United States in 1979 by Iran's Islamic Revolution, and Fervor, like all of her work, concerns itself with the sexual mores of the Iranian theocracy. In Fervor, the decision of the woman to leave a public harangue on the evils of pre-marital sex signals an independence of mind that the man lacks. In Rapture, chador-clad women set out to sea in a boat, watched from Welles's fort by a crowd of stony-faced men: we can read this story as either a tale of mass gender suicide or of feminist heroism. In Turbulent, one screen shows the hieratic image of a male singer, filmed by a static camera, singing a traditional song to an all-male audience. The other shows Neshat's fellow-exile and musical collaborator, Sussan Deyhim, standing in an empty auditorium, ululating an extempore song of heart-stopping animal power as the camera whirls about her.

Neshat's art is both political and revisionist: her rubric to the exhibition says that it is intended to "contribute to a broader dialogue about [Iranian] culture in the West communicating ideas at a universal level without compromising the authenticity of that culture". It's a tall order, and I'm not sure she pulls it off. What Neshat ends up producing is an East-West hybrid, Hollywood-comes-to-Tehran. There is a case to be made for using the Western cinematic tradition as lingua franca - Neshat's "culture at a universal level" - on the grounds that it is globally familiar: but there are problems.

The first is the confusion between cinema and art video. This isn't just a niggle about taxonomy. As Neshat's work becomes more cinematic, so it becomes less successful. Turbulent is the most powerful of the three videos in this show, precisely because what happens in it is abstracted and nameless. And there are other problems, too. Broadly speaking, cinema uses the conventions of film to tell a story, art video to explore itself as a medium. In cinema, panning shots and jump-cuts are part of a code: they tell us what we need to know, but also remind us that they should be read as fiction.

Once you begin to question Fervor's identity, you also question its morality. Neshat's cinematography is extraordinary, her films beautiful and likeable: but are they cynical, mini-Hollywood epics dressed up as philosophical documents? Like the stills photographs also in the show, in which a resolutely Western Neshat appears in a chador, is this cod-ethnicity, social consciousness courtesy of central casting? To be honest, I don't know.

Shirin Neshat: Serpentine Gallery, W2 (020 7402 6075), to 3 September

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