On one wall, a singer delivers a passionate love song to a group of men. He is faced away from his audience, secure that his performance will be accepted and adored from whatever position he chooses to take. This is his cultural privilege. He is a man, surrounded by men. On the opposite wall, a woman in a black chador stands silently throughout his song. She faces an empty auditorium. This is the position she has no choice but to take. Her society has imposed it on her. She is expected to face the empty seats. To comply with the strictures of her state, she can’t dance to the music, show the shape of her body, or uncover her head. Above all, she cannot sing in public. This might inflame the passions of the male viewers. It might break their concentration on their beloved singer, the man who is so confident of his audience’s devotion that he can turn his back to them.
Then something stunning happens. As the male singer finishes his song, he turns around to bow to his audience. Suddenly, a mysterious sound beckons him away from the appreciative, applauding men and he again turns around to face the lens. At this moment, on the opposite screen, the camera begins a sinuous, sensual track towards the hidden female singer. As the camera circles around this figure, we hear an impassioned wordless song composed of supernatural breaths and ecstatic cries — an amazing symphony of unbridled, primal emotion.
As the camera continues to swirl around this astounding monument of passion, one is immediately struck by the contrast between the male singer’s descriptive lyrics (his song is based on a text by Jalal al-Din Rumi), and the completely abstract sound poem that flows from the woman’s lips. Is the viewer meant to appraise which performance is more authentic? What is so provocative about Turbulent is that no judgement can be passed without a thorough examination of the context these respective singers are placed in. The male performance is socially sanctioned and realistic. The woman’s performance is outlawed and exists only as a dream.
While much has been written about the overtly political nature of Neshat’s work, Turbulent is also a groundbreaking piece of filmed drama. The male and female narratives are simultaneously opposed and complimentary. The viewer, placed between the two screens, cannot physically absorb both at the same time. No vantage point in the installation allows the audience the privileged position of omniscience provided in a conventional cinema or single-monitor viewing. The continuous stream of angles and compositions which comprise a traditional film or television experience are challenged by this form which situates the viewer as the effective editor of their own experience of the work. It would be possible, for example, to watch the male figure as the woman’s soulful song is heard. Depending on which way one observes the piece, there are an infinite number of ways that Turbulent may be constructed.
In this way, the piece is a hidden discourse that can only become fully articulated as one determines to what extent they will actively mediate the work. As Nathalie Leleu points out, the viewer “actually becomes one of the actors, armed with his or her own culture, but assailed by the clues concealed in the visual device.”1 Almost a quarter of a century after the Iranian revolution, Neshat is clearly intending a sharp critique of the patriarchal, fundamentalist society that was once her home. The power of the work, however, is ultimately held in its ability to question more universal issues relating to our responsibility to navigate through the sea of possible worlds that Turbulent concurrently presents and withholds.
It is precisely this unique quality of the work — its ability to be at once open and generous and yet so completely impenetrable — that I find so nourishing in these weeks before I begin to shoot my next film. In imagining the months of production and editing ahead, the primary task of the director, as visual strategist of the film, is to place the shots and angles that will best serve the story. There is a certain burden in the thought that in a year from now the film will be “finished”. Its sounds and images will be fixed. There will be shockingly little room for indeterminacy. Even in the most ideal of circumstances — a film that is genuinely open to interpretation with a viewer who is open to exploration — there is a fixed nature to the foundation of this negotiation. Compare this to the endless possibilities inherent in a piece of visual sculpture such as Turbulent. There is a visceral shock to the physical nature of its drama. Is the male singer remembering this woman? Is she a figment of his imagination, or is he a figment of hers? Is she the possible subject of his song? Does he feel guilt? Shame? Wonder? Fear?
In one devastating moment, near the end of the piece, as the woman finishes her song, the man’s image becomes frozen. The projected video image is stalled, and the freeze-frame on this face suddenly transports him into the realm of the abstract and unreal. On the opposite screen, finished with her transcendent performance, the woman’s “real-time” image is allowed to linger. She takes breaths. She is given life.
Neshat was raised in a culture where the image was regarded with suspicion and contempt, but now situates herself in a culture where the image is omnipresent and completely de-consecrated. Her work presents a unique balance between a world that is very old and one that is so new that it compulsively re-invents itself with alarming speed and recklessness. Her work is thus simultaneously alienating and transcendent, distant yet almost unbearably close. In forcing the viewer to choose sides without an overt moral compass, Turbulent miraculously creates its own sense of a spontaneous and highly volatile culture. —Atom Egoyan, Filmmaker Magazine, http://www.filmmakermagazine.com/fall2001/reports/turbulent.php
Shirin Neshat شيرين نشأت (born March 26, 1957 in Qazvin, Iran) is a contemporary visual artist who lives in New York. She is known primarily for her work in film, video and photography.
Neshat’s parents were upper middle-class. Her father was a well-respected physician and her mother a homemaker. She grew up in a westernized household that adored the Shah of Iran and his ideologies. Neshat has stated about her father, “He fantasized about the west, romanticized the west, and slowly rejected all of his own values; both my parents did. What happened, I think, was that their identity slowly dissolved, they exchanged it for comfort. It served their class”. As a part of Neshat’s “Westernization” she was enrolled in a Catholic boarding school in Tehran. She found the environment cold and hostile in comparison to her caring family.
Through her father’s acceptance of Western ideologies came an acceptance of a form of western feminism. Neshat’s father encouraged his daughters to… read more
Traditional vs. avant garde music, male vs. female, narrative vs. abstract, audience vs. the unheard. Atom Egoyan's description of this as a video installation is important to read before or after viewing the YouTube link (featured in Max J. Pell's wall post below) because the installation itself is part of its context.
Shirin Neshat's Women without Men and Hana Makhmalbaf's Green Days are both set in Iran during turbulent periods of that nation's history