Sometimes even a capacious, well-meant exhibition can box an artist into a rather tight corner. That’s one of the lessons of Shirin Neshat: Facing History, which opened at the Hirshhorn on Monday. The first show organized under the museum’s new director, Melissa Chiu, it certainly has a lot to offer. Occupying an entire floor of the museum and featuring a rich array of photographs, films, videos and accompanying materials, it offers local audiences a chance to assess the oeuvre of a globally significant artist. At the same time, however, the show ultimately delimits Neshat’s work by insinuating that it can be understood almost solely in terms of Iranian history and literature. That tendency towards essentialism is compounded by a tone that verges on the hagiographic, resulting in a show that ignores, oddly, some of the most appealing complexities of the artwork.

And that’s a shame, because Neshat’s work can support – and has supported, over the past twenty years – vigorous, multi-dimensional analysis. Neshat, who was born in Iran in 1957, was attending art school in California in 1979 when the Islamic Revolution fundamentally transformed her native country. When she finally returned to Iran in 1990, she was deeply struck by the extensive social changes and by the substantially redefined place of women in Iranian society. Over the next few years, she began to produce – with a series of collaborators, in her New York loft – a series of powerful black and white photographs that depicted her in a chador, and sometimes paired with the sleek barrel of a gun. Finally, she inked verses from the writings of female Iranian poets onto the uncovered parts of her body, crafting a stark, enigmatic suite of images built around dense juxtapositions: religion and feminism, privacy and exposure, and text and image.

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Untitled, from Women of Allah

Neshat’s work attracted broad notice when it was featured in Okwui Enwezor’s 1997 Johannesburg Biennale, and the next few years witnessed a remarkably rapid apotheosis. Turning to film, she conceived and directed a trilogy of projected works – Turbulent, Rapture, and Fervor – that extended her guiding interests. Shot in black and white, the works introduced a narrative element, and yet retained a haunting, timeless aspect. At the same time, they remained centrally interested in binary dichotomies; each of the pieces was shot in black and white and was projected in two channels, on facing screens. The work appealed to an art world that was generally intrigued by the themes of globalism, migration, and diaspora, and in 1999 Neshat won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale.

Since then, she has continued to work in both still and moving images, in ways that generally develop her earlier ideas (allowing Phillip Kennicott to refer, in a recent Post review, to Neshat’s familiar brand). Her 2009 film Women Without Men, for instance, was based on a novel by Shahrnush Parsipur, and focuses on the experiences of four Tehrani women during a 1953 coup. More recently still, Neshat has worked in Egypt, photographing and interviewing residents of Cairo who were directly affected by the Arab Spring. But if her work has thus been motivated by an interest in history, it is also informed by a broader sense of social justice: a trait that was emphasized when Neshat was awarded a Crystal Prize for cultural leadership at Davos last year. Rather like Ai Weiwei, Neshat seems to have dissolved the line between artist and cultural ambassador: she is simultaneously maker and spokesperson.

That blurring of lines is apparent at the Hirshhorn, where the artworks are accompanied by wall texts that give Neshat an unexpectedly prominent voice, quoting her repeatedly and at length. Happily, though, her work can hold its own, and there are numerous highlights. The gliding, circling movement of the camera about the singer Sussan Deyhim in Turbulent beguiles; at once, it suggests the fluid, creative grace of her vocal talents while also conveying the disorientation of a male singer who watches, perplexed, as she violates a basic taboo against singing in public. Neshat’s use of mirroring in Fervor, too, both challenges and destabilizes, thwarting facile readings: just as we begin to think that we understand the scene, its geography reverses. And, two decades after they were made, the photos in her Women of Allah series remain stubbornly open-ended icons that are at once classical and surreal.

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View of The Book of Kings

Neshat’s more recent work, however, is less affecting. The Book of Kings, a 2012 series of black-and-white photographs, is comprised of three groups of images. A grid of portraits of subjects of Iranian and Arab descent faces a suite of images featuring young men and women who press hand to heart; on a third wall, three larger images of men covered in tattoos glare out at us. The work purports to be an allegory, an imaginary social system comprised of villains, patriots, and masses; as the wall text notes, Neshat sees the piece as depicting “those who fight power, those who hold power, and those who are simply innocent bystanders.” It’s a curiously trite and reductive idea, from an artist whose work generally resists simplistic equations. Neshat’s strength, we gather, lies in poetry rather than in allegory.

Interestingly, though, even as Neshat’s work embodies an interest in abstraction, the organizers of the show seem primarily motivated by a desire to situate her work in terms of a concrete historical causality. Notably, the show includes several rooms of primary source materials connected to important moments in recent Iranian history: press photographs, for example, from 1953 and 1979, and from the so-called Green Movement of 2009. Moreover, vitrines feature objects purchased by Neshat while on trips to Iran: among the most interesting are three small brass charms that may have prompted her to experiment, in her own work, with combinations of text and image. The title of the show, then, fairly conveys its premise: Neshat’s work is situated, here, in relation to historical patterns and precedents.

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View of Female Warriors of Allah (a 1989 book)

Such supplemental materials are, for the most part, informative (although I found the inclusion of Neshat’s own birth certificates a bit cloying; at such a moment the artist, rather than her work, threatens to become the subject of the show). But they also felt strangely one-dimensional. After all, Neshat has lived in the United States for more than 30 years – and yet, nearly all of the supporting materials in the Hirshhorn show are Iranian, or depict events taking place in Iran. Sure, Neshat’s work is centrally interested in her native country – and of course her experiences as an effective exile inform her work. But are we really to imagine that Neshat’s practice has somehow been uninfluenced by what she has seen in New York, or by the larger world of contemporary art?

The idea is flatly unconvincing – and ignores a rich range of allusions in Neshat’s work. Indeed, even a few minutes of thought reveals an intelligent spectrum of diverse influences that inform her practice. A list of those might begin, for instance, with Mona Hatoum’s Measures of Distance, a 1988 video in which passages in Arabic (taken from letters written by Hatoum’s mother, in Beirut, to her daughter in London) glide across images of Hatoum’s mother’s body. The elision of text and female form significantly anticipate, even if they don’t exactly parallel, Neshat’s slightly later photographic work. Reading Neshat’s ideas in the light of such a celebrated antecedent seems preferable to merely ignoring it.

Then, too, there are the many ways in which Neshat’s work seems informed by photography of the 1920s and 1930s. The stylized choreography of Rapture, for instance, acquires a certain force through its basic formal resemblance to the severely beautiful scenes of assembled athletes and soldiers in the photographs of Aleksandr Rodchenko. Neshat’s potent use of formal and tonal binaries finds a meaningful precedent in Alfred Stieglitz’s canonical The Steerage, which explored gender relations in a very different context. And the juxtapositions of forceful stare and delicate overlaid motifs in her Women of Allah series only gain in complexity when we think of Edward Steichen’s disconcerting 1924 photograph of Gloria Swanson.

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Steichen’s Gloria Swanson (1924)

The point here, though, is not to simply compound potential influences. Rather, such examples are significant in that they remind us that Neshat was never blinded to the larger history of art. Again, it’s worth noting that even as her work has clearly been inspired by developments in Iran, it has been produced in New York and Morocco, and often eschews any explicit references to specific historical moments (Women Without Men is an admitted exception here). In a filmic world in which Casablanca can stand in for Tehran, a singular insistence upon Iranian sources feels unfairly constricting.

Or worse. For, as Omnia El Shakry argued in a 2009 article, non-Western cultures have long been cast in the West as synchronic and merely regional, rather than dynamic and part of a larger global system. “Why not view artistic production,” asked El Shakry, “like modernity itself, as something produced across the space of historical and cultural difference?” The Hirshhorn offers no real answer to such a question, and yet its shadow falls across the show. In fact, in a panel discussion held at the Woodrow Wilson Center on the show’s opening day, Roya Hakakian echoed El Shakry’s concerns when she noted that “the political context is relevant but somewhat reductive to the work that Shirin has done.”

But even the political edge of Neshat’s work is blunted, in fact, in the current show, through a tone-deaf installation of her dual-screen projections. As critics such as Ruth Noack and Hamid Naficy have shown, Neshat’s use of dual projections in her early films and videos can be related to an interest in fragmenting the viewer’s condition and in conveying the complexity of the exile’s experience. Or, to put it slightly differently, the split screens can be seen in terms of a forced political involvement; indeed, in an interview with Gerald Matt, Neshat once claimed that viewers situated between the two screens “have to get physically involved and can hardly remain neutral.” That dimension, however, is largely lost at the Hirshhorn, where benches line the side walls of the rooms. Those seats facilitate the very sort of marginal, removed view that Neshat seems to want to avoid, and so a productive fragmentation gives way to a more comfortable convenience.

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Detail from Our House is on Fire (2013)

Many centuries ago, Ovid, exiled to Tunis by Augustus, observed that “it is a kindness that the mind can go where it wishes.” He meant, of course, that even in North Africa he was free to imagine other places: a practice common to exiles, and central to Neshat’s work, which involves such a protracted meditation on the land that she left behind years ago. But, after walking through the Hirshhorn show, Ovid’s maxim made sense on a second level, as well. Curators may work to impose a reading on works of art: to cast Shirin Neshat, for instance, as an artist who can be satisfactorily understood through the lens of Iranian history, visual culture, and literature. Happily, however, even in the face of such efforts the mind may still go where it wishes, and so we are left, almost in spite of this show, with an artist who is at once natively Iranian and broadly human – and whose work is worth considering from a variety of angles.

 

Author Kerr Houston teaches art history and art criticism at MICA; he is also the author of An Introduction to Art Criticism (Pearson, 2013) and recent essays on Wafaa Bilal, Emily Jacir, and Candice Breitz.