On the top floor of Art Plural Gallery, a circle of elderly Laotian women and men have gathered.
Lining the gallery walls and standing together in pairs, these couples are the subject of photographic artworks by Shirin Neshat, one of the most well-known contemporary artists to emerge from Iran. On another floor, we see these same couples, performing a dance ritual in a video piece, in which all is not as you would expect.
The elderly couples became the subject of the artist’s work through a project called ‘The Quiet in the Land‘, which sought to examine aspects of Laotian culture, through collaborations between artists and communities that are deeply rooted in the rhythms of everyday life. The result is a collection of very delicate, multi-layered pieces, which speak about the erosion of culture and tradition over time, contrasting it to the surprising vibrancy that can be shown when old rituals emerge.
A video is projected at each end of a blackened space, positioning a group of elderly women opposite a gathering of elderly men. An interaction begins, during which the men sing courtship songs to the women, and the women respond with their own animated lyrics. The groups are gesturing energetically, with a twinkle in their eye and a vibrancy in their voices, laughing at the ad-lib poetic lines they come up with through their impromptu and risque responses. The songs were traditionally sung at weddings as a verbal sparring between the sexes.
Translated into English subtitles, their verses speak not of traditional social conventions like love and marriage as one would expect. Each weaves a tale of how much they desire the other, how even though they are just a poor man/woman, with dirty skin or weathered face, the other should give up their life or their marriage, to run away together and complete each other. The singsong speaks of the simple life, with unexpected sexual undertones and playfulness. Both romantic and rather saucy at times, the melody has a comedic value and a sense of endearment that grows around the singers and their character. The viewer, by the location of their seat in the centre of the room, is caught in the middle of both the male and female serenading.
The photographs are of these same couples, and possess a wonderful, textured surface, that has become a palimpsest full of eroded and re-written meanings. Pictured in front of painted, worn temple walls, the portraits tell a story of old and new through the clothes worn by the Laotians – traditional fabrics and chinos – as well as the time and wisdom in their faces. Meanwhile, the artist has written an arabic text onto the photograph, describing painstakingly neat and uniform cyphers over the temple walls, which only become visible when we stand close to the images.
Neshat was born in Qazvin, one of the Iran’s most religious cities, and is presently based in New York. Her photography and video installations are well known for their hauntingly beautiful explorations of Islam, political violence, gender relations and the human form. In the Laotians, she recognised a parallel with her own culture, that has equally been eroded causing old traditions to be lost over time.
The exhibition ends on December 15th at Art Plural Gallery, so make sure you go and see it soon.
A video of the artist talking about her practice:
- Shirin Neshat: An Artist — Iranian, Muslim and Female — Engages (rendezvous.blogs.nytimes.com)
- The Female Factor: Taking Risks in Art and Politics (nytimes.com)
- Shirin Neshat piece at the SAM (wwuphoto.wordpress.com)