Many of us in the West seem to consider Iran mostly through the viewpoints of talented exiles: graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) and visual artist Shirin Neshat, both of whom have branched into that quintessentially global art form, film. Last Friday the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art opened its exhibition of Neshat's acclaimed 1999 video installation, Rapture, with a one-night-only showing of her haunting 2009 feature film, Women Without Men.
For the sake of local movie buffs, I wish Women Without Men could have a longer run, but I'm glad MMoCA brought it here at all. Combined with Rapture, the two works explore religious and cultural gender divisions and show Neshat's knack for images that are poetic and arresting.
Rapture places its viewers in an unusual position: caught between two video screens directly facing one another. While both videos run on a continuous, 13-minute loop, one side shows the activities of a group of men in what appears to be an ancient city with a fortress looking out over the sea. The other video features a group of chador-clad women on a rocky, sandy landscape. We are, quite literally, in the divide between men and women.
Timing is critical to the strange, hypnotic effect of Rapture: at certain points, the men stop to "watch" the women on the opposing screen, and vice versa. While both videos employ sound, the main emphasis of the audio also volleys from one side to the other. Neshat's chosen music - eerie Inuit vocals and music from Burundi - lend an otherworldly air.
There's no clear narrative to the proceedings. We merely spectate while the men do things like fight, wash in a ring around a central tub (pre-prayer ablutions?) and wave from a turret. The women do things like ululate, walk on a beach, raise their hands to reveal script on their palms, and launch a wooden boat into the sea.
While the black-clad women and white-shirted men may regard each other across the empty gulf where the viewer stands, their worlds never really mingle. Shot in black-and-white, the video installation has a kind of stark, mysterious beauty and has, so far, stood the test of time.
Seeing it alongside Women Without Men, however, shows how Neshat has shifted from oblique statements to more directly political work. Yet even without comparing the two, Rapture offers a compelling experience in a medium that can often be gimmicky.