The Great Divide

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Fervor is pure erotica, though perhaps not the conventional kind. The female lead wears a formless black chador, with only her face exposed. She does not even meet the man's gaze. And for most of the 10-minute video, the two are separated by a thick dark screen. The sexual charge is tempered by an unsettling sense of sad-ness and yearning, of repression and isolation. In Fervor, Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat offers a disturbing glimpse of Muslim society-one that can be seen at the Hamburger Kunsthalle in Hamburg, Germany until April 22.

Neshat has found her inspiration in Islam for the past decade, lifting the veil on an ideology that arouses interest, anger and fear in the West. Her current exhibition is the first thorough survey of her work, including her photographic series Women of Allah (1993-97) and her trilogy of acclaimed video installations, all dealing with Islam's gender divide. Neshat's art neither condemns nor glorifies Islam but challenges viewers to rethink their preconceptions. "I'm an artist, not an activist," she argues. "I'm creating work simply to entice a dialogue ... I am only asking questions."

New York-based Neshat is in a unique position to do that. Born in 1957 in the Shah's westernized Iran, Neshat moved to the U.S. in 1974 to study art and found herself exiled five years later by the Islamic Revolution, unable to return until 1990. The Iran she went home to bore little resemblance to the one she left. "There seemed to be very little color. Everyone was black or white," she recalls. "People had also changed on a very deep level, beyond even their own recognition. This whole shift of the Persian identity toward a more Islamic one created a kind of crisis."

Neshat set out to untangle the ideology of Islam through her art. The result was Women of Allah, a series she now regards as a naive attempt to make sense of the revolution and women's role in it. The monochrome pictures show veiled Muslim women staring defiantly at the camera, some holding guns, with Iranian feminist poetry written across the exposed parts of their bodies. "The images are very silent but the text suggests a voice," she explains. "An intellectual, emotional strength." One of the most powerful images is that of Neshat holding the hand of her naked son. She is covered by a chador with only her arm exposed, like a silent, unseen anchor for the boy. Her pictures of gun-toting Muslim women illustrate the complexity of Islam. "We cannot separate ideas of religion and spirituality from politics and violence," she says. "A typical martyr stands on the border of faith and love of God on one hand, and cruelty and violence on the other."

Neshat's art is all about contradictions and polar opposites: East and West; man and woman. In 1996, Neshat began experimenting with film, eager to create more poetic, open-ended works. The first of her video trilogy, Turbulent (1998)-which won a Golden Lion award at 1999's Venice Biennale-is about the Iranian law forbidding women to sing in public. The viewer sits on a bench watching two screens on opposite walls. On one, a man walks on stage and sings a traditional Iranian love song for a male audience; opposite, a woman waits silently on the stage of an empty auditorium. After the man accepts his applause, the woman begins to sing and he stares at her across the empty space, shocked by her temerity. She sings a wordless song with her whole body, unleashing waves of primal screams and anguished yelping. Her improvised, feverish performance breaks all the rules. "It's about how women reach a certain kind of freedom — how women become incredibly rebellious and unpredictable in this society, whereas men end up staying within the conformed way of living," says Neshat.

The follow-up, Rapture (1999), continues her exploration of sexual politics, but this time a group of men in a fortress perform seemingly absurd, repetitive rituals. On the opposite screen a group of women roam a desert landscape until they reach a beach below the fortress and push a boat out to sea. "They do a very brave thing," says Neshat. "Whether that's an act of committing suicide or freeing themselves it's not very clear but it's an action, it's doing something about their destiny."

Fervor (2000) completes the trilogy. With two screens sitting side by side, it begins with aerial views of a man and woman crossing paths on a lonely country road. They hesitate for a moment then walk on. The man glances back but the woman doesn't-though we see a secret, delighted smile on her face. In the next scene they are in a public meeting place, the men and women divided by a black curtain, listening to a preacher rail against carnal desire. Both sense, and enjoy, the other's presence until the woman is overcome by shame and runs from the place. When they next see each other on a deserted street, the physical barrier may be removed but they still pass by without a second look, their cultural taboos so deeply internalized.

Neshat says the irony is that Iran's sexual repression only intensifies desire. "You're not supposed to even look at a man but occasionally your eyes meet and your whole body goes through this shock," she says. "It's not about vanity, it's not about youth, it's not about promiscuity. It's about what we're born with-the animalistic nature of attraction."

Neshat may not offer any concrete answers about Islam, but viewers have much to learn from pondering her elegantly posed questions.