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Across the Void

Shirin Neshat's "Rapture" forces the viewer to choose between men and women.


The Virginia Museum installation crew and curator John Ravenal have created a darkened environment where keyholes abound and the modernized cultural vision of video's art and artifice can be satisfied. Passing through several chambers, the viewer encounters an intimate introduction to some important names and developments in video art. The progressively growing monitors lead up to the main installation and play seminal works from the annals of videography.

"Inner & Outer Space" is the title of Ravenal's three-part show and describes the essence of the pieces he selected for representation here. Ravenal's featured film for this, his second installation period, is "Rapture" by Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat. With dual screens juxtaposed directly across from one another in a split-image concurrent format, "Rapture" is on many levels a study of contrast and paradox, of action and reaction. It is a poetic visualization of the silent condition of Islamic women in an oppressive male culture. Neshat's collaboration with Middle Eastern chanteuse Sussan Deyhim gives it an otherworldly voice.

The format of Neshat's video symbolically separates the traditional realm of men from that of women. Stylizing the cultural dysfunction, she forces the viewer to continuously decide between the menacing masculine tension represented in the video of the men or the more mystical drama of the women. Viewers must constantly be vigilant about which way to turn, based on the latent force of their own curiosity and the impending sense of omen.

The void of dark space in the gallery — the space between male and female in Islamic culture — is an experiential continuation of the living landscape. It reads as inhospitable and unassailable misfortune, a bridgeless expanse of psychic property.

The group movement of Neshat's women in their long black garb presents an almost liquid advance and retreat within their desert theatre, like wind or other unfettered agents of nature, while the movements of the men are conscribed to rigorous ritual and a mentality that propose a pathetic foolishness as they march about through archways, erect ladders (are we talking sex here?) and establish individual and group dominance within their little fortified ramparts.

Neshat arranges her actors in geometric layout in several shots (that, in Western culture at least, would be converse representations of male and female energy) through which each perhaps addresses the intervention of the other's existence. For instance, in one of the more spiritually ritualistic scenes, the artist organizes the men into a concentric circle or spiral, while across the dark divide she positions the women in a square arrangement, that dissipates into straight lines.

It seemed Neshat's point, especially at the conclusion, that freedom (i.e. rapture???) is really more the dominion of the women. Theirs is the realm of the shore, and they possess the fragile boat — no matter where it takes them — and the ability to board and row it, while the men are absolute captives of their own limited construct. Although it was ambiguous, I did not ultimately believe that the men were waving the women off at the end; I took this to be a gesture of desperation. Precious little benevolence is present between one group and another to facilitate any final manifestation of affinity. Neshat has no use for emotion, thus she cannot arrive at rapture, just sterile escape. The viewer can marvel at the harsh beauty of every character's face, but cannot access much beyond a detached compassion for whichever subjects enter into the turn of their attention. No one is looking for love in this theater, and certainly there is none to be found. I left Neshat's video identifying most with the children of these two polarized factions ... who were nowhere. S "Rapture" will run at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2800 Grove Ave., through June 2.

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