The stuff of nightmares

shirinneshat

SILENT reach: a still from Shirin Neshat’s Roja. Photograph courtesy Goodman Gallery.

AS YOU WALK into the gallery space, an aura of stunned silence enfolds you. There’s a single silver gelatin print by Shirin Neshat from her film Roja hanging on the wall before you: A young woman in black stands in front of a huge, vaguely mushroom-shaped building. And it is mesmerising. And terrifying, in a way you can’t quite put your finger on … but try as you will to pull your attention from it, you will fail.

It is the magnetism of these quiet yet deeply threatening works that force you to remember the title of the exhibition, and indeed, as you watch each of the two films on show in the gallery – Roja and Sarah – you feel yourself twisting and turning in your own metaphorical bedclothes as you struggle to make sense of a dream context that is impossibly frightening while it borders on the intangible and obscure.

There’s a passage in Milan Kundera’s 1979 novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting in which a woman finds herself alone on an island inhabited by children.  It’s an immensely disturbing passage, blending a sense of sexual violation with an understanding of disorientation, but it is written with such a delicate yet acerbic pen that it is unforgettable and leaks into your subconscious. Similarly with Neshat’s work.

Entwining tones of light and the power of water to render images ghoul-like in their intensity and obscurity, this veteran Iranian-born, nomadic artist, whose work premiers in South Africa with this exhibition, knits together an understanding of fear in a world fraught with the threat of conflict. And yet, in its obscurity, it holds to the notion of dream.

But this is not comforting. Similar to Esther, Queen of the Swamp, a chilling video installation by Israel-based artist Miri Nishri – exhibited in Johannesburg in 2013 –Neshat’s film Sarah trammels through a sparsely treed forest, but it embraces a such a potent sense of dramatic expectation that you feel your heart beating rapidly in anticipation as you sit in the darkened space and drink up the sheer texture and focus of the material.

It is, however, the film Roja that might throw you emotionally. Conjoining so tight a focus with so broad a reach, the work engages with what could be the weight of guilt which a parent imposes upon an adult child. Or with the looming presence of politics. Rich with recrimination, accusation and theatricality, the work is bold, breathtakingly beautiful and in many ways almost sterile in its sense of silence. But you will take it away with you, when you leave the gallery. And when you try to sleep at night.

Elegantly hung, this exhibition, which focuses more on the nebulous stuff of dreams than on the politically articulate gestures involving text on the body for which Neshat is better known, comprises 10 works – including the two video installations – and each of the photographs is not only printed to a large format, but it is so big from a visual and an iconic angle that it stops you dead in your tracks.

  • Dreamers by Shirin Neshat is at the Goodman Gallery in Rosebank, Johannesburg, until September 14. 011 788 1113.
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