Last year I went in search of my American Dream®, and taking a flight from Gatwick (wearing ridic summer clothes for September) my boyfriend Sam and I found ourselves in LA.
It was more about locating an In & Out Burger than finding ourselves, and we went in pursuit of the godly pillars of Food, Art and Sunshine (obvs). Chillin’ in a rich couple’s annex in Silver Lake, reading Requiem in a hammock, I was hungry for Art with a capital A.
We Ubered it to The Broad, sure we wouldn’t get in. The LA gallery was so popular you had to book in advance for exhibitions, or wait in line. Queuing isn’t bad in the forever sunshine, the line disappeared and in we went.
Wandering around the exhibition, the old faithfuls were there; Jean Michel Basquiat, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, Jenny Saville. It was strange to stand with my nose almost touching the paint splodged Nike footprints of Basquiat on the canvas. It felt like he had been here just a moment ago and had nipped out for a croissant from Dean & Deluca.
We had done all three floors of The Broad, got ordered to wear my backpack on my front, and I was good ‘n’ hangry for ramen in Koreatown.
Then Sam disappeared inside the cushioned walls of the gallery, without a trace behind the smoke and mirrors. There was no sign of a door in the panel wall. Sure I was walking into a cleaning closet, I made a U-turn against the current of tourists.
Feeling my way along the soft wall, followed him in. I winced thinking I would be caught and thrown into handcuffs within seconds. All around me was pitch black, like I’d fallen into a hole. Fear grasped me. There were incoherent sounds coming from in front, beside me and inside my own ear. Too frightened to turn back and wondering W T actual F, I edged forwards slowly.
As my senses adjusted to the vacuum of blackness I realised the sounds were many, many voices and breathing. The breathing of someone who was in direct fear for their life (apart from me). The voices were vaguely female… and completely demonic.
It was like falling into The Exorcist, and shitting myself far too much to try and leave, I sat down on a bench in front of the screen showing a film that had just started.
The film begins with a lone woman in a barren landscape, a place reminiscent of Giorgio De Chirico’s metaphysical paintings of deserted town squares.
There’s a post apocalyptic feeling, because the scene is in Iran, a place I don’t recognise. There’s no cultural references I can understand in the setting, and this adds to the pant-poopingly scariness.
The woman is possessed (which is also the name of the piece) and wanders through a labyrinth of streets and passageways, which bear more of a resemblance to ancient Persia than modern day Iran. As she wanders, her hair and eyes wild, without the required cover up, she comes across groups of men, playing children and other completely covered women in the town square. She is ignored and shunned until she takes a platform, where her suffering becomes public and contagious, and chaos ensues.
This spectacle alongside the guttural cries and breathing sounds, has a maddening, paranoia-inducing effect, and the stakes get higher and higher until it reaches its climax.
Hell, I carry on exactly like this myself for about a week of every month but watching a bitch go mad in a place of such restrictive ideologies is quite terrifying.
The woman’s going off her nut but it’s relatable on a primal level. The judgement faced by women behaving outside of society’s norms is something most of us have felt at some time, or have at least felt threatened by, to varying degrees.
I finally managed to face walking through the darkness to the exit, and dashed out of there as if Leatherface himself was behind me.
I left The Broad having had a more intense experience than I had bargained for. The artist’s name is Shirin Neshat and I didn’t forget her for the rest of my sunny trip.
Back in Blighty, I set about researching her and came across ‘Turbulent’, which was originally a two-screen video installation first shown at the Venice Biennale.
It portrays two singers; one male, on the left, singing in traditional Persian style to a responsive audience of men. The singer on the right hand screen is female, swathed in darkness and singing to no one.
It is visually arresting in black and white, and like ‘Possessed’ has the most mesmerising soundscape, inspired by ancient Persian vocal style.
Fascinating as a Youtube video, in its intended context the two screens are as big as the wall and facing each other in a dark room, with the viewer stuck in between.
It creates a touching metaphor of the different ways the world responds to male and female artists.
One point it makes is how male artists are celebrated in society, and get to feel part of something, whereas female artists are judged, and isolated (or most likely don’t exist at all) in Iranian culture.
Another observation ‘Turbulent’ makes is how female artists who dare to defy convention have the biggest load to carry, not just in Iran but the Art world at large.
Tracey Emin is an example of this happening to a female artist in the UK.
Daring to bring her own sexuality into her work, she was absolutely pounded by the British media and Establishment with tabloid newspapers running headlines like ‘Is Tracey Emin the Ugliest Woman in Britain?’
Neshat went to the United States at 17 to complete her education but the Islamic Revolution five years later prevented her from returning home for close to twenty years.
She took a hiatus from Art while living in New York, until she finally took her first trip back home. A lot had changed in people’s behaviour and dress which inspired her subsequent photographs and video work focusing on contrasts between Islam and the West, contrasts between femininity and masculinity, and the isolation of the artist.
Neshat’s work which has been highly praised in the USA and around the world, has gotten her exiled from Iran and her work blocked by censorship.
Which is painfully ironic considering her work’s message, keeps her separate from her family and prevents Iranian people from engaging with her work.
She has said in interviews that people in Iran are managing to find her work through the black market, and in contrast to the mindset of artists in freer countries, she’s really happy they are.
Now Basquiat and Sherman have been accepted, digested and revered in the world of High Art, seeing them in a big shiny gallery like The Broad makes them feel more like stars on Hollywood Boulevard.
But seeing (and hearing and feeling) Neshat’s work has the adrenaline surge of true outsider Art.
It is a thunderous call, about the alienation of women who make Art, and the isolation of the artist in general; incredibly raw and affecting. So is her ability to put across the beauty of ancient Persian Art and music, and that of the human soul.
Thank God she came to tell her story.
Here is ‘Turbulent’…
Just make sure you’ve got a cup of tea and a teddy in case you’re not so used to feeling something.