Snapshot of a Song

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Six years ago, when Shirin Neshat began work on her first feature film, Women Without Men, she could not have known that its completion would coincide with a global mass uprising against the political travesties of her home nation, Iran. The film, photography, and video installation artist — known for wistful, haunting images of Iranian women oppressed by a postrevolutionary regime she has watched from exile in America — makes no secret of her disdain for the authoritarian actions in that country. In July she participated in a three-day hunger strike at the United Nations headquarters in New York to protest the recent elections there. "The Iranian problem is not just an Iranian problem," she has said. "It’s a world problem." And Women Without Men, although it does not directly address the current situation, does so indirectly, through the story of the 1953 British- and American-backed coup that replaced Iran’s democratically elected government with a monarchy.

Women Without Men consumed a major portion of Neshat’s professional practice over the past six years. She nevertheless found time for another project: Games of Desire, a video and still-photography piece presented between September 3 and October 3 at the Gladstone Gallery in Brussels and on view through November 21 at the Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont, in Paris. Like much of Neshat’s oeuvre — including the multichannel video installations Turbulent and Rapture, which in 1999 won her her first significant professional acclaim — Games of Desire is a clear-eyed reflection on gender politics. But it departs from her previous body of work in two remarkable ways: its lighthearted, almost giddy touch and its geographical focus. For this film, the artist shifted her gaze from Iran to Laos, specifically to a small set of elderly citizens who practice a dying form of folk songs characterized by, of all things, outrageously lewd lyrics.

 

In filming Games of Desire, Neshat relied heavily on alcohol. No, she did not put herself into a drunken stupor. Rather, she realized that to document the music central to her new project, she’d need to coax her aged subjects to perform by plying them with liquor. Lots of it.

Neshat had stumbled on the music during a 2005 trip to Laos when she visited a temple hosting a large ceremony. Inside she found a group of 70- and 80-year-old men and women gathered in a corner intoning ancient folk songs. " ‘What are you singing?’ " Neshat recalls asking one of them. "And she said, ‘Oh, I’m too embarrassed to say.’ They were singing obscene sexual songs to each other!" Neshat was struck by the freewheeling nature of the Laotians, despite their restrictive communist government and extreme poverty. "Most of these people don’t have teeth and they’re very disfigured, and yet they’re so happy!" she exclaims. "They’re singing about love and sex and temptation and intercourse."

Neshat discovered that the songs had never been documented. She also realized that they weren’t being passed down to the younger generation and so were in danger of dying off without any record of their existence. So the artist and her cinematographer traveled to 10 villages looking for men and women familiar with the music and willing to participate in the filming. After a week of casting, the production team brought together the participants "like in a blind date," and spent two days shooting the video in a temple by the Mekong River. Working with a translator, Neshat converted the songs’ lyrics from Laotian to English to Farsi and penned the Farsi version in delicate script on a wall of the temple that then served as the backdrop for the still-photography portraits of the singers. The budget and the production team were so small that the artist herself took care of makeup. The only expenses were for the singers’ transportation, food, and, of course, liquor. "There was something about this project that was just all about this level of modesty and humility," Neshat says. "To me, this whole project was about capturing the irony of people who are poor and old yet so dignified and happy. We have everything in this country, and we’re always unhappy. And here they are, and they have nothing. This project was really capturing this idea, the paradox."

Games of Desire was a far cry from Women Without Men, which required a production team of between 60 and 80 people each day. For Neshat the change in scale and subject matter was welcome. "This is exactly the opposite of my previous work," she says with a laugh. "My work about Iran is always so melancholic, and, here, these people really break the taboo."

"Snapshot of a Song" originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' November 2009 Table of Contents.