Shirin Neshat: Soliloquy
by Magdalena Milosz
Two screens face each other in a dark room, only a bench off to the side interrupting the space between them. Settling into this interstitial expanse of Shirin Neshat’s Soliloquy (1999), viewers become mediators, with the series of scenes on each screen flowing not past, but through this audience – asking them, perhaps, to act as witnesses to the ensuing visual dialogue. The titles begin, in English and Persian; then, the sole character appears, clad in black robes and played by Neshat herself. She is looking out of two different windows: one in Albany, New York; the other in Mardin, Turkey, not far from the artist’s native Iran.
Neshat completed Soliloquy in 1999, one piece in a diverse repertoire comprising photography, installation and a feature film. Six copies of Soliloquy have found permanent homes in various institutions around the world. The one installed at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery this past winter arrived from the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal through its Momentum series, which tours major works in its permanent collection to different cities. As a digital artifact, Soliloquy could easily be duplicated further, but the life-sized void between the two screens is integral to the configuration of the piece. The installation hinges on more than just the flatness of the screen and its illusory three-dimensionality, rather it depends on real space as the locus of interchange.
The projections alternate between the phenomena of observing and being observed, envisaging the simultaneity of these two states and their overlapping effects on the subject in multiple contexts. When Neshat’s protagonist is active on one side, she is often still on the other, her gaze focused beyond what is in front of the plane of the image – the ribbons of highways in America, the labyrinthine city in Turkey – towards the other screen, which functions something like a reminiscence or dream. As this woman gazes across the space of the gallery, the audience cannot clearly see what she is looking at, and the opposite screen becomes peripheral, both literally and figuratively. Likewise, if we turn to see it more clearly, we can no longer observe Neshat observing and we lose track of what she is communicating in the image of her silent contemplation.
The work encourages us to grapple with the impossibility of existing in two cultural contexts at once while revealing the potentially rich and complex experiences of the in-between. Much of Neshat’s work is concerned with the identity of the exiled, someone who exists neither fully here nor fully there, but paradoxically in both and in neither, and perhaps even in a third space that tentatively reconciles two seeming opposites. Based partly on her own experience of migration from Iran to the US and back, Soliloquy takes up this theme quite literally, but also subtly produces an exilic effect on viewers as they physically occupy an indeterminate position between two visually distinct milieus.
Both the “West” and the “East” portrayed in the installation rely heavily on the built environment as a cultural symbol, in addition to composing the physical form of the protagonist’s story. In the “Western” half of the projection, Neshat drives down a congested highway, then stands in the bustling lobby of the World Trade Center in New York (before 9/11), watching her other, “Eastern” self reminiscing in a palace. In the next scene, she is walking up the grand staircase of the Cultural Education Center, a large Brutalist building completed in 1961 as part of the Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York. Finally, she emerges once more in Manhattan, looking down into the light-filled interior of St. Peter’s Church, a modern structure, nearly devoid of ornament, sunk into the ground below a tall corporate tower. The stark contrast between the monumental, contemporary spaces of the “West” and the winding, complex, ancient spaces of the “East” is simple, perhaps, but nevertheless highly evocative of the genius locus of each place.
Because the images are hyperbolically juxtaposed, they serve to underscore that each place is a kind of ghost of the other, for we are always, sometimes painfully, aware of the other’s absence. In this way, Neshat touches on the modern condition of “homelessness,” which renders many of us unsettled, even though in the West, we are, of course, for the most part, settlers of one kind or another. She recognizes, too, that through our presence and absence, we change both the places where we move and the places we have left behind. In each sequence, the woman comes upon a group of others. There are Christian worshippers clad in white at St. Peter’s and Muslim mourners in black within the palace, their Eastern and Western chants overlapping in a final crescendo, followed by a quieting. The contradictions are tentatively resolved through a ritual cleansing on a rooftop. The woman in black is seen, on both sides, running into the distance, towards two vanishing points of solitude.
In both its form and content, Soliloquy is heavily concerned with space and the ways it is moved through, occupied, produced and perhaps left behind. Although not explicitly political, it poses serious questions about migration, identity and culture that are relevant in a new way in increasingly “global” and digitally connected societies, possibly societies in conflict. Soliloquy is no doubt now seen in a somewhat different light than when it was first shown 16 years ago, but the sojourn undertaken by its protagonist remains a powerful study in finding one’s place.