Turbulent, by Shirin Neshat, was the first of a trilogy of short videos produced by her at the turn of the 21st century. Originally presented as a dual screen installation, the video is about 9 minutes long and is a depiction of two performances shown side by side. The two main performers are Shoja Azari, playing the role of the male, and Sussan Deyhim, an Iranian vocalist and composer, as the female. This piece, consistent with the majority of her other work, deals with the complexity of gender roles in Iranian society. Filmed in black in white, it depicts a male singer in front of an audience, yet facing the camera, and a female artist, facing an empty crowd. The performance begins with a passionate vocal performance by Azari, as his audience looks on and Deyhim stands silently by his side in the other frame. Once he finishes, she begins a haunting, frantic melody as he stands transfixed on the other screen, as if he is the only one who can hear her. Her camera slowly pans around her in a circle, showing her face as the song progresses. As the song finishes, her camera movement slows and settles on a shot of her face, while the other screen holds a still image of a transfixed Azari. The camera fades out, and the performance concludes.
This can be interpreted as an alternate experience of reality, in which one isn’t sure which frame is real and which is a figment of the imagination. Is it a man longing for a woman who he hears in a dream? Or is it a woman, shackled by society, limited in her expressions, that dreams of a man enraptured by her song? The ambiguity makes the experience universal, yet still personal. It is that power which makes the piece so captivating. The wordless poem of Deyhim tells a story that transcends language and appeals to the core of our humanistic tendencies, and does so in a way that sets it apart from her other pieces.
One part of the piece that is absent from viewing it on the internet is the experience of viewing it in its original format. It is an element that cannot be discounted, and this particular excerpt from Atom Egoyan both describes and attests to the power of it:
While much has been written about the overtly political nature of Neshat’s work, Turbulent is also a groundbreaking piece of filmed drama. The male and female narratives are simultaneously opposed and complimentary. The viewer, placed between the two screens, cannot physically absorb both at the same time. No vantage point in the installation allows the audience the privileged position of omniscience provided in a conventional cinema or single-monitor viewing. The continuous stream of angles and compositions which comprise a traditional film or television experience are challenged by this form which situates the viewer as the effective editor of their own experience of the work. It would be possible, for example, to watch the male figure as the woman’s soulful song is heard. Depending on which way one observes the piece, there are an infinite number of ways that Turbulent may be constructed. (Egoyan, Adam. 2001. Turbulent.
As Shirin Neshat said herself, the viewers “are physically and emotionally caught in between the two sides, and because they cannot possibly see both images simultaneously, they must decide which side to turn to and which side to miss, and in doing so, in a way they become the editors of the piece.” In that way, it is not only a piece about Iranian gender roles. It becomes a universal experience tailored to each of its visitors.
Another piece of hers that deals with similar subject matter is Passage. This piece deals with many of the same themes, but does so in a way that is visually distinctive from Turbulent. Firstly, the experience is far more visual than auditory, whereas the reverse could be said with Turbulent. The emotional reaction comes from striking imagery, from the singular eerie display of gathered mourners, rather than the juxtaposition of two individuals in competing frames. The piece is also considerably longer, which gives a longer period for storyline development and progression. While she accomplishes the same result with both pieces, she utilizes two different methods of arriving
One comparable group of works are the early pieces of Sadie Benning. Both Turbulent and the work of Sadie Benning have comparable, black and white visual styles. Both also tell deeply personal autobiographical stories, and deal with issues of gender. These pieces utilize these elements to create powerful social commentary and lasting visual experiences.