The Fury Shirin Nashat PHI Centre

Iranian-American artist Shirin Neshat elicits empathy in The Fury

We spoke with the artist whose latest work — on at PHI Centre through Aug. 20 — uses video and VR, dance and music in an emotional exploration of trauma and PTSD.

Iranian-American visual artist Shirin Neshat filmed her latest piece The Fury before the murder of Mahsa Amini in Iran and the ensuing “Women, Life, Freedom” movement, yet the parallels between art and life are astonishing.

Both The Fury and the women-led protests that continue to play out in the Middle Eastern country put the focus on women, their bodily autonomy and the state’s infringement upon it. And though the news cycle has shifted its focus away from the ongoing protests, what the international response exemplified is a theme Neshat is preoccupied with in this video work: how witnessing the pain and trauma of another provokes within us an urge to act in solidarity. 

“Women’s bodies have become a very contested space for the dictatorship. It’s almost like by controlling the women and their bodies and their lives, they maintain a certain identity and a grip on the country. Their fear of a woman unveiling is beyond just women showing their hair, it would indicate that the government is losing its grip on the society, and it’s a profound impact,” she says.

Neshat’s work has long been concerned with the role and experiences of women in Iran, and is intimately familiar with both the power of women’s dissent in the country and also the target it paints on their backs. 

In The Fury, Neshat presents us with a fictionalized version of an all-too-common experience for women who dare dissent – sexual violence, in war, in prison, sanctioned by the state and sometimes even before execution. 

“I was obsessed with this idea of how sexual assault, particularly within a political parameter, in a prison, the trauma is so deep,” Neshat explains. “It became an obsession of exploring the mindset of a woman who has been sexually assaulted, tortured, and even now that she’s free, and possibly in the U.S., she’s still in this other world. She never left a trauma, and it disables her to connect with reality as we know it.”

The Fury is a video exploration of sexual assault and its lasting impacts in two parts. The first part is a 16-minute, highly stylized, two-channel video showing the protagonist post-assault living far away from the scene of the trauma, but psychologically stuck in the place where it happened, haunted by the men in uniform who committed it. Using dance to allow the viewer to infer the nature of her trauma without the explicitness of the central theme, dance is also how Neshat demonstrates the expression of solidarity that witnessing her pain incites in the onlookers watching her on the streets of her new home, sensing her difficulty connecting with the world around her.

“Going from these moments where her body is an object of desire but quickly becomes an object of violence, then she’s outside among all these foreigners, strangers — there’s this complete wall between her and them,” she explains.

“Her trauma, suffering, pain and grief become contagious to others who don’t quite comprehend what happened to her, but the wall is broken, and there’s a sense of solidarity, humanity, affinity, this idea that her rage became their rage.”

The second part is a Virtual Reality component, taking viewers into a visual representation of the physical and emotional impacts of the assault the protagonist experiences.

“I’ve been very interested in (video) installations as a way of making the audience a participant as opposed to a passive viewer, where you physically and emotionally are in the work,” says Neshat. Hence her frequent use of a two-channel format, showing two videos side by side, “a way to awaken the audience in a way that they’re not just going to sit back and be entertained, but they have to really draw meaning from what they’re seeing.”

Iranian-American artist Shirin Neshat elicits empathy in The Fury

The goal is the same for the VR portion: to bring the viewer into the story, to incite an emotional response. 

“I don’t want a spectacle, because I’m always interested in how to provoke emotions from the audience,” she continues. “The proximity of the audience to this brutality is really very powerful, where you feel like you’re inside of that room. That’s not something I can do in a video installation, or in a feature film.”

The piece reflects a blending of cultures, not only through the two central settings but also in the music and the movement. The piece features music composed by Johnny Azari and voiced by Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi, singing a Persian song translated into Arabic. For the movement, Neshat was inspired by the African dance she has been studying; her fellow dancers appear in the piece.

“The work is meant to be about Iran, but it really doesn’t want to remain only related to Iran, because this is a subject that is extremely international. It could be Ukrainian women being assaulted by Russian soldiers, or anywhere else. It’s a question of power.”

The Fury is on at the PHI Centre (407 St-Pierre, Espace 1/Habitat Sonore) through Aug. 20. 

This article was originally published in the July 2023 issue of Cult MTL.

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