Paradise, Once Removed

Visual Codec - April 1, 2006

Though it's a mere ten minute walk from my apartment, over the past two and a half years I've only been to the Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM) twice—once, when I first moved to Seattle and did the requisite visits to all the art venues, and another, just the other week.

What with all the talk of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) being dead for the next twelve months—the closure of the downtown space, problems with SAAM's roof, and a general lack of programming fueling these suspicions—I wasn't exactly running up the hill to see what was on a SAAM.

But all that has changed. In fact, after catching an advertisement in a local paper that said Shirin Neshat's Tooba was on view at the Capitol Hill museum, I couldn't get up the hill fast enough. And now, it seems, I can't wait to go back.

Like most of Neshat's video work, Tooba is, in a word, captivating.

Rendered in riveting tones of dusty yellow sepia and split between two screens, the action in the video builds slowly around a lone, leafy tree situated in the center of a walled garden that provides a singular contrast to the sparse countryside.

On one end of the room, the projection shows a woman enveloped by the tree; her still and peaceful body fits perfectly into the graying truck, her hands like knots in the bark, her body a shadow.

On the other side of the room, a more collective experience is being built. Men and women traipse through the countryside as if searching for something.

At the end of the 12-minute loop, the group descends upon that thing, which is, of course, the tree, stoically thriving in the dry landscape and now visible on both screens.

Just as they arrive, the woman's body fades into the tree.

With such a magical and ethereal narrative, it's hard not to be enthralled by Tooba. Unanswered questions arise in your mind; How could the tree possibly survive in such a setting? Who is the woman and why are so many people looking for her? Why is there a wall around the tree?

You watch the video again (and again) hoping for a different conclusion, hoping that Neshat might give something more away; but she doesn't.

This elusive quality is typical of Neshat. Since the early 1990s the Iranian-born artist has been making monumental video installations in which vivid and oftentimes painfully personal themes are played out. Drawing upon her heritage for inspiration, Neshat uses her artwork to explore the complex relationship she has with her country of origin and the world she now lives in.

Neshat grew up in the ancient city of Qazvin, in northwest Tehran, and came to America to study art in 1974. Soon thereafter, Iran underwent a cultural revolution under fundamentalist Islamic rule. It wasn't until the 1990s, more than 15 years later and after the Ayatollah Khomeini's death that Neshat was able to make her first journey back home. This fractured relationship to her country of origin is a subtext in much of Neshat's work.

The setup of Tooba mimics the way Neshat has had to negotiate two radically different cultures. Since it is physically impossible to see both projections at once, it is also impossible to see the perspective of the woman in the tree alongside the perspectives of the men and woman. Thus, until the piece begins to draw to a close and the two screens sync-up, you find yourself turning your head side-to-side, acting a bit like you are watching a tennis match.

However, it is not imperative that you see both screens at the same time. Watching one screen, the soundtrack from the other projection is so vivid that it builds a complete narrative nary a glance. Give your attention to the portrait of the woman in the tree, for example, and you hear the pending action behind you. Just before the men and women descend, the soulful bellow of a horn breaks through what has been an otherwise calm soundtrack, deep breaths are taken, and chants emanating from a circle of praying men get quicker. In other words, it is easy to sense that something is about to happen.

Similarly, you don't need the images of the opposing projection to show you that something is coming; it's all implied in Neshat's controlled camera movements. Starting with a close-up of the woman's closed and weathered eye, the camera slowly pans away to reveal the woman's body cradled safely in the tree. Then, as the music reaches a climax, the camera zooms back in. And as it does, it feels like more than just the camera is approaching the tree; something else is also advancing, and with aggressive, though nebulous, intentions.

Eventually the two screens unite.

On both projections we are given multiple angles of the tree surrounded by the men and women. They stop at the wall. Moments later some jump over it and stand seemingly unaffected around the tree. Their lack of reaction makes it hard to tell whether they were looking for the tree or the woman or both.

That Tooba was inspired by the novel Women without Men by Iranian writer Shahrnoush Parsipour implies that it is the tree they are after. The Tooba tree is a symbolic and sacred image that originates in the Koran. Meaning tree of paradise, the Tooba offers shelter and blessings to those in need. Knowing this when seeing the installation provides a more literal experience of the video; the men and woman are seeking the benevolence of the tree.

But the video does not lend itself to such an unembroidered translation. As paired with the carefully choreographed scenes, the dual projection in fact resists a single or absolute meaning. It is not just about the Koran, or the Tooba, or the novel, or the Oaxacan countryside where the film was shot; it is much more ethereal than that.

For me, Tooba captures an unalienable truth. As embodied by the strong but exposed leafing tree within the dry landscape and as personified by the calm, quiet force of the woman, Neshat's video reveals that with true strength comes vulnerability.

For any other viewer, Tooba might convey something else entirely—and that's the brilliance of Neshat's work. She revels in the complexity of life and resists neatly tying up loose ends; she isn't about to provide her audience with some pedantic message. Instead, she leaves interpretations wide open.

But you don't have to take my word for it. Get yourself up to SAAM sometime before October (yes, October) and see what Tooba will do for you.

Exhibition Credits: The Seattle Art Museum's acquisition of Tooba was made possible by the generous support of Jeffrey and Susan Brotman, Jane and David Davis, Barney A. Ebsworth, Jeffrey and Judy Greenstein, Lyn and Jerry Grinstein, Richard and Betty Hedreen, Janet Ketcham, Kerry and Linda Killinger Foundation, James and Christina Lockwood, Michael McCafferty, Christine and Assen Nicolov, Faye and Herman Sarkowsky, Jon and Mary Shirley, Rebecca and Alexander Stewart, William and Ruth True, Bagley and Jinny Wright, Charles and Barbara Wright, and Ann P. Wyckoff.