Sound and image
Shirin Neshat: Passage
Shirin Neshat has a way of making concrete images abstract. Filmmakers do this all the time, of course, using the language of cinema to enhance the emotional tone of a story. The camera might zoom in to heighten the tension, or perhaps an extreme long shot lays bare the isolation. There is any number of storytelling techniques in the filmmaker’s bag of tricks. But what if the story’s not the story? What if it’s so stripped down as to be almost just a scaffold? What hangs on it then?
Shirin Neshat: Passage, currently at the Nevada Museum of Art, is a short film collaboration by composer Philip Glass and artist Neshat. Glass commissioned the film as part of his Philip on Film Tour in 2001, for which he composed and performed scores for four such works by filmmakers from across the globe, with the idea of “revers[ing] the typically director-driven process of choosing music for a film.” The result here is a piece in which the visual and musical elements meet on effectively equal terms, neither dependent on the other, but both driving at something intuitively comprehensible, if not entirely definable.
Neshat’s art tends to be framed by her cultural identity: Iranian, Muslim, expatriate, woman. She left Iran as a teenager and studied art at University of California Berkeley, but in 1979 the Shah was overthrown and replaced with the regime which still holds power today. After a time, she visited her country to find it changed. Eventually questioned by Iranian authorities, Neshat no longer returns home for fear her work has made her a target. But is her background necessary for an understanding of this work?
Certainly the artist’s imagery is consistently situated in Islam, and her early career drew heavily on her specific perception of things, making a splash in the ’90s with a series of photographs and films focused on Iranian gender roles. With Passage, however, these relationships are far less in the foreground. Women and men are separated, but their roles do not seem forced. Islamic tradition is the subject, but not the subject matter. Everything is part of a whole, a ritual that plays out on the screen.
Philip Glass, meanwhile, is often described as a Minimalist, a composer who relies heavily on repetition with minor changes as things progress. Neshat describes his work as being “about sound.” The score in Passage is a good example of this repetitive structure, which has the effect of mesmerizing the listener, according to Hug High orchestra teacher Forrest Jones. With elements of a funeral procession, it is an appropriate complement to the action of the film, in which a group of men advances deliberately through a barren landscape to deposit the body of someone deceased.
The procession begins ominously as the men make their way along the edge of the sea, introduced with percussion that later gives way to the higher pitches of violins, flutes and oboes. Concurrently, a group of women kneeling in a circle in a vast expanse of desert, scrabble through the dust with their bare hands, digging the grave. There is chanting as they work, rhythmic, affecting, the only human voices in the film. Nearby, a little girl stacks rocks in a circle. Is she mimicking their effort?
What we get from Passage is more about feeling than story. The film has an intense, perhaps even melodramatic quality, a cultural, religious, ritualistic something. These images, the movements of the camera, all clear enough in themselves, are brought together in a fashion that makes them illusive, yet understandable; readable, but only vaguely articulable; like listening to music without words.