Shirin Neshat (b. 1957)
Rapture (1999)
Rapture is an installation of two synchronized black-and-white video sequences that are projected on opposite walls; large in scale, they evoke cinema screens. Working with hours of footage and a team of editors, the artist constructed two parallel narratives: on one side of the room, men populate an architectural environment; in the other sequence, women move within a natural one. The piece begins with images of a stone fortress and a hostile desert, respectively. The fortress dissolves into a shot of over one hundred men—uniformly dressed in plain white shirts and black pants—walking quickly through the cobblestone streets of an old city and entering the gates of the fortress. Simultaneously, the desert scene dissolves into a shot of an apparently equal number of women, wearing flowing, full-length veils, or chadors, emerging from different points in the barren landscape.

As the video progresses, the men busy themselves with a variety of mundane, sometimes absurd activities that contradict the intended function of the space. On the other side of the installation, the women chant, pray, and later, having made their way across the desert, launch a boat into the sea with six of their own aboard. In Rapture, Neshat self-consciously exploits entrenched clichés about gender and space: namely, the equation of woman with irrational, wild nature and man with rational, ordered culture. The video installation is itself a study of gendered group dynamics, with the viewer literally positioned between two opposing worlds. The players in Neshat’s surreal, segregated narratives are deployed in a syncopated rhythm of action and nonaction, mutual recognition and nonrecognition, advance and retreat.

Rapture exists as a poignant reflection on the rootless, unsettled psychology of exile. As an Iranian expatriate living in the United States, Neshat maintains a critical distance that has allowed her to locate both the poetics and the power of the veil. At the same time she celebrates the strength and beauty of Islamic women, she remains keenly aware of the horrors of repression.