June 01 - July 25, 2010
Games of Desire
Mongin Art Center, Seoul, Korea (booklet)

exhibition release

A Message at Once Erotic and Political
The old men and women, sitting opposed from each other, are passionately pouring their hearts out through the exchange of courtship songs. A shy smile, then an impish giggle flows over the wrinkled faces of the aged men and women, faint memories of the heart-fluttering love of their youth blossoming through a vibrant, unrestrained smile.
In November of 2005, Shirin Neshat first visited Luang Prabang, Laos to participate in a project called “The Quiet in the Land.” When she returned to Luang Prabang in October 2008, she began work on a new project with a group of elderly men and women, all long-time residents of the area. The work is composed of a film featuring the men and women alternately singing the Laotian songs opposite each other, and photographic portraits of the same figures dressed up and standing with splendid Laotian paintings as the backdrop. The work seems like a departure from Shirin Neshat’s previous body of work that poetically but strongly portrays the cultural and religious boundaries between men and women in contemporary Islamic society. However, by revisiting and shedding new light on traditions and customs that the artist encountered in Laos which have now fallen mostly into decline, Shirin Neshat launches another kind of engagement with the “universality” of art vis-à-vis intercultural encounters.
Games of Desire (2009) by Shirin Neshat is partly composed of a two-channel video installationshowing a group of male and female performers ranging in age from approximately 60 to 80years old, sitting face-to-face as they recite traditional courtship songs. These songs belong to a vocal genre called “lam” in Laos, also known as “khap thoum” in Luang Prabang. They are traditionally performed as part of courtship rituals during weddings and other festive occasions, sung sparring between the men and women, who are shouting out and responding to each other. The lyrics are metaphorical, composed with repetitive, bucolic vocabulary. Mainly sung among poor farmers, the metaphors are often related to natural elements such as the land, végétation and animals, and are colored with sexual and erotic, even obscene undertones. Lovers’ whispers among the men and women are engaged in an impromptu “poetry in motion” that is fascinating and rejuvenating, as they freely taunt each other, crossing borders of strict customs that have defined gender roles and banned sexual expression in everyday life.
The format of a musical exchange between the male and female performers on two opposing walls is reminiscent of Turbulent (1998), Shirin Neshat’s captivating black & white vidéo installation. The format functions as an effective conduit of the artist’s point of view, one thatseems changed yet still consistent. The viewer, positioned between the two screens but able to face only one at a time, can neither be visually immersed in both, nor be provided with any vantage point of the installation allowing a conventional omniscient viewing experience. Instead, the way of viewing the two screens alternately offers the viewer a unique experience of effectively becoming the “editor” of the work. With the benefit of a more active and dynamic spectatorial experience, the viewer can delve even deeper into the gleeful musical exchange.
It is the faces of the aging male and female performers that the artist is noticeably observant of this unique visual experience. While the songs were traditionally sung in a festive mood, Shirin Neshat removes every element of contextualization in the performance in order to concentrate solely on the singers and their faces. The action on the screen is explicitly centered on the singers. The viewer´s eyes are riveted on the singers on screen, following the continuous Stream of the songs. They appear on screen from the waist up or seated, and only certain moments of a sparkle in the eye or a look, a suggestion of a smile or the explosion of a spontaneous laugh are caught and brought into prominence. With this artistic decision, Shirin Neshat focuses on the mark that time has left on their faces. On the faces of the performers who are recollecting the love and joy of youth kept in their minds, the juxtaposed reality of old lovers singing thèse almost obsolescent love songs from a tradition in decline is revealed.
In Games of Desire, Shirin Neshat’s first attempt away from the subject of Islam and women’s place in Middle Eastern culture, her own native Iranian situation overlaps with her gaze on Laotian culture and history, unveiling engagement with these questions across cultures. While the Islamic Revolution of 1979 overthrew the monarchy, strictly Islamicized Iran and rejected the rituals and culture of ancient Persia, the Communist forces that occupied Laos in 1975 also purged the monarchy and eliminated most of its traditional culture. The similarities of the social and historical changes that the two countries experienced around the same period of time inspired Shirin Neshat, who also underwent radical changes in life as a woman in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution attempting to work as artist within a non-Islamic context. However, there are no such direct statements of intention that can be read in the film and photographs. There are only old courting songs, the aging men and women who remember the songs and the silk scarves on their shoulders. All that is somewhat “exotic” is something that is neither the artist’s idea nor a fiction. By presenting a long-ago oral tradition without additional editorialization, Shirin Neshat discreetly unveils the reality of the Laotian social and political situation. Culture and tradition, which is usually handed down for posterity and thus treasured and consecrated, cannot always be taken for granted. This may be what Shirin Neshat aims to convey in terms of the experience of a long-ago love.