September 16 - November 21, 2009
Games of desire
galerie jerome de noirmont

Games of Desire, 2009 Ink on C-print mounted on Dibond Unique format 127,3 x 84,7 cm Edition of 5 and 2 artist’s proofs

exhibition release


Shirin Neshat visited Luang Prabang in Laos in 2005 and 2008 to participate in a project entitled The Quiet in the Land, an invitation to conceive a project that somehow examined an aspect of the Laotian culture. As an Iranian artist who has been mostly engaged in Islamic topics, she found it difficult at first to approach a concept that felt familiar and authentic to her own artistic language. One issue however that became immediately interesting to her was the similarity between Laos and Iran, in their recent cultural and political history. If the Islamic revolution overthrew the monarchy in Iran in 1979, and strictly islamized the country to the degree of eliminating much of Persian rituals and ancient culture, force of communism also arrived to Laos in 1975, and by eliminating the monarchy attempted to eradicate most of its traditional culture.

            One day during her first trip in 2005, Shirin Neshat attended a Buddhist ceremony in a monastery, which was taking place at the same time as a local festival. On the grounds of this monastery, a group of men and women ranging in age from about 60 to 80 were socializing and singing with passionate glee. The artist learnt that they were singing old courting songs they had sung during their youth… Songs that belong to a vocal genre called lam, which is traditionally performed as part of courtship rituals during weddings and other festive occasions, but which in recent years has fallen into decline as an art form.

These singing sessions are organized as sung sparring matches between men and women, who are shouting out and responding to each other during hours, with a metaphoric and poetic style and a bucolic vocabulary. Metaphors often relate to the land, to vegetation, to animals and to all other natural elements, as the singers are mostly farmers living in extreme poverty.

Some characters excel more than others in these singing duels, thanks to an eloquence predisposing them to improvisation. This illustrates the existing gradation in the quality of expression among these Laos populations, in a country where traditionally, there is no literary language apart from the ordinary spoken language.

            Once the songs were translated, the artist was even further intrigued to discover how all the songs had a strong sexual, erotic, even obscene undertone… Shirin Neshat found a powerful irony in how these men and women, despite their old age, living in poverty and politically oppressed society, were so full of life, passion, and sexual energy. Indeed these songs, which refer to love affair, come out of ancient engagement rituals, and turn into ceremonial struggles during agrarian festivals, in order to seal friendships and loves within the community.

In an ever-identical scenario, men and women are divided up into two opposite groups, seated on mats on the ground. Each group supports and provokes the duel challengers (one man/one woman), and everyone participates actively in the confrontation by flinging always more daring invectives. Always based on words’ symmetry and repetitive sentences, the first-modest verbal exchanges turn gradually into joyful saucy expressions, more and more explicit…

             Open my skirt so you can see the paradise! There you can see the Naga’s (dragon) eyes
            in the water (…)

            There you can see the God’s mouth in the sky! Something black erected, you thought it
            was a hunter’s gun powder (…)

            All we can see is the cat’s moustache, the tunnel is very dark
Communication punctuation gestures and slight hands’ and bodies’ undulations go with the voices in a minimalist choreography, and add a light erotic touch to the singers’ performance.

            In October 2008, Shirin Neshat returned to Luang Prabang, with a small budget and a light equipment to create her project entitled Games of Desire. She formed two groups of 11 female singers and 10 male singers from three villages in the neighbourhoods of Luang Prabang, and she shot then one of the most accomplished forms of the lam.

            As it will be unveiled during the exhibition at the gallery from September 16 to November 21, this new series Games of Desire is composed of one video accompanied by a 14-photograph series of portraits featuring characters of the video, among which 6 man/woman couples.

The video goes back to a sexual male/female partition, a process very typical of the artist, with an installation designed as two projections on two opposite walls, with the viewers sitting in between. It takes the singers away from their environment and focuses on their face-to-face, by erasing any background.
The photos surprisingly offer us a very different eye on these characters; the focus delimited on the face is abandoned for full-length portraits in front of ancestral Lao paintings. The portraits of these men and women, suddenly speechless with an impassive face, get a mysterious value thanks to their ink-calligraphies enhancements… Here the artist is creating a visual union between Persian and Laotian cultures.

            This work reminds us of the artist’s 1998 video installation, Turbulent, for which she was awarded the Golden Lion of the 1999 Venice Biennial. That installation was also made of two projections on two opposite walls, and viewers assisted to a musical exchange between a male and a female singer in Iran. On the first screen, the man sang melodious tunes, facing a large male assistance outdoors; then on the second screen, the woman started to sing, or rather to drone, alone and veiled, facing an empty room… In Games of Desire, Shirin Neshat keeps this same look but on a different culture and she confirms here her engagement in aesthetics and a questioning throughout cultures, which are in the heart of her process.