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Women Artists

Shirin Neshat explores gender and difference in St Mary-le-Bow

As part of the build-up to the opening in 2000 of its new Bankside building, the Tate is organising exhibitions in nearby parts of London - a film installation by this Iranian-born artist in a Wren church gives a taste of things to come

In the beginning was the word. This powerful phrase has a special resonance for the Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat, whose photographic images of women covered with a veil of calligraphy show the power of words to create and define a world. By presenting her film “Turbulent” in the Wren church of St Mary-le-Bow in the City of London, she adds a new dimension to the enigmatic relationship between word and image, asking questions about the power of speech and the role of women in society and about understanding and misunderstanding between Islam and the West.

The New York-based Neshat’s work has never before been shown in Britain, although she exhibited in the 1995 Venice and the 1997 Istanbul Biennales and had a solo exhibition in Paris earlier this year. Tate curator Iwona Blazwick, who has organised the current installation, first encountered Neshat’s work last year at the ARCO art fair in Madrid. “I was bowled over by her photographs. Neshat deals with notions of religion, society, women and law. Having been educated in the US, she looks at Persian traditions of poetry, calligraphy and music in parallel with western ones.”

Made in 1998 and premiered at the Whitney Museum in New York, “Turbulent” is a black and white video projection which represents segregation between men and women and the transcendent power of music. The film is projected simultaneously onto opposing walls. On one wall, a male singer performs a traditional love song based on a poem by the Persian writer Rumi, which incorporates the melodies of the muezzin’s call to prayer. He sings to an audience of men only. Across the room, the film shows a woman singing music she has composed herself, a song without words poured out into an empty auditorium.

There is a special relevance to showing such a work in St Mary-le-Bow, one of the thirty-eight City of London churches across the Thames from the Bankside building. Beyond being a church with two pulpits, a place for Holy Writ and sermons, it was more recently the meeting place for the Movement for the Ordination of Women into the Church of England. Its famous Bow Bells, which are rung to mark important dates in the national and religious calendar, sounded one of the loudest peels in history to celebrate the ordination of women in 1992, a turning point in the Anglican Church.

Shirin Neshat’s installation is part of a series of art projects specially commissioned for different sites around the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art to celebrate the rich culture of the area and lead up to the gallery’s opening in Spring 2000.

“Turbulent” at St Mary-le-Bow, London (until 19 December) is shown Wednesday through Friday 6:30pm-8:30pm and Saturday 4pm-7pm.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Women’s words'