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Houses Divided

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Shirin Neshat: Rapture

at the Art Institute, through August 1

Kathleen McCarthy: Uncertainty Principle

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through August 1

By Fred Camper

Veiled women appear from behind a ridge in a barren landscape. Men climb the walls of a fortress. The women stand and stare, then begin a chantlike vocalization. With the men looking on from atop the fortress, a group of women launches a boat from a beach; carrying some of them, it sails off into the waves.

On a plot level, Shirin Neshat's 13-minute video installation Rapture, at the Art Institute, seems almost a parody of an art film, with mysterious figures in a foreign culture engaged in activities that must mean something, though the uninitiated can't quite figure out what. The filming is competent but undistinguished, the imagery not particularly expressive. What saves Rapture from mediocrity is its form: like Neshat's Turbulent, shown earlier this year at the Museum of Contemporary Art, it's made up of two videos shown on opposite walls, making it impossible to view both at once. Furthermore, again like Turbulent, the installation echoes orthodox Islam's separation of genders: one screen shows only men, the other only women. The effect is unnerving; as men and women appear to look at one another across the room, their separation seems at once absolute and artificial, even absurd.

Neshat was born in Iran in 1957 but has been a U.S. resident since 1974; in 1990, 11 years after Iran became an Islamic republic, she returned for a visit and was shocked by its transformation. "I had never been in a country that was so ideologically based," she says in the booklet for this exhibit, yet claims impartiality in her art: "I made a decision that this work was not going to be about me or my opinions." Like most artists claiming to stand back from political and social issues, however, Neshat lets her views seep through anyway in Rapture, which she staged and shot in Morocco.

For example, neither men nor women seem properly dressed for what they're doing. The men who storm the fortress don't look like warriors but like bureaucrats in their identical white shirts. The women launch their boat in long black robes shielding all but their faces from view--not exactly convenient for nautical activities. Neshat makes Islamic battles seem as outdated as traditional women's attire. Further, Neshat's spatial separation of the genders is far more absolute than such separations in the culture: here men and women don't even approach one another--there's a gulf between them--and it's impossible to look at both sexes at once.

This gulf, in fact, is Rapture's most powerful element. Neshat implicitly critiques it by placing the viewer in the middle: we occupy the space that others are not permitted to cross--though her men frequently seem to look at the women and vice versa, heightening our sense of their separation. The viewer is thus divided between male and female worlds, both of which seem constraining. The men are at once masters of and almost imprisoned by the fortress they occupy. And though the women launch a boat, it's hardly equipped for a long journey (such as to the West); moreover, only a few women seem to get away.

At once in the midst of and outside these two ritualistic worlds, the viewer is placed in a third space, that of the observer, the privileged liberal mediator of extremes. Caught in the cross fire of the two groups' oppositional stares, he feels somewhat distanced from their confrontation--which seems part of Neshat's point. Noting that the people in each video are identically clad, the museum visitor who's not part of some large uniformed group will feel his individuality more strongly.

Despite its title, Rapture doesn't so much take one out of oneself as plunge one into issues of gender and group identity. Invoking the social, Neshat produces a piece that lacks the purely aesthetic effects of much abstract art: Rapture provokes the viewer into a confrontation with cultural specifics in a way that abstract work generally does not.

Kathleen McCarthy's abstract installation at the Chicago Cultural Center, Uncertainty Principle, invokes not cultural divisions but the very idea of division. Her piece could hardly look more unlike Neshat's: a large number of gossamer, almost transparent parallel fishing lines are stretched taut in a single plane from low on one wall to points near the ceiling on the opposite side of the gallery. Seen from one angle, the piece appears as a single sheet of diagonal lines across the space; ceiling lights create gently curved prismatic refractions. But if the viewer walks underneath, the filaments are almost invisible. The piece is an elegant way of calling attention to apparent emptiness; as the lines become visible and invisible, they remind us of the immateriality of space.

McCarthy's title is the work's only sloppy aspect. Naming her piece after Werner Heisenberg's famous quantum-physics principle, she invokes a fairly precise notion--there's even an equation for it--that describes how observing an event inevitably changes it. But her piece is like any other artwork: the experience comes from looking at it, and as usual one's position in the room affects that. What gives this visually elegant piece depth and meaning is the way it divides the viewer, much as it divides the room, placing one adrift among alternative possibilities for seeing.

McCarthy, a Chicagoan, stretches her filaments in four groups of 268 lines each, leaving gaps between the groups wide enough for one's head. If you walk from the lines' high to low ends within one of these gaps, the filaments "descend" to meet your shoulders--producing both a fear of damaging the piece and a subconscious hint of decapitation. But if one looks about from this position, the filaments make a plane that divides not only the room but one's body--head above, torso below. Walking within the gap becomes a bit like going underwater and emerging. Divided into two regions, one becomes more aware of the way that all architectural divisions define not only spaces but the bodies within them.

Yet because the lines appear to vanish at times, the divisions they make seem strangely arbitrary and artificial. The work reads not as an absolute assertion of an essential form, the way the stripes in a Barnett Newman or Piet Mondrian painting do, but as a tentative, provisional exploration of dividing the space. Indeed, there seems to be nothing unusually expressive about the angle, necessitated if anything by the room's architecture: one can easily imagine similar works with the lines at different angles. Unlike modernist abstract artists, McCarthy offers us not "the truth" but one possibility.

Insofar as McCarthy sees all human divisions as arbitrary, her work resembles Neshat's. Both artists seem concerned with that most fundamental of human activities, creating separations between things. Both place the viewer in the midst of some sort of gap, critiquing separation by evoking the uncomfortable division of the psyche that exterior divisions create. In that sense, McCarthy's abstract art has as much meaning as Neshat's socially engaged work, giving the lie to the old canard that abstract art is "about nothing." Neshat simply invokes a specific case of the human act that McCarthy investigates in more general form.

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