It is one of mankind’s best ideas. No human creation has given rise to more religious legend, more art, more literature. It is the rare idea so universal that nearly every culture between China and England has adopted it. It is the garden, paradise.
Gardens probably started in Iran, 3,200 years ago. The idea was then appropriated by invaders from Europe and by traders from the East. Six hundred years after its Persian genesis, Buddha created his belief system while sitting in a garden, at the base of a tree. For Christians and Jews, the Garden of Eden is where their peoples begin. For Persians, it has been central to spiritual and daily life for thousands of years.
This is how the Persians created their gardens: Choose a mountaintop, plant a tree, surround it with flowering plants, and build a wall around the plantings. Nursed from parched, gravelly land, pairidaza was a refuge for the body and the soul. The Persian Sufis, who became the primary mystic order within Islam, made pairidaza a fundamental part of their tradition. Shabistari, after Rumi the second-greatest Sufi poet, wrote about pairidaza as the secret garden of promise and paradise, the earthly manifestation of absolute beauty and perfection. To Shabistari, the heart of paradise was the tree, which he described as “the perfect face of the Beloved.” This central tree was unimaginably large, its branches spanned unimaginable lengths, the milk and honey at its base was unimaginably bountiful. Through Shabistari’s poetry, the garden and its tree, the tooba, became the Sufi’s place of hope and promise. For Sufis, Shabistari was their Winthrop, his garden their city on a hill.
Enter Iranian-American Shirin Neshat, artist-examiner of the conflicts between Islam and the West. With the mythical Sufi garden as her foundation, Neshat’s 2002 film installation Tooba looks at emigration from the Islamic world to the West, the dark circle of leaders whose fundamentalism impels the journey, and what the journeyers find when the reach the West. Tooba shows us that while Middle Easterners people may try and try to escape the violence and oppression in their backgrounds, while they may think they have found an Eden to which they can emigrate, they find that the modern journey does not end as simply as the mythical Sufi journey.
Tooba is Neshat’s latest exploration of cultural conflicts (Neshat’s Rapture and other film installation also explore cultural conflict), but in Tooba Neshat goes beyond the gender conflicts that dominated her previous work. Here Neshat focuses on national identity and geo-conflict. The symbol Neshat uses to explore these themes, the canvas on which the installation is created, is the garden.
Neshat’s utopia is the simplest of Sufi gardens. It is in virtually every shot of the film. The garden sits at the top of a hill, a single tree, about fifty feet high, surrounded by a brick wall. There are no flowering plants, just the tree in the center of the garden. Surrounding it is parched earth, ground that grips clumps of thirsty scrub, neither nourishing it nor letting it blow away. The sky is blue and the few clouds are white and puffy. The land will remain athirst. Only the squared garden provides shade, sanctuary, promise.
The beautiful simplicity of the tableau is Neshat at her best, both in terms of the image she creates and the way she explores a concept. By making the garden the centerpiece of Tooba, Neshat refers to both Judeo-Christian and Sufi utopias.
Within Neshat’s symbolic garden utopia are two visual examples of Neshat updating traditional meanings. Witness: Neshat�s garden has its roots in historical symbolism, but I believe it also serves as a contemporary metaphor. The garden is America, the promised land of freedom to which repressed people have journeyed for decades.
It’s a concept rooted in Neshat’s own biography: As a student, Neshat left the Shah’s Iran for California, later became a UC Berkeley student, and stayed in the U.S. after the Islamic Revolution. She now lives in New York City.
As a member of the Iranian exile community, she understands why Middle Easterners have fled their homelands for America. Furthermore, she understands the persecution and suspicion they have faced from the American people and from the Bush Administration since 9/11, and refers to that in Tooba. Embedded in the tree of paradise is a woman, the wrinkles in her skin echoing the bark of the tree. She is in paradise, encased in the tooba tree which provides all the pleasures of paradise. She is mute, existing within paradise without being a participant, a metaphorical reference to the way many Middle Easterners feel in post-9/11 America. Her eyes are closed, she is alone with her thoughts, her memories. It is as if the tree of paradise protects her from those memories.
What are her memories? We aren’t to know (yet), so Neshat takes us away from the static visual image to return to the installation’s narrative. As we see the first shots of the woman-in-tree at the opening of Tooba on one screen, on the other we see men, scores of men, scurrying through the hills that surround the garden. At first we cannot tell that they are moving toward paradise. Seconds later we understand: The first time we see that the tree is inside a garden is the first time that we see people moving through the landscape. This is also the first moment that the viewer understands that the two screens are telling one story. People are journeying; they are journeying to the garden. Having made clear the unity of the two visuals, Neshat tears us away from the travelers by panning the camera up into the clouds and introduces us to the third element of the installation. While utopia remains on one screen, on the other screen Neshat is about to take us into a different world.
While our eyes are still accustomed to the bright, open spaces of the mountains and the garden, one screen pitches into blackness. In the darkness sit men in a circle, uniformly clad, chanting as one. As Neshat’s camera slowly moves from man to man, the lighting and camera angle show us only the shapes of the mens’ heads and their attire. Neshat does not allow us to see features that distinguish one from the other; we see them as a cadre. In previous installations Neshat has used the circle as a symbol for closed cultures or subcultures. Here I believe that Neshat’s circle of men symbolizes fundamentalist, dictatorial religious cliques that reign over many Muslim societies. More specifically, Neshat’s reference in Tooba is to her own homeland, Iran, a society that is as closed as the circle. Neshat loves ambiguity and rarely gives more than hints as to her intended meaning, but I believe that Neshat’s clue about this intimidating circle is clear: Iran’s ruling Shi’a clerics wear brown robes. In Neshat’s circle, all the men wear brown robes.
Meanwhile, on the screen opposing dystopia, the tree and the wall are more fully revealed as a Sufi garden. As the viewer becomes aware of the garden and the screen-to-screen confrontation between utopia and dystopia, the screen showing the dystopic circle jump cuts back to the journeying men.
Then there is another dramatic disconnect, the second visual disruption in just a few seconds. This is the first uncomfortable moment in Tooba. So many things come together at once: journey, woman, tree, garden, the circle. So much begins to fall into place. The circle of men, in their uniform garb, their pseudo-religious collars, the way they are indistinguishable from each other because it doesn’t matter who is who. They are why there is a journey. They are why the journey is to paradise. They are who the woman in the tree remembers having left.
At the end of the journey, the scores of travelers reach the garden. Neshat presents their arrival in a way that underscores the tension between the travelers from the Middle East and the paradise to which they have traveled. On one screen, Neshat shows us views of the travelers encircling the garden, their hands on the top of the brick wall. Each of the shots is taken from a different vantage point outside the garden. All of the shots, shots of the paradise to which these people have journeyed, are grand, panoramic and beautiful. I believe that Neshat is reminding us how the travelers view the land to which they have journeyed. It is paradise, the promised land. After a journey filled with hope, dreams and idealized visions of a new place, the immigrants have arrived.
Neshat also shows us a counterpoint: On the other screen, the travelers ringing the garden (and are filmed from inside it). The garden wall, which looks like an inconsequential barrier in the panoramic shots, suddenly looms as a barrier to be overcome. With their uniform dress, their piercing stares, the travelers now look threatening. I believe Neshat is showing us how the inhabitants of the promised land feel about the coming immigrants. The immigrants are threatening, they dress differently, the intensity of their gaze is jarring. The promised land is afraid of them. The psychological charge of these two images, one on each side of the viewer who stands in the middle of Neshat’s installation, is discomforting.
The travelers are not to be deterred. Having arrived at paradise, the journeying mass jumps over the wall and enters the garden. They walk up to the tooba tree and stare at it, a scene Neshat shows us for a full ten seconds. Each of the travelers wanders a few steps away from the tree and appears to be lost, confused within the garden.
I believe that here Neshat contemporizes millennia of Muslim history. For thousands of years, Muslims have searched for an Islamic utopia, a place where they can live in a society that allows Muslims to prosper both spiritually and materially. For the immigrants who choose to travel away from Arab or Persian lands, the garden, the promise of America, seems to offer much of that possibility. But the men who wander through the garden look lost, unsure, as if what they expected to find in paradise isn’t there. They don’t leave the garden, but they don’t look at home, either. I believe this is Neshat’s commentary on the Muslim experience, even the immigrant experience, in America. The United States presents itself to the world as The Melting Pot, the place where all peoples can come to live free. In Tooba there is no happiness — just disjointed discombobulation. They travelers stay; They are, perhaps, safer within the garden, but they’re uncomfortable, out of place, and not altogether welcome.
While Neshat created Tooba specifically with the effects of 9/11 on Middle Eastern immigrants in mind, the beauty and the breadth of the themes Tooba addresses take it beyond above the temporality of a single event (no matter how momentous). Tooba is a superb work of art that deserves a place alongside great art about traumatic events. Why? Consider:
How big a theme does Neshat take on in Tooba? In a 12-minute installation, Neshat addresses the conflict between the West and Islam, the psychology of the immigrant experience, and the promise and disappointment of the promised land. No other contemporary artist has even attempted to address these issues surrounding 9/11 and its aftermath in the comprehensive way Neshat addresses them.
Tooba is also rapturously beautiful. Neshat and her collaborators (the installation’s credits read more like a feature film credit roll than wall text in an art gallery, complete with a nod to the Iranian novelist and poet who inspired the work, Shahrnoush Parsipour) built the garden. They costumed the characters. The robes of the men in the circle, the way the camera speeds up as it examines the individuals in the circle, the way the travelers surround the garden before entering it, each of these scenes rewards multiple viewings. Detail in point: There are two shots taken from inside the garden, looking out at the people ringing the wall. In one shot there are nine people looking into the garden, in another shot there are 11. Coincidence?
Tooba also demonstrates that the physical space Neshat creates between her projected images is not just the physical space between the screens, but an actual part of the installation. To see a Neshat, the viewer must make decisions about how and why to look at a particular screen at a particular time. By involving the viewer in the work in this way, Neshat demands physical and psychological involvement. This fits perfectly within the story Neshat tells in this work: In Tooba, Neshat presents the story of characters torn between two countries, two traditions, two cultures. The viewer is also torn: between the two screens, between the tranquility of the garden and the conflicts playing out on the opposite screen. Neshat’s characters make choices, so too must the viewer.
For centuries Sufi women have perpetuated the mythology of the garden. Women have traditionally woven tapestries featuring the Sufi garden, one of Islam’s most lasting artistic images, and hung them on the walls of their homes. In many ways Tooba is an updating of that tradition: Neshat’s garden is projected onto a wall, displayed in the same manner as an ancient Sufi tapestry. The circle is complete.