This essay was written in conjunction with the exhibition, "What To Do?" at Contemporary Art Centre of SA, Adelaide, Australia
"All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone."
Nasim Nasr sets her video installation "What To Do?" in what could be an operating theatre. The gallery's walls are antiseptic white, and, with the exception of ten video monitors distributed unequally on two walls (one on the left, nine on the right), its space is spartan. On each monitor, played in endless loops, pairs of Middle Eastern men's men either count prayers with Muslem prayer beads (Tasbih) or else use them non-denominationally as worry beads. The man on the left is 60 years old; the men on the right are aged 20 to 40 years old. Each man wears a white shirt. Some of the beads are turquoise, a holy color. The monitor that features the old man on the left is set on the wall at ground level; the monitors on the right are set at the respective heights of each model's hands. These distinctions are crucial.
The only noise is the click of the barely audible beads cradled in the men's hands and the lowered voice of the man on the left as he utters "Allahu Akbar (God is great)." The only movement is the play of the beads that, given each man's preference, is fast or slow, purposeful or random. Both banks of monitors compete for the viewer's attention. The viewer stands in the middle of the space, unable to focus full attention on either wall. Simple and discordant, asymmetrical and unbalanced, the piece pulses like an arrhythmic heartbeat. The overall effect of the piece is clinical.
If the effect is clinical, then what's being diagnosed? Nasr assumes the role of doctor and patient. If its consequences (equality, salvation, peace) weren't so dire, her diagnosis would be funny. For starts, the hands are male. She got the idea for the piece when, in Iran, she stumbled and, looking around her, noticed men around her, praying. It reminded her of her grandfather who always seemed to pray. She replicates this point of view with the placement of monitors. Calls to prayer in the Middle East are visible events, ubiquitous; reserved for men. Prayer for women is secluded and private. The women may as well as be invisible. Nasr's prior work has stated as much.
Representing the present state of world affairs, Nasr's choice of models is also significant. The men are Lebanese, Persian, Greek, and Arab; each comes from a religious, social, military, and economic global hotspot. The distribution of the monitors (per model's age, per quantity) on each wall is also significant. Suggesting a generational drift from sacred to profane, the solitary man that prays on the left is obviously an elderly man. The nine sets of hands on the right are of younger men. The hands on the right might as well be texting or gaming on smartphones.
Whether it's an elderly man praying on the left or younger men biding time on the right, "What To Do?" describes a lot of motion that, ultimately, goes nowhere. Instead of being "full of sound and fury," it either hisses with white noise or drones with ennui. Little matter, suggests Nasr, it still signifies nothing. Whether the men engage in the sacred act of prayer or the mindless and inconsequential expense of nervous energy, Nasr suggests that the result is the same. Nothing gets done. This nothing gets done indicts crusades and jihads well as social structures that existentially if not physically imprison women. Their common denominator? Religion.
Nasr draws a bead on religion's supposed ability to effect gender equality and world peace. For such a simple and elegant installation, the piece is incredibly rich in associations and diagnoses. Subtle and savage, accommodating and incisive, it functions on the distinction between the secular and non-secular use of beads, mediated through the offices of another sacred space, an art gallery.
The piece activates a tension between the active activity of prayer and the passive activity of mindlessness. Besides suggesting a link between secular prayer and non-secular fretting, the piece broaches problems with gender and generational identity, a point Nasr hammers home by the fact that she, an expatriate Persian woman, places the viewer smack dab in the middle of the conversation. Implicitly she reminds us of the eponymous lead in Aristophanes's "Lysistrata," the story of women who get tired of their men fighting wars and so withhold sexual favors until they come to their senses. Mindlessness, she seems to say, may be the path to enlightenment. Sometimes, though, as is the case here, it's just the absence of thought.
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