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Performing Politics in Contrast

September 21, 2008
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Within the less-than-ivory walls of the university, I managed to take in two great performances by two female artists, one literally a performance, live and continuously notated even as it’s presented within the “now”, and the other recorded in the new media of today, yet embracing the discretised version of the older form of cartoon-making. The similarity between these two artists inhabiting two different continents: politics.

Laurie Anderson’s one-night performance of live-music, the spoken word and song called “Homeland” which could be her response to the recent political climate in the States. In shading between a baritone “male” voice when (when speaking) and soprano heights (when singing), she critiques both the popular culture and popular politics of the Americans in manner that resonates yet humorous. The shading into darkness, when the “male” persona breaks down in the tears, is tempered with light, hopeful effervescent register. This is a performance rich in varied meanings that could be attributed to each of the different registers, tones and musical repertoire carefully selected and imprinted into the flowing temporality of the show that may or may not leave one thoughtful in its aftermath.

On the other hand, Marjane Satrapi’s storyboarding of the the graphic novel, Persepolis, is darkly humorous and staunchly hopeful, is peppered with characters that are memorable and whom you wished you have the chance to be acquainted with. There is much to be said about the shading between the fictive and the real in this memoir rendered into print and now into moving image. But one thing for certain, Marjane’s father-image in the screen (and perhaps the print, of which I am unsure since i have not read the book) dispels the notion of the patriarchal Name-of-the-Father as he willingly sends his daughter away, at a young age, to forge a life away from the regime of the Iranian clerics that had unleashed their merciless power onto the people of Iraq.  The trials that Marjane underwent abroad as a young girl is not too different from that faced by many Iranian immigrants who ran away before and just after the revolution. Countless movies had been made on the Iraq-Iran war, criticizing the total pointlessness of a war that had taken away the lives of so many and ruining the lives of those who still lived on as its relics (note that even today, there exists no such thing as welfare programs or any empowering program to help disabled war veterans or those traumatized by the war). The everyday lives of the ordinary Iranians are depicted as it is without any apologies. Home parties that are raided (in most Muslim countries, this would be called the khalwat raids, a form of social control enforced by the political authorities on the personal lives of the ordinary people (an equivalent to the case of Lawrence versus Texas, when the lives of two homosexual men were intruded upon by the local police), and I can personally attest to it being completely true, as I’ve lived for many years in a country with a schizophrenic identity, trying to be Islamist on one hand while declaring itself secular (but situating that uncomfortably in its conscience) for the past two decades or more, perhaps itself feeling the  influence of the Iranian revolution.  Early marriages are the norm (for a completely different reason than that of the Americans who marry young) even among the educated class as non-marital relationships between members of the opposite sex is sanctioned (even the simple thing of sitting together in one car can lend you into hot soup). In other words, there is very little understanding between the sexes prior to marriage, the strict ruling making the “Other” a more exotic breed, increasing instances of charades and pretenses that do not show up until after the marriage and later, leading to the breakdown of marriages. Iran still has the highest incidences of divorce in a Muslim country, where it is relatively easier for a Muslim woman to seek divorce from her husband compared to many other Muslim countries, mine included.

Within the fictive depiction of the political realities of Iran, Marjane draws into her memory bank that are layered over with nostalgia but with an acknowledgement of the harshness of her everyday life.  However, Marjane’s family is certainly not illustrative of most Iranian families, nor is her life. The independence of the women in her family is certainly not the norm of the majority of Iranian women, who had been trained from young to be respectful, at whatever cost, to the Name-of-the-Father. Even today, a young woman cannot travel out of the country without the consent of her male guardian (husband included), unless she is divorced.

On an aesthetic note, the use of black-and-white, old-styled comic book images provide the tinted glass through which the past is retold,  leaving enough vagueness to stir your imagination, affecting the audience cinaesthetically as they see the “book” come alive in their very eyes.

The critique against the Name-of-the-Father, the authority figure who dictates to the rest, who appoint themselves as guardian of knowledge and morals, is the theme shared by these two artists. But talk about countries that are currently hostile to one-another, yet share more similarity than they would ever acknowledge, in other words, each is the ego of the Other, to invoke Lacan.

(See Persepolis author’s blog)

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