At the onset of Shirin Neshat’s OverRuled, the audience is hailed as witness to a trial by a command to rise before the court. Our complicity in the action that unfolds deepens as two men and two women emerge from the audience and offer themselves to be tried at a proceeding that purports not to punish, but to redeem.
Set within a triptych comprised of two arms of uniform clad men flanking a lush stage set with mountains of legal books, the performance probes the potential for an ethics demanding the centrality of the individual. This way of being, defined by a person’s internal will, is deemed heretical by the judge and his court because it supplants the centrality of God.
Amid the rhetorical exchanges that surge from both defendants and judge is an injunction to “listen to the voice that doesn’t use words.” Logic begins to uncouple from discourse as layered whispers become amplified and dart across the stage to engender an irresistible affective pull on the audience, even as we catch glimpses of Farsi script that flash from books that open and close, and scrolls that unroll as exhibits to the prosecution. This motif of text abounds in Neshat’s visual art, and in this production she offers audiences yet another sensual flirtation with text. In the context of performance, Neshat reveals the artful transformation of the written word into an aesthetic presence.
It is within this very choreography of text and voice that Shirin Neshat’s visual artistry resonates in the context of performance. The whispers crescendo in the laments of Mohsen Namjoo and the musicians’ percussive musicality. It is through the emotional register of the music that OverRuled proposes an ethics rooted in the individual; the signifying quality and logic making powers of language are rendered impotent in the wake of the score’s irresistible materiality, with searing notes that cohere into a voice that does not need words to convey deep pathos and pain.