Shirin Neshat’s work touches on topics like exile, political revolution and Iran’s past and future.
The artist Shirin Neshat has had an unusual trajectory to art world prominence. She left her native Iran as a teenager in the 1970s, before the revolution and the fall of the shah, and ended up studying at the University of California, Berkeley. By her own account, she didn’t end up making art seriously until her early 30s. But Ms. Neshat, 62, has become one of the most distinct practitioners in the media of photography, video and film.
Now New York-based and working with several assistants in a large Bushwick studio, Ms. Neshat makes art that touches on topics like exile, political revolution and Iran’s past and future. The biggest exhibition of her career, “Shirin Neshat: I Will Greet the Sun Again,” runs from Oct. 19 to Feb. 16 at The Broad in Los Angeles.
The show looks at her three-decade career — including her renowned ’90s series “Women of Allah,” with photographs overlaid in calligraphy — but much of the attention will be on a new body of work called “Land of Dreams.”
It comprises a series of 111 photographic portraits of Americans hung in salon-style arrangement and two surreal, black-and-white videos. In the videos, which she considers a “diptych,” an Iranian photographer in exile travels around New Mexico, taking portraits and asking subjects about their dreams. It’s then revealed that the images and information she has harvested are being analyzed by a secret colony of Iranian scientists working in a bunker. Although portrayed by an actress, the photographer/spy is a stand-in for Ms. Neshat and the unconventional gathering of ideas that fuels her art.
“It’s true to say that every artist’s work is a projection of who they are and the life they have lived,” she said in her studio over the summer. “I have no interest in making autobiographical work, but the work is personal.” The following conversation has been edited and condensed.
I’ve had this obsession with dreams. Making films about dreams, you’re able to touch on a lot of sociopolitical, cultural and emotional issues. Because dreams are innocent. There’s a universality about them, and they are cross-cultural.
The way you’ve set it up in the film, Iranians and Americans are at odds, but in complicated and nuanced ways.
Think about the fanaticism of the Iranian government and the fanaticism in this country, and the years of antagonism between the Iranian and American cultures. We make monsters out of each other. They demonize American culture, people and government; and the Americans demonize the Muslims. And so in the story, the Iranians are collecting people, via their dreams. For me it was a parody, done with surrealism and absurdity.
I’m really rooted in the Iranian culture I come from. I think there are a lot of emotions in the work, and I think that’s something that makes it non-Western, in a way. There’s a culture of poetry in Iran, and we are all deeply poetic in the way that we express ourselves. There’s a lot of longing, there’s a lot of nostalgia. The Broad exhibition is not only my biggest ever, it’s also a major show in Los Angeles, which has the largest Iranian community outside of Iran. And I felt that it was important to make a work that talks about being an immigrant, especially being an Iranian immigrant, today.
I used to really insist on working with a 16- or 35-millimeter camera in our filmmaking and in my still photography work; we always worked with film. But more and more I gravitated toward digital cameras because the amount of control and freedom I gained in the final output was incomparable. But my work is always about a balance: I use my own hands to write old-fashioned, traditional calligraphy. I’m very interested in this fusion between the old and the new, the ancient and the contemporary. Even in the way that I dress, I combine the kohl from ancient Egypt around my eyes with very modern, minimal clothes.
I was very blessed because I grew up in a middle-upper-class environment, but we never went to museums. It was a small town, and we were very provincial. My father was an intellectual, he was a very unusual Iranian; he traveled a lot, he read many books, and he was a physician and a farmer. So I think he was my inspiration in terms of thinking that anything was possible. But what grew in me to become an artist was really instinctive, something that I still don’t understand.
It’s a sweet-and-sour history for me. I am very lucky that my mother’s still around, my family still lives in Iran. But on a daily basis when I speak to my mother, we’re reminded of how we have been perpetually separated.
I found myself alone in this country. So I had to decide on the course of my life. That next 10 years became kind of a dark period for me because I was pretty horrified about this separation, and not knowing how to take care of myself financially and emotionally. And I think much of the work that I do today‚ with its melancholy tone and its addressing of issues like abandonment, being an outcast, being always an outsider — they all come from my experience. It was kind of tough. I was not good at school when I was at U.C. Berkeley; I think I was one of the worst students. I didn’t blossom.
I was working for 10 years for a nonprofit organization that still exists called the Storefront for Art and Architecture. Along the way, people discovered my work and included me in some exhibitions. And so I became discovered by accident.
It took me a while to take myself seriously. And I think that’s the preferable way. A lot of artists are at school, and they’re trying to have a career immediately after they graduate. I tell them, “You have to live a life and not make art because of the need of career.”
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