Iranian artist Shirin Neshat on art, politics and changing the world – interview

Iran’s foremost female artist tells Art Radar how she uses art to explore fundamental human truths.

Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat and Christy MacLear, the Executive Director of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, speak to Art Radar about the Foundation’s new One-to-One artist initiative, the current exhibition Our House is on Fire in New York City, and Neshat’s internationally acclaimed works on culture, gender and politics.

Shirin Neshat Portrait by Lina Bertucci. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

Shirin Neshat, portrait by Lina Bertucci. Image courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

On 30 January 2014, New York visitors attended the opening of the exhibition Our House is on Firewhich showcased works by Shirin Neshat for the new One-to-One initiative. The project was created by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (RRF) to “support contemporary artists as they create work in the service of advancing human rights, cultural understanding, and international peacekeeping.”

The foundation selected Neshat as their first artist for this initiative. Known for photography, video installations and films on Islamic culture, religion and politics Neshat chose to travel to Cairo and conceive a new series of photographs depicting “personal and national loss” by Egyptians after the failed revolution for the initiative. The exhibition runs until 1 March 2014.

Christy MacLear Portrait by Carsten Fleck. Courtesy of Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Christy MacLear Portrait by Carsten Fleck. Courtesy of Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York.

Rauschenberg’s legacy and how art can change the world

Could you tell Art Radar about the history of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation? When was the Rauschenberg Project Space founded and for what purpose?

Christy MacLear [CM]: The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation was actually founded by Bob during his lifetime. The Foundation was one of many ways in which the artist was philanthropic – the others including grants he gave to artists in emergency needs, his advocacy for artist rights throughout his life, and his record of developing work to benefit causes such as the environment or social justice. After Bob’s death, the Foundation received the assets from his estate which expanded the role to now include: managing his artwork and legacy; fulfilling a larger philanthropic programme; and starting up a residency for artists of all disciplines on his estate in Captiva.

The Rauschenberg Project Space used to be a warehouse which stored artwork but sat largely under-utilised. We converted it from a warehouse into a project space in order to pilot a number of ideas, strategic directions, which the Foundation was considering as we were developing our programmatic plan for how to serve artists and our community best.

We wanted to test three things: what if we mounted exhibitions of other artists inspired by the values which exemplify Bob’s legacy? What if we used the project space to connect to our Residency in Captiva? And finally, what if we allowed space to be a benefit for our grantees? We have tested all of these ideas and some have worked well – others less well – but all telling in how to serve an understanding of Rauschenberg’s legacy and our community.

Shirin Neshat, 'Our House Is on Fire', 2013, photography series. ©Shirin Neshat. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Shirin Neshat, ‘Our House Is on Fire’, 2013, photography series. ©Shirin Neshat. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Could you tell us about the One-to-One initiative and how the foundation supports the selected artist?

[CM]: The One-to-One initiative is an outgrowth of our Artist as Activist Award. The Board chose Shirin Neshat to receive this award [because] her work has had a profound impact on our global cultural understanding.

We supported her travel to Egypt to develop a new body of work with the intent of providing a platform for her voice and having an edition for sale to benefit a nonprofit of her choice. The richness of this project was unexpected – her studio assistant’s loss defining the soul of the work; the turbulence of Egypt during this moment in time, hence elevating the conversation; and finally, the chance to show the works in our project space pulling this whole narrative together.

What prompted the foundation to create this initiative? Why now?

[CM]: This programme relates directly to our mission. It shows how ‘Art can change the world’ by virtue of creating understanding across cultures and elevating the platform for an artist to speak about issues which matter most to them. Bob also was an artist who expressly wanted to be surrounded by other artists – in dialogue with them – so using the values which define his legacy to showcase those who follow in similar footsteps is a powerful agent for us.

What was it like working with Shirin Neshat?

[CM]: Shirin is the most gracious person. I have often called her the “quiet lion” when we speak of this project in our halls. She is gentle and honourable to all viewpoints, she has a soft melodious voice and a generous way of being with other people. She also has a fire inside of her which helps point out global truths and issues with a clear beacon of light. When she speaks her words are chosen, heartfelt but have the power and poignancy with the energy a lion’s roar. She is fearless and clear – she is centred and through this personal, almost spiritual clarity alters a discussion which most fashionably avoid for fear of division of audience. I am proud to imagine she is my friend after this project – out of my respect for her work and the values she lives by.

Our House Is on Fire series 2013. ©Shirin Neshat. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

Shirin Neshat, ‘Our House Is on Fire’, 2013, series. Image courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Shirin Neshat’s development as an artist

You grew up in Iran, and studied at University of California (UC), Berkeley. Could you describe your background and the development of your vision as an artist?

Shirin Neshat [SN]: Growing up in Iran, I was always interested in art, but I had no idea about it because where I lived, in a small Iranian town, I never had access to any form of classic or modern art. In fact, my family has never entered to this day an art museum. In general, in Iran the concept of visual art is still a very new concept. I had the inclination to be an artist, but it was childish and premature. When I came to UC Berkeley, I naturally wanted to study art and signed up for undergraduate and graduate school. It was then I quickly found that there was a naivete in my passion for art.

My education, my time in school, was not the most fruitful; I didn’t produce the best work mainly because I didn’t have the mental capacity to create great work. So, I went to school, but when I finished my education I abandoned art all together.

I went back to making art when I moved to New York, after years of gaining a certain level of maturity and intellectual capacity to have ideas that are worth expressing, and also discovering my own aesthetic. My upbringing and my interest as a young child in art and later my education in art have nothing to do with what I do today. Since I finished my education that I really started to put the dots together, and why I want to make art, and in what fashion I want to make it. The beginning for me was 1990s, I was already 32 or 33 years old, not before then.

Untitled, Women of Allah series, 1996. RC print and ink. Photo by Larry Barns. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

Shirin Neshat, Untitled, “Women of Allah” series, 1996, RC print and ink. Photo by Larry Barns. Image courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

What made you begin to be an artist then? What triggered you to have that moment?

[SN]: I feel that to be an artist, you have to have ambition, have something really urgent and pressing, and I didn’t have that until then. But at the age of 32, I finally had a chance to visit my country, not having been there for good 12 years. That visit had a profound impact on me. Not only I hadn’t seen my family, I also did not have a sense of how it’s like to be in my country after the Islamic revolution.

It was the subject of Islamic revolution that really became compelling to me, as an Iranian who wasn’t there while it happened in 1979. My return to art then was [because] I was a mature person, and I had a subject matter that was very pressing for me and very interesting – the Islamic revolution – and the way in which the Islamic revolution transformed lives, but more specifically women’s lives. My first body of work started with the photography series, Women of Allah (1993-1997), about the Islamic revolution.

Shirin Neshat, 'Our House Is on Fire', 2013, photography series. ©Shirin Neshat. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Shirin Neshat, ‘Our House Is on Fire’, 2013, photography series. ©Shirin Neshat. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Our House Is on Fire? A visual poetry of personal and national loss

Could you talk about the works in this exhibition, Our House Is on Fire? How did you select the individuals in the photographs? How did the works for this exhibition come about?

[SN]: About a year and a half to two years ago I was approached by the Rauschenberg Foundation, who initiated a project where they would invite an artist once a year to come up with a concept. They would make a work of art that could be sold, but the profit could benefit a nonprofit organisation that the artist chooses. This is a real tribute to Rauschenberg’s legacy of donating and participating in humanitarian projects and causes. I really welcome the idea, I thought it was a wonderful opportunity.

Of course, I don’t produce work in this country [the United States], most of my work takes place in the Middle East, so I asked if I can develop an idea that takes place in Egypt because I happened to be travelling to Egypt a lot for another film project. They supported that idea and even the idea of donating the money to charitable organisations in Egypt especially since there’s a lot of need and a lot of poverty in Egypt.

Installation view, The Book of Kings, 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery

Shirin Neshat, ‘The Book of Kings’, 2012, installation view. Image courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery.

I went in October or November of 2012 with my collaborator, someone who always takes the photos for me, Larry Barnes. I went with an idea to try to focus on the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution in Cairo, the Arab Spring, because I already created a series of works called “The Book of Kings” (2012) which mainly captured the euphoric energy of the Arab Spring. Now with the sense of defeat and despair that followed the revolution, I thought it would be important to go into a series of photographs that show the aftermath.

Now having said that, at the same time Larry had a personal tragedy where his young 22 year old daughter died very suddenly, two months prior to our departure. So he was also grieving, and this absolutely shadowed our journey because he is my very close friend, his daughter grew up with my daughter, and we were both grieving.

So it was a very emotional time for us. When we arrived in Cairo and were trying to follow my first interest and pursue the aftermath of the revolution, I realised that the most significant topic in my mind was the subject of loss, whether it’s a personal loss of a family who lost a child in the revolution or national loss, the feeling of despair and depression felt in Cairo, in the community, not just on the individual level.

So this way, I could even connect Larry’s sorrow with the Egyptian sorrow, and the universality of this kind of sorrow that transcends our differences, our class, national background, our age.

I have also decided that since the earlier works were about young people, the youth who brought the revolution. I wanted to now photograph older people who were the family, who suffered a lot, who weren’t the activist themselves but [felt] the consequence of them. So we set up a studio in downtown Cairo, in a not-for-profit organisation, and I reached out to an elderly who worked there and who spoke English, and basically asked him to help me facilitate introduction to some of people who are quite poor and on the street level. I wanted to capture people who were not so privileged.

As I started, we brought these people who were mostly 65 and above, and extremely poor, and gave them a little bit of money and a very wonderful exchange between human to human happened, and we told them stories including Larry’s story and asked them if they could share some personal tragedies. It was almost like a documentary except the camera was running, and we didn’t ask them to really talk about it but rather show in their gaze the emotions.

Shirin Neshat, 'Our House Is on Fire', 2013, photography series. ©Shirin Neshat. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Shirin Neshat, ‘Our House Is on Fire’, 2013, photography series. Image courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Did you discuss your idea behind the project with your subjects?

[SN]: Yes, we discussed the ideas with them, but we didn’t want them to necessarily talk about it if they didn’t want to. Some people did anyway, and some people didn’t but regardless, every single one of them had some sort of a personal narrative of loss.

Could you tell me some of the personal stories behind the individuals in these portraits?

[SN]: Many of them lost children. And the ones that rang a bell to me the most, because we photographed women and men, the women were much more expressive in terms of crying really loud. Two of the women lost children in the revolution and the others lost young children at some point.

A lot of them, it was combined pressure of being extremely poor, barely having any access to medical health, and on top of it having these political issues on their back. So it was a really heavy burden on them from every dimension. Even if you look at the revolution, the majority of the people protesting were probably not the rich people. I’m sure there are some too, but like soldiers, majority of the people who fight, who are unafraid, don’t have much to protect or lose.

It was very painful to see that these people have been hit at from every dimension, and on top of it they were aged, so they really felt the passage of time so there was this existential pressure as well as emotional. It was really devastating. My friend who is the photographer is in his 70s, and he was also older and every time one of the people would come and cry, he would also cry, and I would cry so there was this intense humanity. I just have to say that we forgot about art and were in this experience that became above and beyond what we were working on.

Shirin Neshat, 'Our House Is on Fire', 2013, photography series. ©Shirin Neshat. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Shirin Neshat, ‘Our House Is on Fire’, 2013, photography series. Image courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Capturing emotion and moving audiences

In general, is it the emotional aspect that inspires you to create your works?

[SN]: I think in general, my works are emotional, and I think it communicates to the people in a way that it moves them. I’m not a documentary person so even if their story moves me, I would have been able to make a work that on its own didn’t move people. I had to, in the end, create artworks that transferred that experience from my subjects to the audience. It wasn’t something that I can write about, put their voices or make a film about, so I had to make sure that the way I photograph them, the way I talk to them, I was able to capture their pain, and it was going to be the tool to talk to the audience.

So yes, it had to be an artistic tool to get that out as a way of communicating. I think, to be very honest, in all of my work, there is that intention of making work that while it could have so many dimensions, political, moral, existential dimensions, it has to have an emotional dimension. I cannot make, it may be my cultural background, but I really like things that move me, and I like to move other people.

Our House Is on Fire series 2013. ©Shirin Neshat. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

Shirin Neshat, ‘Our House Is on Fire’, 2013, photography series. Image courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

In this exhibition and in your photographic series there are powerful images of feet overlaid with Persian writing. What does this symbolise and what is the story behind this image?

[SN]: You are right in the sense that particularly in the “Women of Allah” series, which was the Islamic revolution, I reduced my use of the bodies to the hands, feet and the face really. In women under the veil those are the only things that can be exposed. I found tremendous possibilities through very few parts of the body, how you can be so expressive.

Through a simple gaze, hand or feet of a Muslim woman, so much can be told. We can often use body language in terms of movement, which can be very expressive. The bottom of the feet interested me particularly because it’s rather taboo in Islamic countries to show the bottom of your feet, which is the dirtiest part of the body. Yet, when people die, the images we see a lot even in Egypt, after a military attack, were rows of men who died, and rows of feet with just a tag between their toes. It was devastating to me that ultimately that’s what remained – they covered the body, and the tags became your identity.

Are the images of feet about execution and violent death?

[SN]: For me, the images of these feet became unforgettable, of young men who were revolutionary who were killed, and at the end their feet were in a tag that identified them. So in the context of this exhibition and context of why these people are crying, you have to have something that connects it to the political references, that this is partially outside of their own control.

Could you talk a bit about the Persian writing used in the images?

[SN]: It’s been my signature to use text over the body, mainly because I find this aesthetically very wonderful. Aesthetics is also a very big part of classical Islamic art, the way that text and image are often integrated in Islamic architecture, Persian miniature paintings, even crafts – in carpets, dishes, there’s this perpetual integration of text and image.

I guess somewhere in my past I was inspired, and yet within my themes when people are so introverted and so silent, the writing gives them kind of a voice and an intellectual strength. It’s a voice. Like in my videos, the music becomes the voice, here the poetry becomes the voice. But also in both cases, the poetry [or] the song adds an emotional dimension to the work that neutralises the political dimension of the work.

Of course, the theme of the poetry changes from series to series. For this series, I used a particular type of literature that’s revolutionary, people who described the chaos, poets in Iran who are describing similar images as it’s happening in Egypt. I translated one poem, “A Cry” by Mehdi Akhavan Sales, in the exhibition, just to give one example, to let the audience know the kind of literature that I’ve been using. The poems are by contemporary poets, some who have died recently but poets who are iconic in the Iranian community.

Shirin Neshat, 'Speechless', 1996. Gelatin silver print and ink. Image courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

Shirin Neshat, ‘Speechless’, 1996, gelatin silver print and ink. Image courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Could you talk about the poetry, novels and literatures that have inspired your works?

[SN]: It’s interesting because I’m not the kind of person who is extremely well read, but from the beginning since I started making art, the thing that has inspired me the most, that has provoked my visual imagination has been literature. Either poems or novels that I’ve read and loved.

In the beginning with the “Women of Allah” it was poetry. Then when I got into movie and video making, it became novels, but all by Iranian women writers, some of whom I was not only fascinated by their literature but who they were as people. And their position as women, feminists, mothers, as intellectuals, I just found them fascinating, and as I went into movies, Women Without Men, which was based on a magic realist novel by Shahrnush Parsipur.

Now I’m working on a ballet piece with the Dutch National Ballet on the Shakespeare’s Tempest, which is an up and coming new work. Iranian people have a strong affinity with poetry, more than other countries that I know. Iranian people depend on reading poetry to transcend time. They had difficult periods in history and Iranian people express themselves in poetry, and also read a lot of poetry almost as a philosophical guidance, so I think it comes naturally for Iranians. This passion and desire for both reading and also expressing themselves with literature.

Some of the writers I’m interested in are very visual; for example, Women Without Men is a visual realist novel. It’s a very visual novel. One poet whom I am obsessed with, Forough Farokhzad, she is no longer alive, but her poetry is extremely visual. And she wrote in metaphors, like when she talks about the garden, she is talking about the woman. She has this way of describing things that are visually tangible, so often I think my photographs are an embodiment of her poetry.

Shirin Neshat, 'Rapture Series', 1999, gelatin silver print. Image courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Shirin Neshat, ‘Rapture Series’, 1999, gelatin silver print. Image courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

In your works Turbulent (1998), Rapture (1999) and Fervor (2000), you’ve explored women’s issues in Iran and Muslim cultures. What drew you to make these films?

[SN]: These three works you’ve mentioned create a trilogy. It was my fascination at the time because Turbulent was made in 1998, Rapture in 1999, and Fervor in 2000. They were made rather quickly. It was a very lyrical trilogy, it was not a documentary, and it was highly stylised, and fictional. It was essentially about how men and women are treated in a radically different way in the Islamic world, and more specifically, it was about the Iranian society, and how women, as opposed to men, are pressed up against the wall. The women are deprived of so many things that men are not deprived of, and because they are so pressed up against the wall it has made the women confrontational and strong. In every one of these themes, you see the man versus the woman. The men are doing conformist things, and it’s the women who are breaking the rules. Every single time, it’s the woman that does something radical. So for me, it was symbolically referring to reality in a sense about how incredibly rebellious and defiant Iranian women are despite what has happened to them in their country. And I think again, I love how through fiction, you can hint at reality. I think, it’s my belief that in the Iranian society, the women are up against the wall much more than men, but consequently, women are much stronger and tougher.

Zarin series from Women Without Men, 2005. c-print. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Shirin Neshat, ‘Women Without Men’, 2005, c-print. Image courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Depicting lives of Iranian women in the 1950s through film

Your first feature film, Women Without Men (2009), based on a novel by Shahrnush Parsipur, is made up of stories of four women – Munis, Faezeh, Fakhri and Zarin – set in 1950s Iran. Could you tell us a little about why you chose to depict the lives of these four women?

[SN]: Originally, the project started out as a feature film, but I knew that because I am a visual artist that I was very interested in pursuing an art component to the film. I’m very interested in cinema, and I wanted to do a film purely for theatrical release, and had that kind of narrative development, language, and all the pacing that is necessary for the people to comprehend it for mass culture. But I also wanted to see if I could create a series of video installations, which was eventually created and exhibited in museums where the film was actually broken into characters.

Each character had their own video, [and] although the videos were short they conveyed the nature of the character, their conflicts, aspirations but all without language and editing and the way of telling was very different than the one created for cinema. It ended up being a feature length film and five videos about each character, and one of those characters was eliminated for the feature film, she was far too magical.

One of the reasons that I was interested in making the film about this book was the choice of characters. The writer, I think, did an amazing job of creating a narrative. Every woman came from a completely different socio-economic class, and with a different kind of a problem.

We had the character, Fakhri, who was very wealthy, very westernised, and her interests were completely narcissistic. Then you have the two women, Munis and Faezeh who came from middle-class, religious families, who were really inundated with all sorts of taboos and question of oppression by the family who were very religious. One of them wanted to be politically active, but her family didn’t want her to do that. The other character just wanted to get married, but she got raped and she was so religious that it destroyed her. And the fourth character was from the lower class: Zarin was a prostitute [and] had no choice but to become a prostitute because of her childhood, yet she was going mad from all the guilt and shame. So I love the fact that through different characters, you can travel through different socio-economic classes and show Iranian society at different facets during 1953. So, that was one of my attractions, and I tried to stay truthful as much as possible to the idea behind the original writer’s story.

Do you feel that the writer’s story truly depicts what was going on in Iran at the time?

[SN]: That book is about Iran in 1953 before I was born, and she wrote this novel in the 1990s. But yes, it was inspired by what she knew. She was born there, but she was very young. That is a very interesting period of Iran, before the revolution when we were a cosmopolitan society, and we also had the problem of British and American involvement, and politically it was also a very difficult time. Although the story is magical realism, the writer recognised that this is a very rare period in Iranian history that has not really been talked about very much whether through literature or film. My film became unique in a way that it tried to capture and depict that period.

How did you go about recreating the scenes? Was it through photography?

[SN]: That’s the thing about filmmaking, and I am doing that right now with the next film. It involves a tremendous amount of research, years and years of collecting archival footage and photographs. We had to research the architecture of the time to interior design, the women’s costumes for four different characters that came from different socio-economic class. We had to look at the music that was used at the time, and all of this had to be done in Morocco because we couldn’t shoot in Iran, so it was really a major undertaking.

Did you like this process of discovery?

[SN]: I love that process. I’m glad you asked because it’s almost unimaginable how much work it takes to make a movie, especially a period movie, especially with the small budget that we have. But it’s extremely satisfying because it’s a real process as opposed to an art process, studio work where you stand in front of a wall and do whatever that comes out of your stream of consciousness. This is a process that requires so much detail and information, even gathering that, it takes a lot of patience but it becomes very addictive, and I really love that process because you actually feel like you are learning, learning and learning. As hard as it was to make the film, I have to say that it was one of the most satisfying artistic experiences I’ve had.

Shirin Neshat, 'Women Without Men', 2009, feature film still. Image courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Shirin Neshat, ‘Women Without Men’, 2009, feature film still. Image courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Country as character

What would you like the audience to take away from viewing the film Women Without Men?

[SN]: I am an artist who is most interested in allegorical messages. I am not interested in making works that tell people what to think or how to feel, rather for them to be able to have an open interpretation. In this film, clearly, the way the film was created, visually, narratively, in the way we followed the woman, and their plights; equally, we followed the country and their plights. We tried to make the audience feel that the woman and the country were the same thing. They were all looking for an idea of freedom, and the country became the fifth character. I think it’s basically, as said in a beautiful voice over at the end, “all we wanted was an idea of change.” Now that change can be personal or national. I’m very interested in connecting the individual to the community, connecting the personal and social, and this has been my interest forever.

Underlying all of my work where I can tell a single individual’s pain, but it’s really about national pain. In the same way that we pursued every woman; what is their problem? What kind of solution are they looking for? What is their transformation? We did the same thing with the country of Iran. What is happening? What are their problems? What are they looking for? And what is the ending? And in the end, it was the same, both the woman and the country wanted independence, freedom and change. To me, that was the most poignant message of the film.

I’d like to go back to one question. When making your films, you’ve said in a previous interview that you look at a film scene as you would look at a photograph. Is this still a part of your process?

[SN]: I feel there are many artists that make movies, and I think different artists when they approach cinema make different decisions. Either they go so much towards the conventional narrative film that they forget that they are artists, or they make such artistic films that it can’t be treated as a theatrical release. So my idea is to bring my strength as a visual artist and yet open up to the idea of the cinematic language and meet cinema halfway. And in Women Without Men, we truly did that where every single frame of the picture was a photograph. I was really lucky to be able to work with a great cinematographer who was able to capture that.

Were you able to put the team together for the film yourself?

[SN]: No, the producers introduced me to the cinematographer who was Austrian. The Iranian cinematographer that we were hoping to work with couldn’t work with us because of how controversial I am. So it was a blessing because [the Austrian] was young, very eager, very experimental. Actually, I want to work with him again because he really understood what is like to make art with movie making. I think he said this is the most visual film that he’s made. I hope to work with him on my next film, The Voice of Egypt, on musician Oum Kulthoum.

Shirin Neshat, 'Women Without Men', 2009, feature film still. Image courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Shirin Neshat, ‘Women Without Men’, 2009, feature film still. Image courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Why do you think this film was seen as important enough to win the Silver Lion award for best director at the Venice Biennale?

[SN]: I think the film was a real original film. It’s not a masterpiece, it’s not a perfect film. It’s got a lot of flaws, but it’s not like any other film. It really stands out on its own, again, for the fact that I don’t come from cinema, and I have this naïve relationship. It has a kind of a fresh look to filmmaking. But perhaps it’s still too obscure for some people, but the award was given for the direction it took, and for the confidence it took to be what it is.

In the press release from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, it states “following her recent photographic series The Book of Kings (2012), which captured the spirit of activism across the Middle East during the Arab Spring, the Rauschenberg Foundation commissioned Neshat to create a new body of work. As a reflection on the aftermath of the failed revolution in Egypt, Neshat conceived a new series of photographs…” which culminated in the works for this current exhibition, Our House Is on Fire (2014). These two latest exhibitions in New York City brought you to the foreground in raising public awareness both on a “personal and national level” with works based on current political events in the Middle East. Will you continue to work on current events?

[SN]: Well, I go back and forth, and in the middle of making these photographs, I made a video with Natalie Portman which was totally outside of these parameters. In fact, you don’t even know where the source of this culture is. It’s all in nature and very psychological, so I think it’s interesting. Consistently in my work, I always seem to have a footing in deeply socio-political work as an Iranian and someone who responds to socio-political realities that affect me directly. I also seem to thrive on works that are totally existential and have nothing to do with race, culture and gender etc. I seem to go back and forth, and I must say that the Arab Spring movement had a profound effect on me and the Iranian community, so I did feel compelled to pay tribute to this patriotism. Also, it must be having made so many films, I was becoming nostalgic for studio work, when I can use my hands. Now, I’m becoming nostalgic for making films and video so I sort of go back and forth in switching mediums.

Shirin Neshat studio, 2014. Photo by Christine Lee

Shirin Neshat in her studio, 2014. Photo by Christine Lee

The phrase “artist in exile” has come to signify many different notions in the art community. Could you tell me what this phrase means to you? And do you consider yourself as an artist in exile?

[SN]: Well the thing is I was not forced to exile, and there’s a finality to that that I’m not comfortable with. It’s more of a self-imposed exile. I’m more comfortable with [that term], and there is truth in it. I haven’t been back since 1996, but it’s probably not a very good idea for me to go back. It’s more of a personal choice, yet there’s a reality that the realm of politics forced on us that we don’t have many choices in, and this is not unique to me. I wish that like many people I could go home, visit my family, visit where I came from, but that choice is absent so I have to deal with it. But it’s not like the government has me on a blacklist. So for me, I would say it’s a self-imposed exile but in a way, in reality, it’s also has had advantages. I’ve learned to work nomadically, I’ve learned to be very independent, I tend to be very global in thinking, I belong to the world. So I lost a sense of purity of belonging. I go to Egypt, I go to Morocco, I go to Mexico. I think that nomadic is a better word than exile. In fact, who knows, maybe I can go back tomorrow, but I will still continue to be nomadic. I am not able to be fixated in one place.

Photography and film have been your main medium to convey your ideas. Is there any other medium you would like to explore?

[SN]: It’s been very interesting as I am now in the middle of collaborating with a dance choreographer. It’s the Dutch National Ballet, doing The Tempest. I think every time you have a new beginning, it’s like the same feeling of being thrilled but also really scared because this is an audience you are not familiar with, a language you are not familiar with. So again, it’s how to break down a story, without using any language. So I’m working together with the choreographer and video.

The choreographer, who is originally Polish, is the chief choreographer in the Dutch National Ballet and also the Warsaw National Ballet, and he approached me to collaborate with him one day. At the time, I was like, “ballet?!” For years he kept pursuing [me], and we met in Europe and I said “why not?”

We started to choose the story; The Tempest is about exile, colonialism, and it’s a fantastic story about storms but also a psychological space of men who are kind of in a space of exile. It’s just a fantastic story that can have a Middle Eastern twist to it. So, with the dramaturgist, also my husband who is involved in it, we broke down the story, we tried to read it, tried to understand and visualise it, and slowly it became a reality.

Right now, it’s opening in June of 2014 in Amsterdam. I’m extremely nervous but super excited because it’s asking a completely different artistic attention from me. It’s very technical. It’s a two-hour programme, and I have to keep in mind the music, the dancers, the set, and all the different screens we have, so it’s a very tedious project, but I enjoy it a lot. The way we are approaching it is trying to picture a relationship between what is happening on stage versus what is happening on video. Dance is so abstract, it’s all body movements, but with a video we can complete the narratives in a way for the audience to give more hints on the development of the story. Although there wouldn’t be a language, what we are doing with the dancers is [discovering] how the two things are able to work together to tell a story and have an aesthetic power. It has to be visually engaging.

Are there any new projects you are working on?

[SN]: I am working on the film about Oum Kulthoum. It reminds me so much about the Women Without Men film and the challenges we had. The film is very epic, very ambitious. It’s a period film. Again it’s a story about the relationship between the country and a woman artist, in the way that we can tell the story of the country through this woman. There’s this connection between art and politics, and mysticism through her music which is so fantastic and the political turmoil in the country, the revolutions and war. There’s a softness to the film because it’s so lyrical and so wonderful, but it’s going to be hardcore and brutal because it’s on revolutions and war. It’s already been already four years working on this film, and I truly believe that we will shoot this film, if not late 2014 then some time in 2015.

Christy, are there current or upcoming programmes that you would like to talk about at Robert Rauschenberg Foundation?

[CM]: In the past month, we hosted ten artists at the residency representing the Middle East as well as the United States (as it relates to Shirin’s show). These artists are a part of the ten artists every four to six week cycles in Captiva. In the coming month, we will be announcing a programme where Rauschenberg works will be pulled into the holdings of some of our country’s greatest museums. This is a wonderful announcement as we ensure broad access to Bob’s work.

It is the spirit of Bob’s work and his generous nature which defined this wonderful programme which Shirin has graciously participated in. We are thankful for her voice and for opening our eyes.

Christine Lee


Related Topics: Iranian artistsfilmfeminist artphotographynonprofit organisations

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