Interview by Filep Motwary
World acclaimed visual artist Shirin Neshat opens up about her largest exhibition to date—Living in One Land, Dreaming in Another at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich—for which, among other works, she has photographed a series of brutally honest portraits featuring minorities of the US. During our call, Neshat analyzed what the American dream stands for today, through her own experience and perspective as an immigrant Iranian woman in exile, living in New York.
FILEP MOTWARY: What was the starting point for your exhibition at the Pinakothek der Moderne?
SHIRIN NESHAT: It started with the film Land of Dreams (2021) which was a major project—my first project to be done in the United States. [It] allowed me to go back to my obsession with dreams. I’ve been, for several years, writing down my dreams and even filming my dreams and other people’s dreams. My own dreams have always been about my nightmares, like they’ve been a lot about fears and my own anxieties. This is my first time attempting to make a narrative about the US. I thought it would be really powerful to make a work that is very satirical and poetic and almost absurd as I touch on this bigger question of the identity of the US and whether it is truly a land of dreams. Is this a place that has historically welcomed the displaced and a place that was made with the blood of immigrants? Or is it changing? What does it mean today? Living in One Land, Dreaming in Another is based on this idea of choosing one state in America,
which became New Mexico, because it is the poorest state in America yet demographically very diverse. I needed a way to express a concept about an Iranian woman protagonist, myself, as an artist, going after American people’s dreams, American people from diverse races and backgrounds, and to see what they’re dreaming about, what are they thinking about, through photography, video and a movie. My fears were mainly not so much about the US, but my dreams were always about this unresolved relationship between Iran and the US and the fact that I live in exile or that I never see my family, etc.
FM: Do you think that the meaning of being a mother and motherhood changes depending on where you are?
SN: Well, I don’t know about other people, but for me, it’s been a very sad situation because I have a very elderly mother that lives in Iran. My sisters [live in Iran] as well. I speak with my mother every single day while I truly feel that she has been my very last strong tie to my country. If she dies, that relationship, not just to my parents, but to my country may end in a very big way. My fear is always the loss of that last thread because I’ve lived here for so long. The Land of Dreams obviously was the perspective of an immigrant looking at the issue of immigration in this country. It was to explore in a very kind of, again, poetic yet poetical way what are people fearful about these days, especially if they’re minorities. And what does America look like? I think we all suffer a great deal like negotiating between what we bring from one place, what we gain and what we lose from another. A lot of people choose to emigrate, by choice, while a lot of others don’t. There are political reasons, financial reasons. So, you can’t really put them in the same package.
For people like me, it is a question of revolution, risking life, etc. For example, the photographic installation—maybe you have seen some shots: there are like 111 photographs of very powerful faces of Americans, from Mexicans, black, natives, to white, to poor, rich, middle-class, young, old, men, women, functional, dysfunctional and, at the same time, beautiful. Together they create this tapestry of faces which, in my mind, represents what America looks like.
The video is 23 minutes long, it’s about my alter ego as an Iranian woman, going places door-to-door, asking Americans to see if she can photograph them and collect their dreams. To make this story short, the whole project of the artwork, while very satirical, very funny, absurd, very dark, [was] also extremely poetic as I’m humanistic as this woman. The more she goes after collecting people’s dreams, of her enemies’ dreams, the more she identified with their nightmares and dreams that, in the end, are quite universal and they cross cultural boundaries. A lot of what we fear is very common, regardless of whether you come from Cyprus or I come from Iran: we often worry about death, about displacement, about loss, about abandonment, about violence, separation.
FM: With the rise of social media, we are now discussing issues like never before like immigration and immigrants—people who rarely have the chance to have their voice heard.
SN: My work effort since the start has really taken my own characteristic in terms of the way I view the world, the way I function, the way I always try to see some poetry and beauty within the disturbing dark and melancholic and tragic material, and so I’ve always lived in my head and I’ve always created this universe, ever since I was a child. […] It has helped me to really find a way of escape from the banality of everyday life and also, I have periods of very difficult time being alone in this country, etc.
In general, the art that I make, and to this day as I go and think about new ideas, it’s always emotionally driven. And it’s a gut reaction but sometimes purely existential issues, but a lot of times it’s not. It’s really to do with a response to something that is happening around me. And that’s kind of inescapable. I realize that I’m not an activist, I’m an artist. I’m like a poet. What I’m trying to say is that I process material that comes my way being an Iranian; I’m surrounded by Iranian people who are extremely intelligent and extremely connected to that country, to their country and what’s going on in Iran. Yet living in New York, I am also American and I am surrounded by art and artists, western, and then I have my own issues as a human being, above and beyond being Iranian, you know?
FM: What does it mean to be a Muslim and a famous immigrant artist in the 21st century? What sort of power does it give you?
SN: At the beginning, when I came into the scene, especially with Women of Allah, the work was completely misunderstood and became very problematic, especially for the Muslims, because they thought I was radical, revolutionary. And then the ones who really hated the government, they thought that this work sort of endorses the rhetoric of the revolution, Iran. Later a lot of people felt it was an insult to Islam.
And so, then I moved on to making much more, I would say, poetic, lyrical work that is not directly political. I think that, in the beginning, also a lot of people suspected that I was tapping into a lot of subjects that were related to Islam or Iran because they were very sexy subjects and very controversial and it attracted a lot of interest because people were finding it kind of sensational. And then, slowly, they were able to give me more respect, understanding that I do many different kinds of work, which is layered. I frame questions, I don’t provide answers, and I think that’s a very important factor. I don’t know the answers. I don’t even live in the Islamic world. I don’t live in Iran. And even with the misunderstood Women of Allah, it was that it was a series of questions I had about martyrdom, about terrorists, to make people consider and think about it, to discuss it. A lot of people didn’t get that. If I’m making Land of Dreams about the United States, I’m questioning the issue about identity of the US, the question of race, the diversity of religion and what really constitutes the identity of this country. Of course, it’s allowed to have a lot of open space for interpretation.
FM: Why is the notion of belonging so important?
SN: It gives people a sense of security, yet personally, I have always felt the opposite because, since I was 17, I’ve been in between so I’ve never completely belonged to Iran or belonged to the United States. When I’m with a lot of Iranian people I feel slightly an outcast and when I’m with Americans definitely I feel like an outcast. I’ve al- ways been an outsider. When I speak with my sisters in Iran, I really do envy them because I feel that they are very grounded. They may have problems politically and economically, but when you talk to them there is a sense of profound sense of security and comfort in being in their own place and their own culture. And rituals that they can celebrate, people that they can visit, places that they don’t have to be so distant from. There is a great value in that which then becomes consequently very nostalgic and tragic when you don’t have any of that.
FM: Focusing on some of your past works, specifically Unveiling and Women of Allah, how relevant is the principle of covering the female body to conceal it from the male gaze?
SN: Obviously that’s a really big question. When I made [this] work, it was always in relation to women in Iran, not Muslim women in general. And, for example, I’ve done many different types of work that really explore the idea of the veil being as a sort of a sexual and political boundary between the private and public life of women and how, for example, men cannot control their sexual temptations while the women have to be always concealed. There are other aspects of the veil that is very folkloric for a lot of women; it’s a very traditional garment, so they don’t necessarily always treat it as a religious item. The work that I did in the past 10, 15 [years goes] beyond that: it focuses on modern Iranian women or Iranian women outside of Iran. Do you know Rapture, the video I did in 1999? It was about a group of women wearing black veils versus men with white shirts. It was very sculptural, a very visual story and not political at all. But in my photographs the veil was treated as a political symbol that was questionable in terms of both as a symbol of repression, but also, I [would] say, [a] symbol of solidarity, religion, etc. The veil is a choice for women. Whether they want to wear it or not, I respect but, but I do know some people wear it by force while others not. But it’s been always very interesting. The Unveiling, for example, was all about the relationship between the body and the veil. And the Women of Allah was the body, the veil, the weapon. I was very, very interested that the less you expose your body the more sensual and erotic the woman be- comes, ironically. So, it sort of defeats the purpose of concealing and sort of highlights that kind of eroticism.
FM: What does it mean for you to share your work with the public?
SN: I ideally like to see that the emotions of the work resonate with the people regardless of where they are from. That would be the most satisfying thing for me because my work has all these references to politics, to religion, history, but, in the end I really, really think that the highest priority for me, as an artist, is to make an impact on people more on the guttural level and more on a humanistic level that does not get reduced to being evaluated in terms of, “Oh this artist is trying to say this about culture or this religion”. Rather: how does it emotionally impact you?
The interview was originally published in Dapper Dan Magazine issue #25 – Spring/Summer 2022
Shirin Neshat is an Iranian visual artist who lives in New York City, known primarily for her work in film, video and photography.