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Iranian artist Shirin Neshat moves between fiction and reality

29 November 2023
Shirin Neshat was born in Qazvin, Iran and journeyed to the United States in 1974 to pursue her fine art studies at the University of California, Berkeley. The Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979 delayed her return to Iran until 1990. During this visit, she observed the profound societal, ideological, political, and cultural shifts—notably, the veiling of women, gender segregation, and the altered legal status of women.
In 1993, having resettled in New York City, Neshat discovered her artistic voice. Over four years, she developed Women of Allah, a significant series featuring black and white photographs, largely self-portraits, reflecting on the drastically changed Iranian society she had left behind. Neshat has since been celebrated for her continuous introspection and evolution across various mediums, including installation, film and opera, with a consistent thematic focus on identity, shame, power, religion, femininity, desire, repression, and political and social dissent.
In January, Neshat unveiled The Fury, an exhibition comprising a double-channel video installation and a series of photographs embellished with hand-drawn calligraphic poems by Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad. She further extended her artistic practise by guest-curating the sixteenth issue of Der Greif magazine in November.
Speaking from her studio in New York City, we discuss the guest-editing process, her personal and professional disciplines, the nuances of creative doubt and uncertainty, her diverse cross-disciplinary interests, and her aspirations for her artistic legacy.

Shirin Neshat Hello! Thank you so much for talking with me.

Rachel Weinberg Oh, of course. I studied your work in high school, so this feels like a real full circle moment.

SN Was your school in Australia? I've never been to Australia.

RW Really? Because you exhibited your film with Natalie Portman at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2020?

SN Yes, I was invited a couple of times, but it was too far (laughs). Rachel, I want to warn you that in half an hour, this photographer, actually you might know him, Youssef Nabil—he's a great Egyptian photographer—is coming. He’s an artist and takes pictures of other artists. He happens to be in town from Paris, so he’s coming over. He's incredible. You should check out his work.

RW I will!

SN I didn't mean to press you! I just wanted to tell you if the doorbell rings, I have to go get him.

RW That's perfectly fine. What will you wear for the photo?

SN It's funny because if you see my closet, I have the same shoes ten times, same pants six times. I have a very obsessive relationship to my style. I also have an obsessive relationship with food and exercise because I have a lot of anxiety so the only thing I can do is exert myself. I do the same thing almost every day; it gives me a sense of comfort. I think that’s how I deal with my madness.

RW There's comfort in routine because you are in control, you write your path.

SN I always feel like I’m falling off the edge, so I try to feel like I'm in control. I protect myself with simple things, rituals that give me some sense of security. I'm sure you do too, every one of us, in a way, learn how to watch out for ourselves. I think with style, it's not really about impressing people, but rather what you feel like you look good in. For Youssef, I didn’t really feel like dressing up. I feel like just being simple. I put on my eyeliner, some makeup, a little earring. It makes me feel better about myself. And therefore, when I'm talking to you, I feel a little better. But a few minutes ago, I was a mess (laughs).

RW Have you always been like that?

SN Yes, I think I have. Definitely since I was 17 and came to study in this country! I've had a lot of roller coasters in my life. And really, there are certain things have been very constant, and those are my food patterns and my exercise and my makeup and hairstyle. I am very consistent.

RW I think people that step up every day and consistently present themselves and consistently conduct themselves, have a lot of strength.

SN I guess all you can do is try. I am very disciplined about work too. I'm a workaholic.

RW It's your purpose, at least part of your purpose. This is a good Segway to one of your most recent projects, which was your guest editorship for Issue 16 of Der Greif Magazine. What was that process like?

SN Well, I'm very used to wearing different hats. Before I became an artist, I worked at a not-for-profit organisation where I was always helping with publications, conferences and exhibitions. I've been in that position of serving other artists, which I think is really a good practise because it makes you think outside of yourself. When Simon [Lovermann], the editor of Der Greif, invited me, I was hesitant at first, but then I thought that it’s actually a good idea. What I didn’t anticipate was the diversity of artists included, they were from so many cultural backgrounds—from all over Africa, South America, India, Pakistan, the Middle East, Europe and America. For me, to be in that [editor] position and to think about a thread or a common theme was a really good exercise. Again, mainly because it made me think outside of my own work.

RW How did the artists respond to the magazine issue?

SN It was interesting because we chose a beautiful poem by an Iranian poet about common love and common pain. Each artist interpreted it in different ways. Some people were focused on sexual or gender-based work, other people were more political. They all took the same narrative, same idea, but approached it in completely different ways. However, when we actually started to put the pages together, it was uncanny how they related to each other. In that process, I learnt, more than anything, that you can give an idea to a group and everyone will come back with their own unique interpretation.

RW Did you feel any parallels between editing the magazine and editing your own work?

SN Personally, when I edit my own work, I'm always a minimalist. For the magazine, I liked the work that was emotionally charged, work that resonates in a very poetic way, that had a lot of enigmas. I was drawn toward the photographs or the photographer's works that had a lot of emotion and were almost hard to describe.

RW Have you always enjoyed the process of curating young or emerging artists' work? 

SN I don't think of myself as a curator at all. It's the same way that I don't see myself as a teacher. I've never been interested in teaching, but I've often done crits. I think it's more a question of being in touch with the younger generation of artists and photographers from very different backgrounds and me being able to communicate with them the methodology that I've taught myself. I'm very interested in artists who work outside of the box, who push the boundaries and do many different things – from film to photography to video to opera. With younger generations, I want to share how I see the contribution of art in culture, which is not just to serve the galleries and museums, but to really have an impact on the public domain. And I think images or photography can be very effective because they can really resonate with the public. In my own work, I'm a director of films, I have videos, I am the artist of the photography, but in relation to other people, especially younger people, I like to have a dialogue with them and discuss what it means to be an artist and how it resonates with everyone, not just the art world.

RW And what does it mean to be an artist? In the past you've reflected on your aversion towards stagnation, predictability and repetition. You've also said that you often feel a jolt to move or evolve your practise. Perhaps being an artist is about evolution? Is the idea of evolving ever demanding?

Atoosa Farahmand, Belonging, Stockholm, Sweden, 2022. Courtesy Der Greif Issue 16

SN The truth is that every project and every idea is very demanding because I always feel doubtful and lost. At the moment, I'm working on a new idea, and I feel the same thing. I'm never at a point where I feel very confident about what I'm doing or really know what the outcome will be. I always feel like I'm looking for some form of magic and wishing that I will find my way. But it's always something new, something that is unlike anything I've ever done, and always very challenging. And sometimes I really don't think it's going to go anywhere and then next thing I know, it's made! So yes, I have doubts and feel pressure, but I also have confidence. I think it's like that for every artist, regardless of what stage of their career they are, there has to be this sense of vulnerability and doubt. If there isn't, I think there's a problem. Although for the people who work at the studio and paint every day, it can feel very different because they just keep elaborating. For me, jumping from photography to video to movies to opera, I feel I embrace a whole new challenge.

RW A painter can also approach the canvas to execute something that is solely based on form or structure. In your work, you seem to be delving further into ideas—ideas of identity, belonging, politics, geography.

SN Well, I always go with the notion that whatever idea I'm working on has to be an obsession. If there is no obsession, then it's never going to be that good, to the degree that I don't quite know why I'm really doing it; it's just that it [feels] unstoppable. I think that's how I try to distinguish between a career move and a non-career move. It could be a mistake sometimes because you're turning in a direction that is not what people are expecting but you're taking a risk. I'm talking this way because I'm in the midst of a new project. I'm staying with it without knowing what it's going to be or if it's even going to be finished.

RW If you often feel this doubt about your work, what then reassures you that you are indeed on the right path?

SN I think just the process. I've been thinking a lot about how happy I am when I'm in the stage of developing an idea as opposed to when I'm showing it or going place to place. When I'm living in my mind and in my imagination, it's very exciting because I'm just daydreaming, making things up. Fiction is a fantastic language. You can be the god of your own universe. I think it's like being on drugs, except you don't need drugs. It's an escape from political reality, from career reality, from your ego, from at least as much as you can, to daydream and really be stubborn about it, about the importance of living in your imagination.

RW You just touched on something that I've heard you discuss before, which is that your work plays with the realm of fiction. Can you elaborate on that? I’ve always found your work to be realistic – capturing real people, real circumstances, real life. But I wonder how the 'not real' comes into play?

SN Actually, I don't see my work as realism. I've never done well with realism. My work is always very stylised, and often I work in magic realism, surrealism and dreams. I'm interested in a style that has a footing in reality. This is why I obsessively work with dreams because there are all these references about places or people but nothing really makes sense. I'm not really interested in truth so much, but fictionalising truths or fictionalising history. Everything is always highly stylised.

RW Then where do identity and politics come into play?

SN Your identity is a part of who you are, your roots, for example, being Iranian or being someone who is living in exile, being someone whose life has been defined by a revolution. I've never tried to be the voice of Muslim women or women in general. In fact, my work is very impressionistic. There's a lot of intention and meaning and accuracy, but, at the same time, it's never meant to only speak about Iran or the Islamic cultures or the Iranian people. It's meant to be universal. It's really focused on emotions, on reflections, on aspects of humanity. It's something that can resonate with everybody.

RW When viewers engage with your photography or films, what emotions or thoughts do you aspire to evoke in them? What impact do you intend your work to have on their perception or understanding?

SN I think more than anything, I like to be able to make work that emotionally moves people. They could be disturbed, but also moved. I personally like to be affected by any work of art or theatre or movie or music. It really has to have a guttural effect, guttural reaction. I think if it's done through video or a movie or a single photograph, I don't necessary want to shock people, but emotionally go under their skin.

Shirin Neshat, Marry (#2) from The Fury series, 2023, Digital c-print and ink, 121.9 x 182.9 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery 

I think it's difficult though because a lot of people really shield themselves from anything going under their skin. They don't really like to be emotionally affected. In my culture, we do. That's why we read so much poetry. That's why we like music that is sad and melancholic and really like reflection. We love mysticism. But there are people who come to art as more of an intellectual, aesthetic exercise. They don't want to think about politics or emotions or sexual assault or any of this. For me, my biggest wish would be that when the audience goes and sees my work, they are emotionally invigorated.

RW People are often hesitant to struggle. They don't want to see art, or anything really, and feel pain. I wonder whether that's a western approach?

SN Yes, actually. That's a very good question. You could show the same work of mine in the Middle East, in Egypt or Iran wherever, and I think it will resonate very differently. Even though the aesthetic of my work conceptually borrows from western conceptual arts, the narratives and some of the visual imagery and poetics really grabs them. I can't really generalise as it changes from person to person. I've shown work in London and a British person really understood the work and felt emotionally affected, and I've also shown the same work to academics in the US and they just only saw it theoretically. I don't think its as simple as east and west. It's more individual.

RW Do you think the art that emotionally engages the audience is some of the most 'contemporary' art today?

SN Every artist will give you a different description, but I always insist on context. I understand art for the sake of art, and purely aesthetic art, but I think at the end of it all, even with an abstract painting, there has to be something that impacts the audience emotionally. It just leaves me cold when that's not part of the equation, that's not part of the artist's language. I don't think that it always has to be painful or dark and disturbing, but it has to be something. It has to be something that makes you feel, makes you think. I'm sure that most of the successful artists that have made it through art history have been that way. Their work has been meaningful and layered and very subversive.

RW Is that how you want your art to be remembered, or you, as an artist, want to be remembered?

SN Absolutely. First of all, I wish that my work would be remembered not as something that is time-relevant, but timeless. And I hope that the work is impactful not just because it is about the Islamic world or from Iran, but because it touches on universal human issues. That's my dream. Even though I'm from a non-western culture, I hope I've made a contribution that moves beyond cultural specificities.

RW I think that's a good place to end off.

SN Wonderful. Take care. Bye!

RW Thank you Shirin. Bye!

Order a copy of Der Greif Issue 16

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SEE ISSUE #06 HERE. The theme for this issue, Revelations, delves into the unfiltered aspects of life. It’s an appreciation and exploration of raw beauty, where authenticity reigns supreme; the unconventional is not just accepted but celebrated. In a world of manufactured perfection, this issue chooses to validate our quirks and idiosyncrasies. After all, they are what make us inimitable.

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