Pivotal Moments

Shirin Neshat and the Art of Tragic Euphoria

A sense of mysticism pervades all of Shirin Neshat’s work, in the gentlest but most persistent manner. It’s evident in her person—this small, delicate as a bird, formidable individual who enchants and engages an audience by making her ethical rigour very clear. As the 2017 Dasha Shenkman Lecturer at the University of Guelph this spring, she stood at the podium and presented, in her light and musical voice, images from her many iconic bodies of work. Iconic in the sense of their visually apparent binaries; their distinct black and white palette; the choreographed movements that seem to represent ritual and cultural understanding in a structured religious sense, but not specific or delimited; and large sculptural gestures set against essential geographies: sky and sea and vast horizons. She talked about migrating populations and oppression and freedom, about exile and home, about violence and peace and courage and the necessity for the imagination to flourish and out of it to make art that speaks to all the conditions of being human.

In the interview that follows she spoke about her process of artmaking, saying that the challenge for her is to find a balance between what she identifies as realistic material—that is, what she sees in the world that has a profound impact on her—and her transforming it into art. It’s an interesting necessity she defines here—the real into something else, which could suggest a state of unreality, or the unreal (which is art) but which, for Neshat, is real. It’s the achievement that makes the world actual. So it is for artists. She has the actor who plays legendary Egyptian singer Oum Kulthum tell the filmmaker who is a surrogate for Neshat herself in her just-completed film Looking for Oum Kulthum, “You know, I really like your fire, I like what’s eating you up. The craziness—all the things you are questioning about your films and your life—is the artist in you,” Kulthum tells Mitra.

Shirin Neshat, Roja (Patriots), from “The Book of Kings” series, 2012, ink on LE silver gelatin print, 60x45 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels © Shirin Neshat.

Neshat described it as needing to complicate things in order to keep a balance between what’s real and what’s not. It’s her saying, “So what I have left is the world,” which strikes me as a statement of some mysticism, coming from some other place perhaps, and then into the world, so that the art she makes is her balance between here and there.

Books and poetry often are sources and points of departure for Neshat, and here, too, is the push and pull that seeks balance but not a fixed equilibrium: poetry and beauty retaining their power only when paired with pain and tragedy. It’s the cold steel of the gun’s muzzle under the ear and nestled against the warm cheek of a beautiful woman from Neshat’s “Women of Allah” series of photographs or Canadian poet Robert Kroetsch’s “Love is a beak in the warm flesh” from Seed Catalogue. “It juxtaposes disturbance, pain and suffering next to beauty, poetry and ecstatic harmony,” Neshat told Border Crossings, finding exhilaration in this condition, the exhilaration of melancholy, which comes from the tradition of Iranian mysticism and is a desired and productive state. It obliges contemplation and reflection, which are finally generative.

Another prevailing state, one that asserts itself with some consistency in Neshat’s work, emerges from the often unresolvable condition of exile. Seeking after home is universal; it’s the longing for security that impels us all, whether notional or actual and geographic—a state of mind, or the denial of statehood. Neshat had just completed a trilogy of videos: Illusions and Mirrors, 2013 with Natalie Portman, based on what she describes as the logic of dreams, a logic to which she subscribes, and Roja and Sarah, 2016. These are related to Iran and her own experience. Roja speaks to an enforced distance from Iran, her home, her “motherland,” as she describes it, and Sarah, too, finds the protagonist looking for and finding herself. The resolution of the search carries poignancy as well as a sense of completion, with Sarah finding herself at home finally, in death.

In 2017, Shirin Neshat has produced, among much else, two major, significant, large and very public works: the film Looking for Oum Kulthum, and a commission by Conductor Riccardo Muti to conceive and direct a new production of Verdi’s opera Aida for this summer’s Salzburg Festival.

As in everything she does, Neshat will imbue this production with her unwavering ethical rigour. She describes her planned production as a rereading of Aida where the audience will be obliged to think anew about who is victim and who is victor. Ancient Egypt, as she will present it, will be a hybrid. Hybridity has to be the binocular lenses through which we now look at the world in its conflicted state. Neshat does this doubling in the art she brings to us.

Untitled, from Roja series, 2016, silver gelatin print, 40x92.75 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels © Shirin Neshat.

Shirin Neshat’s major exhibition “The Home of My Eyes” is presented from May 10 to October 31 at the Museo Correr in the Piazza San Marco as part of the 57th Venice Biennale; “Shirin Neshat: Dreamers” opens at the Gladstone Gallery in New York on May 19 and runs until June 17.

The interview with Shirin Neshat that follows was conducted by phone to her Brooklyn studio on April 2, 2017.

Sarah, 2016, production still. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels © Shirin Neshat.

Border Crossings: We spoke before the last three bodies of photographic portraiture were made, so let me go back and ask about the origins of “The Book of Kings.”

Shirin Neshat: It came after Women Without Men, when I had been involved in cinema for years and hadn’t done any black and white photography and calligraphy. I remember very clearly how welcoming was the idea of being back in the studio and making work that was more intimate and that involved my hands. If the topic of “Women of Allah” evolved around the concept of martyrdom, and the revolutionary fervor that developed in Iran before and prior to the Islamic revolution of 1979, “The Book of Kings” series tried to capture the next pivotal political moment of Iranian history in contemporary times, the popular uprising that occurred immediately after the 2009 election in Iran and later led to the Arab Spring. This uprising united Iranians who had been divided both inside and outside, in their common call for democracy. When I look back I realize that the Green Movement in 2009 was the first time that I became an activist. Before, I had turned my back on any direct political activity, and suddenly I found myself active in protests, in collecting petitions and in hunger strikes.

Divine Rebellion, from “The Book of Kings” series, 2012, acrylic on LE silver gelatin print, 62x49 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels © Shirin Neshat.

What was it about the Green Movement that provoked you to get involved in a more direct way?

It was the most pivotal event in Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. There was euphoria that the people of Iran could talk back to the fanatics and wouldn’t allow their kind of oppressive environment to continue. Of course, it didn’t succeed but it created this amazing energy. I thought my “Book of Kings” captured that spirit of activism and patriotism, which was so different from the time of “Women of Allah”. There, it was all about fanaticism and men and women being brainwashed and very submissive to their religion. Here, you had a lot of very young, modern and educated people who were not interested in religion at all. In fact, if you look at them and then at the images of “Women of Allah,” you can see the change in Iranian society. At the time, I was preparing a show for Barbara Gladstone and I decided to create this large body of work that captured the dynamic of the fanatics who hold the power, the martyrs and the patriots who are the activists, and then the people who are witnesses or bystanders. I started photographing many young Iranian activists whom I met in New York and also some Arabic friends who were activists for their own countries, and created a photo-installation that included 65 images.

But you also took inspiration from a book, this time the 10th-century epic poem by Ferdowsi, called The Book of Kings.

Yes. The book, the Shahnameh, tells the mythological past of Iran from the creation of the world to the Arab conquest. Ferdowsi, by the way, is known to have saved the Farsi language during the Arab conquest, so he is cherished to this day. His stories were about the concept of martyrdom and patriotism, about people who were beheaded and who sacrificed themselves for their country. My copy of the book had these black and white illustrations, but I ended up painting over the bodies of the villains. So this book in many ways has this contemporary relevance to the Iranian situation, but it also referenced a literature that belongs to ancient times. Here, history seems to repeat itself in showing how the Iranian people through time have continued to revolt against all forms of dictatorship, including the Arab conquest and the Islamists. During this time I was going to Egypt a lot because I was doing research for the Oum Kulthum film. I happened to be there during some of the more pivotal moments in Tahrir Square and I found myself in the middle of a revolution that went from Tunisia to Egypt to Algeria and all over the Middle East. But that, too, was defeated. So I devoted this whole body of work not just to Iran but to the Arab Spring. Then I was approached by the Rauschenberg Foundation to do a project and the profits would go to a humanitarian cause. I proposed to go to Cairo in the aftermath of the Arab Spring to capture the human dimension of the people who had lost their children and the damage the revolution had done, now that the euphoria was over.

Roja, 2016, production still. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels © Shirin Neshat.

…to continue reading the interview with Shirin Neshat, order a copy of Issue #142 here, or SUBSCRIBE today!

Volume 36, Number 2: Photography & Film

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #142, published May 2017.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.