Living in a self-imposed exile from her home country of Iran, Shirin Neshat has become one of the most regarded and provocative visual artists working today. Engaging with issues from the socio-political to the deeply personal through photography, multimedia, and film, Neshat’s work has been seen across the globe—including advertisements atop New York City taxis and the Venice Biennale, where she won the top prize in 1999. Before Neshat’s ALOUD appearance tonight, presented in conjunction with The Broad museum’s “Un-Private Collection” series, we spoke with the artist and filmmaker about her ever-evolving projects, and the underlying emotional force that fuels her lyrical work.
Middle Eastern politics and the history of your home country have a huge presence in your work. Through recent diplomatic outreach with the west, Iran is at a historic crossroads. What are your thoughts about these current events?
Neshat: It is true that my work does have political issues, but more from the personal perspective because I happen to be Iranian and my life is affected by political changes. Being born to a country that has gone through so much political changes, naturally you are inclined to make work that reflects your experience. I am not really a political artist. My work is very personal, but being Iranian and my personal life experiences have led me to work that talks about those issues. About the recent government in Iran, it’s too soon to say. Everyone is optimistic and I’m really hoping that it will open the door forward—instead of going back—and for the Iranians living in Iran to have a more liberal life.
Your ALOUD program is co-presented by the Library Foundation and the new museum, The Broad. Both organizations share a commitment to fostering free access to ideas and culture. For you personally, what role does art play in an open democracy?
Neshat: Art and any form of culture is a form of communication and dialogue. Some of the most important issues of our time are discussed through art, music, theatre, and film. The great thing about culture is that it can tackle very important issues without being ideological and without trying to function in a didactic way. It makes people think and hear in a very different way than a politician or diplomat would appeal to them. Particularly in times like now when we’re living in such moments of crisis— political, economic, all kinds—art is very powerful.
Your own art has “communicated” across many mediums from multimedia installations to photography and now you seem to be working mostly in film. What is it about film that has captivated you lately?
Neshat: Among all the different forms of art, film is extremely close to the mass culture. The power of storytelling and being able to appeal to the mass audience and tell stories that could be entertaining, provocative, meaningful, and beautiful to look at—film is a wonderful remedy. For a lot of artists, it’s a great opportunity to formulate a kind of narrative and author a language. As someone who has now made a feature film [Women Without Men], it really has expanded my audience. By making a movie I have stepped into a much wider scene of public, and that gives me a lot of pleasure and satisfaction.
Now that you have this wider audience, how much do you consider the audience when you are creating new work?
Neshat: The language of cinema comes with a kind of expectation that is comprehensive, which is a very different thing than when I’m making work for a gallery or a museum and it can be as enigmatic as it wants to be. The great thing about cinema is that you have a lot more boundaries to deal with. First of all, the film has to function within the theatre reality of the box office, and you really do want the public to come and see it. Otherwise, why would you make it? I find this extremely challenging and interesting as an artist.
What are you currently working on?
Neshat: I’m simultaneously working on three different works. One is a feature-length film, which is about a legendary Egyptian singer called Oum Kulthum that I hope to shoot in 2014. It’s a biography about the singer who died in the 1970s who was very iconic both for her power of music and for being a nationalist. I also just finished a video installation that I collaborated on with Natalie Portman. It’s a short video that will open in Paris on November 12 . And then with the Rauschenberg Foundation, I collaborated on a series of new photographs in Egypt, and that show will be opening in New York in January . As you can see I’m going between video, and film, and photography.
How do you change gears between these forms?
Neshat: It sometimes gets confusing, but the good thing is that when you get tired of something you can move onto the next and it refreshes you. Each one demands a different kind of artistic focus, but also a different collaboration. For example, if I’m working on a feature film, then I’m working with a screenwriter or a producer, etc. If I’m working on photography, then I’m dealing with a photographer and the lab, or my two assistants who help me with the calligraphy. If I’m doing a video installation, I’m dealing with the editor whose specialty is on the production of video installation. Each one takes me in a different direction and keeps me very flexible. In essence, what I’ve been complaining about in the art world is that artists find one medium and one style and they just keep repeating it. For some reason I’ve been very nomadic.
Speaking of nomadic, your work has many influences beyond politics, for example, literature. You even feature the text of poetry in some of your photographs. How did literature first seep into your work?
Neshat: Someone recently was asking me what was the most fundamental thing that inspired me to do art, and I came to the realization that it’s always been literature. For example, my photography in the beginning was based on poems that I had read by an Iranian woman [Tahereh Saffarzadeh]. Later, my film was based on a novel written by an Iranian woman [Shahrnush Parsipur]. Poetry and novels have been really central to my concepts. Not because I’m comfortable with words or a reader of a great deal, but because I’ve been more inspired by literature by Iranians rather than their visual history.
Iranian people have a very long, rich history of literature and an incredible attachment to poetry—maybe more than any country in the world. Poetry has become more and more benign in other countries. But in Iran poetry is not just a form of literature, but it’s a philosophical kind of guidance. It becomes so much more profound than reading something as a piece of literature—it’s like mysticism. The words of this poetry have been really important in reflecting my emotional interests. I’m Iranian so poetry is part of my blood, and I consider myself a poet—a visual poet.