The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
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In 1999, in consequence of the wide success of her video installation Rapture, Shirin Neshat achieved immediate celebrity as a major contemporary artist. This standing was reinforced by Fervor, one of the highlights of the Whitney Biennial 2000. These two works, together with the slightly earlier Turbulent, compose a trilogy on human identity, inflected by differences in gender and culture, which situates the work at the heart of art world preoccupations today. A fourth film, Soliloquy, portrays a woman torn between two forms of life, modern and traditional, Western and Middle Eastern, to neither of which she can fully surrender. All four films enact these conflicts and tensions in the symbolic terms of very high art, and in ways that, beyond their contemporary topicality, touch our essential humanity.
The urgency with which these issues are presented in her films implies that they are felt with a commensurate urgency by the artist herself, so that her success is an opportunity to pursue a mission which involves her art together with her life, and entails real decisions as to how and where to live and work. This interview was conducted in Neshat’s loft deep in New York’s Chinatown, above the shouts of shopkeepers and customers. We spoke in her studio, where the films are worked out. There is a pair of monitors on a table beneath some bookshelves. It is a very orderly atmosphere, though the answering machine was kept busy throughout our conversation. The artist was dressed in a black outfit, an affinity with the garments the women in her films wear, and she speaks fluidly, with a soft accent. Shirin Neshat is an unassuming person, entirely without airs, but she shares a certain fierce determination with the women she portrays.
Arthur C. Danto The last three years have been extremely productive for you, you’ve done four films. What were you doing before the films?
Shirin Neshat I graduated from UC-Berkeley in 1983 and moved soon after to New York City where I quickly came to the conclusion that art making wasn’t going to be my profession. I felt what I was making was not substantial enough—and I was intimidated by the New York art scene. So I worked to earn money and took courses in various subjects. Soon after I met my future husband, who ran the Storefront for Art and Architecture, an alternative space in Manhattan. I dedicated the next ten years intensely to working with him at the Storefront, and that became my true education. Storefront functioned like a cultural laboratory, the program was quite cross-disciplinary; I was constantly working with artists, architects, cultural critics, writers and philosophers. This exposure eventually led me to think about myself as an artist and I wanted to make artwork again. During those ten years I made practically no art and what I did make I was quite dissatisfied with and eventually destroyed. So it was only in 1993 that I began to seriously make artwork again.
AD And those were photographs?
SN Yes, I thought photography was the most appropriate medium for my subject as it had the realism that I needed. In the 1990s I finally began going back to Iran. I had been away for over ten years—since the Islamic Revolution. As I traveled back and forth a lot of things started to go through my mind, which eventually led me to develop the work that I have. My focus from the beginning was the subject of women in relation to the Iranian society and the revolution, so I produced a series of photographic images that explored that topic.
AD I was talking just last week with Susan Sontag, who said that, in her view, the Iranian film movement is the most remarkable in contemporary cinema. That’s quite an extraordinary claim. How do you account for that?
SN I agree with her. I am very inspired by the new trend in Iranian cinema. In my opinion, it has been one positive aspect of the revolution, as it has in a way purified Iranian culture artistically by eliminating Western influences that had deeply infiltrated our culture. Before the revolution, Iranian film followed similar standards as in any commercial Western film, much of it was filled with superficiality, violence and sex. After the revolution, the government imposed severe codes; filmmakers had to reformulate their ideas, and as a result a new form of cinema was born that thrived in the midst of all the governmental censorship. These films have been successful for their humanistic, simple and universal approach. They reveal so much about Iranian culture without being overly critical. The pioneer of this generation of filmmaking, Abbas Kiarostami, is showing his most recent film, The Wind Will Carry Us, in New York starting in July.
AD Let me ask about your first films. When you began to show them here were they more or less conventional, linear films with a single screen … or did you begin with the double-screen format right away?
SN Turbulent was my first cinematic film. Prior to that, I had made a few videos which I consider very different; they were video installations, very sculptural, with no specific narrative, beginning or end.
AD That was video as it was understood at that time: something projected on a wall, a nonnarrative, free play of images. Did you have sound?
SN Yes, sound was always an important part of my work.
AD And was it always music?
SN Well, I had made some very simple rhythmic sounds with my own voice. For example, one of the pieces I made in Istanbul was of a woman—me, actually—running in four distinct types of spaces and projected on four screens, simultaneously. And in a piece called The Shadow Under the Web, I made a sound with my own voice, something between breathing and singing, repeated in different time signatures. I improvised it as we were recording. In Anchorage, which was a single projection, there was a combination of chanting and a very simple song, and again, I improvised.
AD You composed those songs spontaneously?
SN Yes, on the spot at the recording studio.
AD There must have been a moment when the ideas that began to be expressed in Turbulentcame to consciousness. You took a shift, a change in direction; did you feel yourself on the threshold of something quite different? I remember seeing some photographs of you with what seemed an antique sort of rifle. Where do these fit in?
SN The first group of photographic work I produced in 1993 certainly reflected the point of view of an Iranian living abroad, looking back in time and trying to analyze and comprehend the changes that had taken place in Iran since the revolution. It was the approach of an artist who had been away for a long time, and it was an important turning point for me artistically and personally, as it became more than art making but a type of journey back to my native country. I was deeply invested in understanding the ideological and philosophical ideas behind contemporary Islam, most of all the origin of the revolution and how it had transformed my country. I knew the subject was very complex and broad so I minimized my focus to something tangible and specific. I chose to concentrate on the meanings behind “martyrdom,” a concept which became the heart of the Islamic government’s mission at the time, particularly during the Iran/Iraq War. It promoted faith, self-sacrifice, rejection of the material world, and ultimately, life after death. Mostly, I was interested in how their ideas of spirituality, politics and violence were and still are so interconnected and inseparable from one another. But after a few years, I felt that I had exhausted the subject and needed to move on. I no longer wanted to make work that dealt so directly with issues of politics. I wanted to make work that was more lyrical, philosophical and poetic.
AD It did come across as didactic, and, in a way, rhetorical.
SN There were a lot of problems there with the issue of translation, literally in terms of the writing I was inscribing onto the photos and in cultural misreading. I must admit, when I made this group of work, I did not have an audience in mind. I had never exhibited before and had no plans for it. Eventually, when I did have an audience, I felt conflicted as to how I might go about translating ideas that were so entirely based on non-Western rationality without compromising their authenticity and meaning. Looking back at this work, I do see the problems but it was an honest attempt to reconnect and raise important issues in regard to my culture. I reduced my references in order to get a handle on the subject of martyrdom, but perhaps a lot got lost in between. I felt strongly about moving on, making work that, while ethnically specific, could allow wider interpretation.
AD Something that touches on what one might call universal human nature.
AD That’s the feeling I have with those works.
SN By this time, you have to understand, my relationship to the subject, my understanding and feelings about the revolution had all changed. When I first arrived in Iran, I was really taken by everything and desperately wanted to belong to the Iranian community again. It was almost a romantic return to Iran. Turbulent was the first work that no longer had the perspective of an artist distanced from her culture; it dealt with an issue that belonged to the present and revealed a new sense of intimacy and familiarity between myself and the subject. By this time, I had a pretty good understanding of the way in which Iranian society functioned. I had been traveling to Iran frequently and was working with an almost entirely Iranian crew.
AD When you began to work on Turbulent, were you thinking of it as part of a trilogy—which is what, evidently, the three films constitute—or were you thinking of it as a single statement, which, as it turned out, led to two other films?
SN I didn’t think of it as a trilogy at first. It is just that one subject—one project led to the other. The topic of masculine and feminine in relation to the social structure of Iran started with Turbulent. As I finished it, I immediately moved on to making Rapture, which although very different, raised similar issues. Finally Fervor was made, which in my opinion closed the chapter on this series. What inspired me to make Turbulent was a strange experience I had on the streets of Istanbul, seeing a young, blind woman singing to make a little money; her music was extraordinary and the public gathered uncontrollably around her. I fell in love with her music, bought a cassette. Later I had her songs translated and became obsessed with how much her blindness—not having a visible audience—affected her music.
AD This is one of the things that struck me about Turbulent. The male singer is on one screen, and he’s singing with a great deal of passion, but with his back to the audience. The camera is backstage, so we see him singing, and we see his audience behind him. The female singer is on another screen and she’s facing an empty auditorium. You only see her from the back; she’s quite mysterious. As a matter of fact, she looks like a death figure from the Inquisition. All through the man’s singing, you just see her from the back. And you don’t know what this is all about. The man’s audience is extremely responsive; they applaud. As I remember it, he turns around, bows to the audience and then faces back, and the woman who is on the other screen begins to sing. Her singing is very different from his; it seems electronic. It’s modified, it’s not ordinary singing. And then bit by bit her face begins to emerge and you see her sing. The camera pans back and forth over the empty auditorium. And on the other screen, the man is staring at her. So he at least is in some way a member of her audience, although you’re not quite clear how that happened. So that was the juxtaposition.
SN Turbulent is similar to Rapture in that both films are based on the idea of opposites, visually and conceptually. The male singer represents the society’s ideal man in that he sticks to the rules in his way of dressing and in his performance of a passionate love song written by the 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi. Opposite to him, the female singer is quite rebellious. She is not supposed to be in the theater, and the music she performs breaks all the rules of traditional Islamic music. Her music is free-form, improvised, not tied to language, and unpredictable, almost primal.
AD When you say she’s not supposed to …
SN An important aspect of Turbulent is that women in Iran are prohibited from singing in public, and there are no recordings by female musicians. The piece took off in various directions and brought about other important questions about the male and female contrast in relation to the social structure. The ultimate question was how each would go about reaching a level of mystical expression inherent in the Sufi music.
AD But her song is not a traditional song.
SN No. It is Sussan Deihim’s music; she’s a gifted, contemporary Iranian singer living in New York. Although her music is based on traditional Islamic melodies, it is quite radical, too, in that it does not quite resemble any particular music.
AD It was her voice in Turbulence, and her person you were photographing?
SN Yes. We spent a lot of time together discussing the choice of music and her presence in the film and how absolutely critical they were to the meanings of the work.
AD Very percussive.
SN By the end, we wanted the male singer to be stunned, in a state of disbelief, and the female singer to be released—freed. She, of course, had no trouble doing that.
AD Well, she had no trouble with the music. But that effect, of being free, and the man being stunned—do you think that registers visually in the film?
SN I think it did. We discussed at great length with Shoja, the male singer, how important his expressions were, his compassionate but almost envious gaze.
AD Who wishes in a way that he could be freer, as she is.
SN Exactly. And that sexual hierarchy is inevitably outside of his control. Perhaps he himself is a type of prisoner.
AD Very much like the men in Rapture.
SN Rapture followed the same framework. Once again, the women are the unpredictable force, they are the ones who break free. The men, from the beginning to the end, stay within the confinement of the fortress. This all ties back to what I believe is a type of feminism that comes from such a culture; on a daily basis the resistance you sense from the women is far higher than that of the men. Why? Because the women are the ones who are under extreme pressure; they are repressed and therefore they are more likely to resist and ultimately to break free.
AD Formally speaking, it doesn’t sound entirely different from feminist discourse in the West. The difference as you represent it in the films is that the men seem condemned to a life of futility, and are unable to break free. Whereas here, the male life is conceived of as the significant life, overcoming obstacles, having careers, etcetera. And in a certain way, an American woman’s freedom is modeled on the idea of what it is to be a free male. Whereas what you convey is women moving into a very unstructured space, for which males are no longer the models. If anything, if the male is to genuinely be free, he’d almost have to model himself on the female. And of course you can’t be terribly explicit about that because nobody knows how that’s going to work out. One of the things I love about Rapture is the uncertainty of it. With these women setting off on that boat, you found, I thought, a marvelous, mythic image.
SN Thank you. But I disagree with you that our idea of feminism is similar to that of the West. From my understanding, Western feminism is about reaching a certain level of equality between men and women …
AD Yes, that’s just what I do mean.
SN But I don’t believe we strive for the same thing. Iranian women, for example, feel that men and women have their own distinct roles and places, they are not competitive.
AD And that will continue to be true?
SN I think so. I believe their struggle is to reach an equilibrium necessary in a just and healthy society. They want the domestic responsibility—which actually gives them a lot of power. Where they suffer is in their inability to maintain their rights as women, for example in the areas of divorce, child custody, voting, etcetera.
AD I don’t want to get too deeply involved in the differences and similarities. I quite agree with you that equality and liberty are 18th-century ideas very central to American consciousness—but feminist theorists have said that the liberation of women also means the liberation of men. It’s in that sense that I meant there’s a similarity, there’s a mutual liberation in that the future and destiny of male and female is quite open.
SN It would be a generalization to speak about Islam as a whole, but I know in Iran women are quite powerful, unlike their clichéd image. What I try to convey through my work is that power, which is quite candid. In Rapture, the heart of the story is the women’s journey from the desert to the sea; eventually a few leave on a small boat. This journey, the attempt to break free, for me symbolizes bravery, whether this leaving is for the purpose of committing suicide or reaching freedom, it does not matter. Those women remaining behind symbolize for me the idea of sacrifice. The film questions women’s nature as opposed to men’s, and shows how often women surprise us with their strength of purpose, particularly in moments of crisis.
AD I’ll tell you, that’s been my experience with women. (laughter) I wanted to ask one thing about the titles. You’ve employed an extremely romantic vocabulary: turbulent, rapture, fervor—all psychological terms referring to states of extreme excitement. I thought fervor was a bit ironic. It was the behavior of the audience—that was the fervor, that he, the speaker, had aroused. But rapture, I wasn’t certain of; rapture is usually somewhat erotic in connotation.
SN Oh really?
AD At least in English. “What rapture, divine … .” And turbulent is a state of perturbation, disturb and so forth, agitation of a certain sort.
SN The titles are the most difficult part. A mistaken title could lead the project the wrong way, trivialize or reduce the meaning. What I look for in a title is suggestiveness, references that allow the viewers to draw their own interpretations. I thought Turbulent, for example, was about the woman’s state of mind, she was clearly the one not at rest. In Rapture, I saw the meaning as a state of ecstasy.
AD That’s right, it’s ecstasy. It’s just that American culture is not a particularly mystical one; ecstasy here means something like erotic rapture. There are analogies between mystical and erotic transport, and certainly the Persian poets were aware of that connotation. They tend, characteristically, in my recollection, to speak of religious ecstasy in terms of erotic metaphors.
SN It’s the same with Fervor, because it has its religious connotations but at the same time it could be sexual. Again, I was pointing toward the clash between sexual and carnal desire versus social control.
AD Fervor is the one film in which you’re relying on speech rather than music. Music really does overcome linguistic barriers. But in Fervor the man talks at great length, and one tries to infer what he is saying. And he points to a painting that is prominently displayed behind him.
SN From the beginning, I thought about having subtitles. In fact, I had an excerpt of the speech translated, and created subtitles. However, many English-speaking friends came to see me while I was editing and almost all of them felt that subtitles made the work too literal, too obvious, and distracted from the clarity of the image. I regret that I did not have a translation on the exhibition wall so those people interested could have referred to it.
AD Hmm … I’m of two minds on that. I really don’t know what the truth is there.
SN The speech becomes very musical here.
AD Yes, it does.
SN It almost functions like an opera, you don’t really listen to the words, you imagine what has been said through the musical qualities. But I did get some criticism for the lack of subtitles; some people were not satisfied with guessing at what was being said. Let me tell you the meaning of the speech and a little about the speaker, whose character is quite dubious. He comes across as something between a politician, a mullah, and an actor. The event was also designed to resemble a political event, a religious ceremony or a theatrical story. I was inspired by public Friday prayers in Iran, where masses of men and women come together, but sit separately. Usually, a distinguished mullah leads the prayers and delivers a moral speech, each time focusing on a particular topic. So in Fervor this man comes on the stage and offers his moral speech which happens to be the problem of sin, particularly sin that arises from sexual behavior—carnal desire. He uses the story of Joseph (Youssef) and Zuleika from the Koran to exemplify the destiny of those who cannot control their sexuality. In the Koran, Zuleika, the female character, seduces Joseph. The painting in the film’s background illustrates the story. This type of theater is actually a traditional form in Iran, where a speaker stands in front of a painting to tell the story. It usually takes place in coffee houses.
AD So the speaker uses the painting as the basis of a narrative.
AD How fascinating.
SN I think Fervor, unlike Rapture and Turbulent, was not as easily understood by Westerners.
AD Enough of that narrative came across. For one thing, you feel that whatever the message was, the man and the woman felt themselves beyond or above it, that they were really interested in their more fundamental view, namely each other.
AD I loved that they don’t see one another, but the moment the man begins to look toward her, the woman begins to look toward him. Whoever begins that, maybe it’s simultaneous—that’s what is extremely romantic about it. And then they leave simultaneously, and they see one another. And still, there’s a long road ahead of them—literally.
SN The type of forbidden seduction that one experiences in that part of the world is of course very different from what one experiences here in the West. You’re not supposed to make eye contact with the opposite sex. Every Iranian man and woman understands the dilemma, the problematics, and yet there is the joy of a simple exchange in a gaze. This type of social and religious control tends to heighten desire and the sexual atmosphere. Therefore, when there is a modest exchange it is the most magical, sexual experience.
AD I was reading an article about Afghanistan and the enormous closed garment, the burka, women are obliged to wear. The assumption is that women’s eyes are extremely dangerous. They shouldn’t be seen.
SN And the veil is an incredibly powerful icon in the way it empowers a woman sexually. It’s supposed to be doing the opposite, but as you can tell, through a mere gaze the woman can excite men. These are the issues this project explored. I’m not sure it was understood in the West.
AD I thought it was quite universal. It’s a story that is told over and over again. How do men and women overcome the distances that are imposed between the genders?
SN I approached Fervor as a way to close the chapter on this kind of gender curiosity that I’ve had. Finally, in Fervor, the issues are not about opposites, but about the commonality between the man and woman. The taboo surrounding sexuality concerns both men and women, but of course it is the woman who takes most of the heat.
AD So Zuleika is the seducer?
SN Yes, she is the princess and Joseph is a slave.
AD It’s the biblical story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. It’s the same story!
AD She’s quite treacherous as it turns out. If he doesn’t do what she wants then she’s going to say that he raped her. Well, the Bible is full of a great deal of human wisdom. In this other film, Soliloquy, which I was able to see …
SN So you have seen that one!
AD Yes, Barbara Gladstone let me see it at the gallery. And it did seem like a departure. Are you the actress in that?
AD I thought so. It’s in color. There is a mythic quality to the black and white, but it was important for what you were trying to do that you did use color. Aesthetically it’s very successful. I felt that this was a conversation of a woman with herself. The two screens work a bit the way they do in Turbulent; she sees herself and whether it’s an image, a dream, or a memory—you can’t quite discover. Although there is what I think of as the more traditional setting: there is a child and some tragedy is implied. Whereas the worst thing that seems to be happening to the woman in the other, Western setting is loneliness. That is to say she’s there and the crowds sweep by, and she goes up the staircase. It reminded me of one of Maya Deren’s earlier surrealist films. I thought it was wonderful by the way, but I felt at the same time that it was tentative.
SN Many people, including critics and curators, have been comparing the last few works I have made, telling me which one they think succeeds or does not work as well. I think what is more important is the developmental process, and looking at how each work visually and conceptually takes the ideas forward. Soliloquy has almost no relation to the trilogy that we’ve been speaking about, but it’s a topic that I had wanted to make a film about for a long time; and perhaps the most personal work I’ve ever made. It’s about imagining the emotional state of a woman standing at the threshold of two opposite worlds. She is constantly negotiating between two cultures that are not just different from one another but in complete conflict. So once again the idea of opposites applies but in a different way. The location in the East [Turkey], where it was shot, is the place of her origin. It is ancient, traditional and communal but also a controlling society, at times suffocating, as there is no personal—individual—space. The location in the West [The United States] is in a modern, free, extremely individualistic society where we sense a great personal isolation and loneliness. By the end we find that the woman never quite feels at peace in either space.
AD Do you feel at the end that both states of the woman, or stages, are rushing to meet one another? How could you show that they do get together? Of course, it would be impossible, but …
SN That is the ambiguity that I wanted to maintain; it’s not really clear where she was running to or from. Once you leave your place of birth, there’s never a complete sense of center: you’re always in the state of in between and nowhere completely feels like home.
AD I understand you shot Soliloquy in Turkey, but do you have any plans to work in Iran?
SN It has been a dream for me to finally work in my own country. Slowly, I am advancing in that direction although the country is still in a state of flux so one never really knows if it is completely safe to work there or not. But recently I did have a major breakthrough. I was contacted by the minister of culture, the director of the visual arts who also happens to be the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran! He officially invited me to come to Iran to work, exhibit, and meet with local artists. According to this gentleman, there should not be any problems but I have been told to be cautious. However, if things don’t quite work in Iran, I will go back to other Islamic countries, Morocco and Turkey, as I have been. In all my work, I am dealing with issues that address historical, cultural, sociopolitical ideas; but in the end, I want my work to transcend that and function on the most primal and emotional level. I think the music intensifies the emotional quality. Music becomes the soul, the personal, the intuitive and neutralizes the sociopolitical aspects of the work. This combination of image and music is meant to create an experience that moves the audience. It is an expectation that I have as an artist and I want that intensity from any work of art; I want to be deeply affected, almost like asking to have a religious experience. Beauty is important in relation to my work. It is a concept that is most universal, it goes beyond our cultural differences.
AD I believe that. There’s been a kind of cynicism in regard to beauty, that it’s entirely relative. At any rate, I’m thinking myself about it a great deal, philosophically. I’m trying to write a book on that.
SN It is particularly important in relation to my subject since in Islam, beauty is critical, as it directly ties to ideas of spirituality and love of God.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.