Iranian-born and US-based, Shirin Neshat is one of the best known artists working in the medium of moving images. Her Women of Allah photographic series subverted nearly every mode of address aimed at Muslim women, from Orientalist mythologising to progressive feminist constructions of the personal as political. Later, her video installation works, such as Turbulent, 2006, explored the sexual politics of societies in which the effects of tradition and class were complicated by a history of anti-imperialist struggle. In 2009, she left the gallery altogether with a feature film. Women Without Men dealt with the 1953 coup that overthrew Mohammed Mossadegh; it won the Silver Lion at Venice. She talks to Tank as she prepares for production of her next film, a biopic of the legendary Egyptian siren Oum Kalthoum.
Masoud Golsorkhi It seems your work has got progressively less private and more collective. Was it because you were bored being on your own?
Shirin Neshat You mean the way I moved from one medium to another? Remember, I started with photography, and I was not even a photographer. I only approached it because the medium fitted the concepts I was working with. For example, I was interested in the Islamic Revolution, and it all came from photojournalism. Then at some point I became a prisoner of my own invention. I remember it was 1997 that I was getting completely sick of making these photographs with calligraphy and I just picked up a little money and went to Istanbul and shot my very first video. Which is not a masterpiece, but it was a huge step for me to rebel against all the signature work I had established, and from that came Turbulent and Rapture and everything. Honestly, when I do something that I feel I do really well, I get bored. When I started with photography I had no idea what I was doing and there was something both frightening and really exciting about that. Every time that feeling goes away with whatever I’m doing, I intuitively move away from it.
MG I wanted to ask you about the decision to leave the art world. Was that fatigue?
SN Now that I look back I think a part of me felt very closed in by the whole market-driven art world. As you travel from biennial to biennial, all these international exhibitions, you begin to feel really claustrophobic. A couple of years prior to that I’d been approached by the Sundance Institute. They said: “Look, if you ever think about making a feature film, we have this lab for the development of stories and scripts.” I never took it seriously. But, in 2002, I just felt a lot of frustration, so this was the time to do it. It took six years to make Women Without Men, but it was perhaps the healthiest thing I have ever done.
MG Artists speak of a kind of internal dialogue that goes on in the process of creating a piece of work. Of course, it has to become an external dialogue when you’re convincing distributors, financiers, cameramen, and so on. How did that transition work out for you?
SN I felt completely like a student. With Women Without Men, the producers didn’t have a lot of confidence in me because I had never made a film. And I cannot explain to you the number of times we rewrote the script. This time, again it has been three years of back and forth, in terms of the script but also finding the right partners – a lot of disappointments, people who came so enthusiastically and then disappeared. As I sit here talking to you, it looks very promising, but tomorrow it could be the end. So we are always on that edge – hope and despair. I look at other artists making films, like Steve McQueen, people who make that transition so quickly and successfully. For us it has been an agonising process but, you know, I’m not complaining: if we’d gone into production a year ago, the film would not have been as good.
MG Steve McQueen trained as a film-maker before he did art, so he had an edge. Do you think you address the cinema audience differently? Do you articulate your position more clearly than you might choose to do in a gallery?
SN Yes, because when you make a work of art for a gallery or a museum it can be as enigmatic as possible – in fact, the more enigmatic, the more people like it. There is no way a dealer would say to me: “Look, can you make this a little more comprehensible?” Infinity is your limit in terms of how abstract you want to be. I am challenged by the fact that, as much as we say we are making artistic films, the producers have to deal with the box office; you’ve got to get distribution. Because, ultimately, if you make a piece of work that’s inaccessible and un-distributable, then why are you making it, you could just do it in the art world. So I think, deep inside, we do hope to make a film that will be seen by a mass audience. With Oum Kalthoum, it has that potential, because she is such an iconic figure, and that music is so powerful, it transcends a lot of things, including class.
MG Let’s talk about Oum Kalthoum – a woman artist with quite a strong nationalistic dimension to her work, who has popular support across generations, across classes, who reaches a global audience. Do you feel there are parallels between you?
SN Well, in many ways every character I have gone after I have identified with. They’re all women who were kind of outcasts, rebellious in the work they produced. I am really curious about these women who not only survived in a male-dominated society but created great works. Forough Farokhzad only lived 32 years, but she’s the most translated Iranian poet to this day. There are very few ladies like that. I do have this affinity with them. I feel my work has developed only because of the political reality that has defined my life. I would not have been an artist if I were not in exile, if I did not have so much bottled-up longing and resentment and unresolved relationship to the Islamic Revolution.
MG Let me ask you about collaborating with Shoja Azari, your partner. Have your feminist friends said to you, What are you doing letting a man have a say in what you do? (laughs)
SN You know, I’ve never worked any other way. Ever since I met Shoja he has been integral in the development of any of the concepts. I would have a gut reaction to an idea, something very raw and organic, and he would help shape it. We have a long history of learning how to detect the best and worst of each other. We have completely different aesthetics and reactions. He is an intellectual. My work is a much more intuitive development – of course I’m not stupid, but I don’t approach it theoretically. Nevertheless it is a challenge; we fight a lot about ideas.
MG Oum Kalthoum’s story feeds quite directly into Egypt’s current political dilemmas, doesn’t it?
SN No matter which work of mine you look at, photography or video, even Women Without Men, there is something paradoxical about all of them, this fusion of elements that are so emotional and existential and kind of timeless with very ethnically, historically, politically specific issues. With Oum Kalthoum, you are talking about the dilemma of a person caught between art, politics, ego – all kinds of things. We’re pursuing what it was like to be her, the way she affected people, the way they fell into this state of ecstasy that is so primal, above any political definitions. And yet she was also close to Nasser and then King Farouk; she used power and power used her. In a way she embodies modern Egypt, all its conflicts. So once again in this film I follow that paradox between the individual and the community: the private life and the political reality.
MG Do you feel your canvas is getting bigger and bigger? Do you ever wish to go back to a very small canvas?
SN I consider myself a minimalist. Even with Women Without Men we started not with the story but with the conceptual strategy, which was to make this film around the space of an orchard and a city; the woman and the country and this road that sort of connects the two. We treat the orchard as a universal symbol, a place of refuge. And then we treat the city of Tehran as a historical, realistic place. You have nearly two hours to develop a story and you can be a little more expansive than with a canvas or a photograph, yet the vision has to be absolutely clear.
MG In Women Without Men that vision was somewhat hyper-real, reality intensified, but I imagine that was to do with Shahrnush Parsipur’s book?
SN Yes, magic realism is known to be the most difficult to translate into film. Going suddenly from surrealism to realism, the chances of getting confused are high. Women Without Men tried to travel its own path. We didn’t keep the balance right between magic and realism, politics, feminism. With this one, that’s why we are taking so long, because we want to make a film that is truly, authentically ours, but have a good balance. It’s difficult when you try to be original. I have to say, even 12 Years a Slave by Steve McQueen, I consider it very powerful, but it is a very conventional film. With this film, we are trying to pioneer our own language. §