“Every Iranian artist, in one form or another, is political. Politics have defined our lives.” Shirin Neshat (b. 1957) engages with the world through lens-based media, demonstrating the power of art to deconstruct the political climate. She was born in Iran but has spent much of her life in exile in the US – creating work exploring themes of displacement, oppression, gender and identity. Goodman Gallery’s Land of Dreams is the artist’s first solo show in London for two decades. Jo Stella-Sawicka, Director, discusses the exhibition, which takes contemporary America as its subject.
A: Neshat turns her lens towards America for the first time in this work. Can you explain the significance of this moment?
JSS: Shirin Neshat has lived in the US since 1975, and for the past 30 years has made art that is intimately bound with her lived experience as a Muslim woman living in exile, using photography, video installation, cinema and performance to explore the political structures that have shaped the history of Iran and other Middle Eastern nations. Now with the rise of nationalism, and the increasing threat against immigrants, it is the first time Neshat has dared to turn her lens toward her host country to interrogate its present socio-political climate.
A: What is the narrative explored in the video installation Land of Dreams?
JSS: Land of Dreams features two related video installations. The narrative follows Simin – a fictional character who stands in for Neshat herself – an exiled Iranian photographer, who travels through rural America knocking on citizens’ doors to shoot their portraits and to document their dreams. Simin meets and interviews families from different racial, social and economic backgrounds, representing the diverse populations of America. In the second film, we see Simin compile these dreams into a dossier and deliver them to an Iranian colony, a strange bureaucracy obscured deep within the mountains, to be logged, analysed and interpreted.
A: How does Neshat use the language of dreams and the unconscious to tap into real-world issues?
JSS: Neshat has a long-held fascination with dreams, and how they blur the boundaries between fact and fiction, conscious and subconscious. She uses dreams in her work to touch on socio-political, cultural and emotional issues. Dreams give a sense of cross-cultural universality, revealing the shared humanity and vulnerability of those living under social, political and economic injustice, despite their backgrounds.
A: Let’s discuss the portraits in the show – who are the subjects and what messages do they convey?
JSS: There will be approximately 65 portraits of the total 111 shot by Neshat for Land of Dreams. These portraits are representative of the images the fictional character, Simin, would have shot in the films. The still and moving images were shot by Neshat in New Mexico. They capture the diversity of American identities, including Native Americans, African Americans and Hispanics of varying ages and genders. A number of the portraits are inscribed with hand-written Farsi calligraphy, which annotates the subject’s dreams or notes their name, place and date of birth.
A: How do the photographs and video installations speak to each other?
JSS: Land of Dreams marks the first time that Neshat has combined the mediums of photography, film and video together in one immersive storytelling experience. The portrait photographs represent the narrative of the films we have just witnessed, blurring boundaries between fiction and reality; between art, life and politics.
A: What do you hope audiences take away from the exhibition?
JSS: We are excited to be bringing Neshat to London for her first exhibition in over 20 years. Her break out gallery exhibition at the Serpentine in 2000 was highly acclaimed and enjoyed huge visitor numbers. Whilst Neshat’s career has developed since that time, very little of her work has been shown in the UK. It is a huge privilege to debut her new works in the gallery, especially as the issues addressed in Land of Dreams are so urgent and universal.
The exhibition opens 20 February. Find out more here.
Lead image: Stills from Land of Dreams.