It has been more than 20 years since the artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat last visited Iran, where she was born in the city of Qazvin in 1957. “I represent a part of the Iranian community and diaspora who voluntarily, and somewhat involuntarily, doesn’t go back because the current regime is quite impossible,” Neshat says by phone from her studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Most of Neshat’s family still lives in her home country, though, and so, as the United States and Iran have moved to the brink of war over the past few weeks, following the U.S. assassination of Qassim Suleimani in Iraq, the artist has been thinking carefully about her choice of words. “I’m really worried about what I say because I fear not just for myself but for them,” she says.
The fraught relationship between the two countries is the focus of one Neshat’s newest video, and in a coincidence that is both poignant and painful, it is now screening in her expansive retrospective at the Broad in Los Angeles, which runs through Feb. 16. Titled Land of Dreams (2019), the short two-channel piece follows a young Iranian woman, a spy posing as an art student who photographs Americans and investigates their dreams. An ex-military man has recurring nightmares about nuclear holocaust. A woman dreams about being expelled from her home by the military. The spy “somehow starts identifying with them and understanding that their anxieties and nightmares are not so different than hers,” Neshat says.
Though Neshat has lived in the U.S. since 1974, when she came to study art in Los Angeles, she has largely trained her attention on political and societal dynamics in Iran and the Muslim world, in moving films and indelible black-and-white portraits photographs that she adorns with Farsi and Arabic text. And so Land of Dreams, which is set in America, represents a profound shift. “It was after Trump and this whole experience that came with the Muslim ban that I got this feeling that this is where I need to turn my attention to,” she says. (“This U.S. government is looking more and more like the Iranian government every day,” she told the press last year.)
Scouting for a location for the video, Neshat traveled around the United States with her husband and longtime collaborator, Shoja Azari. “We were basically looking for desert landscape that in strange ways look like Iran while it was still really visibly American,” she says, explaining that “we wanted to have this possibility where at some point the viewer wasn’t sure whether we were in Iran or in America.” They settled on New Mexico, a state that she noted is home to large Native American and Hispanic communities that have had to deal with issues of displacement and immigration.
Land of Dreams centers on Shiprock Peak, a sacred place for the Navajo people. “You really feel like it’s a living thing,” Neshat says. “It’s like a God, it’s a mountain that looks truly auspicious.” The spy moves between peoples’ homes in the outer world and “a modern, claustrophobic authoritarian space that looks like the Soviet Union” within that stunning mountain, where the spy’s findings are analyzed and interpreted, she adds. “I like this kind of parody and this opposition between what took place inside and what appeared outside.”
The piece is characteristically dreamy and, at times, dark, but it is also playful and even wry (“theidea that the Iranian government would spy on peoples’ dreams, that’s really absurd,” Neshat says), which is another surprise from an artist whose work has tended toward a precise, elegant sincerity. “My work is never very funny,” she admits with a huge laugh. Explaining her new approach, she mentions Spike Lee’s discussion of his film BlacKkKlansman (2018) and his point that in “moments of crisis sometimes political satire is the most efficient and interesting way of making social critique.” (She is currently developing the video into a feature.)
Discussing the dire political situation she and her fellow exiles experience living between Iran and the U.S., “we seem to be battling on two fronts,” Neshat says. In America, “with Trump it’s become increasingly problematic to live as an immigrant, where you worry about your future.” And then one looks to Iran, and “we’re very concerned about their safety, about their economic situation, their lack of freedom.”
Following Iran’s claim last week that it accidentally downed a commercial airliner with nearly 200 aboard, people in the country have taken to the streets, facing death, torture, and imprisonment from authorities. Fear is everywhere, Neshat says. “If you’re in Iran, should you go to the protests or should you not go? I ask a lot of my friends ‘if you were in Iran would you actually go?’ Because, believe me, I don’t fancy going to Iranian prison. It’s really frightening shit.” She plans to travel to London for a presentation of Land of Dreams at the Goodman Gallery in London next month, but “I’m literally afraid of going and not being able to come back,” she says.
What role do artists have in such a climate? “I think that I take my work now more seriously than ever before,” Neshat says. “I think that it’s even more important that artists are vocal.” She has clearly thought deeply about her own position, and proposes that she deals with part of the art world that is “more about money and the market. So it’s a bit of a challenge. I feel like my work is also very aesthetic and very poetic. It’s not just political. But nevertheless, I do feel a little bit like going against the stream here, trying to respond to not only what’s going on in Iran, but what’s going on in this country.”
(Artworks courtesy the artist and Goodman Gallery, London)