Shirin Neshat’s renown has increased dramatically since her first solo exhibition of photographs in 1993. Both the form and the content of her work are based on stark contrasts and provocative oppositions that touch on questions of gender, exile and belonging, loss and memory, the particular and the universal. Though she is best known for her haunting trilogy of dual-screen, black-and-white short films—Turbulent (1998), Rapture (1999), and Fervor (2000)—the Iranian-born filmmaker originally came to the United States in 1974 to study painting. However, by the time she had completed her MFA at the University of California, Berkeley (1983), and moved to New York City, neither she nor her homeland bore any resemblance to what they had been nine years earlier. She had categorically ceased to paint, and Iran had been transformed from a secular-leaning monarchy to a conservative Islamic Republic. Neshat did not return to Iran until 1990.
After sixteen years of separation, she found the country of her youth profoundly changed. The economy was stagnating, public morale was flagging, and many basic freedoms had been severely curtailed. The burgeoning secular modernism Neshat had grown up with had been replaced by a forceful conservatism that, among other things, legally required all women to wear a veil in public. A highly charged symbol variously connoting Islamic identity, Iranian nationalism, Islamic feminism, and retrograde traditionalism, the veil and the centrality of women in the republic’s legal and political discourse led Neshat squarely back to art-making.
Initially, she began a series of photographs that investigated the role of women in Iran. These images explored opposing notions of concealment and assertion, vulnerability and defense, motherhood and martyrdom. By 1997, however, Neshat began to find both medium and subject limiting: “When you have only a single image, the message you convey may be like propaganda, whereas when you use film, you can become a storyteller, choreographing ideas and images, creating nonlinear narratives… . I weave messages into my work that can’t be pinned down, like a dream.”1
As she shifted from still to moving images, the artist and her Iranian crew garnered increasing international acclaim. Her work has been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale (1999), where Turbulent received the First International Prize. Lacking conventional elements such as plot line, character development, and dialogue, her films rely on the careful choreography of movement, physical environment, and soundscapes to simultaneously transfix and engage her audience. Dreamlike in their elusiveness, they aim to disarm, provoke, and give pause. Fielding questions about meaning and intent, Neshat dissociates her role as artist from that of interpreter: “I prefer raising questions as opposed to answering them.”2 Indeed, her films’ dual-screen presentations reinforce audience engagement by placing viewers between the screens, forcing them to make the final decisions about where to look and when.
In what is perhaps her most personal film, Soliloquy (1999), the artist appears as protagonist in two stories that unfold in anonymous cities representing traditional and modern worlds. Filmed in Mardin, Turkey, and Albany, New York, this color, two-channel film is built upon controversial dichotomies—East versus West, Islam versus Christianity, and tradition versus modernity. On both screens, Neshat moves through imposing architectural and religious spaces, among people, and alone in nature. It is unclear whether she is running away from or to somewhere, whether the scenes are illusions or memories, or whether one place is more welcoming than the other. Neshat has said that “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.”3 With elegance and rigor, Soliloquy captures the artist’s sense of displacement and loss while masterfully alluding to the ambiguities of identity, spirituality, and place that touch all people. As the two sound tracks merge toward the film’s end, the viewer is left with an unforgettable sense of reconciliation.
Quoted in “Art for the MTV Generation,” The Economist, March 23, 2002, 80. ↩
Quoted in Gerald Matt, “In Conversation with Shirin Neshat,” in Gabriele Mackert, ed., Shirin Neshat, exh. cat. (London: Serpentine Gallery; Vienna: Kunsthalle Wien, 2000), 13. ↩
Quoted in Arthur C. Danto, “Shirin Neshat,” Bomb 73 (Fall 2000): 67. ↩