Photo by Paula Court
Photo by Paula Court
November 12th, 2011 · RoseLee Goldberg

Shirin Neshat "Iran is a dictatorship and artists such as me pose a problem for the government"

The following is an excerpt from a conversation between Performa Founding Director and Curator RoseLee Goldberg, Performa 11 artist Shirin Neshat and the audience, hosted by the New York Public Library on October 5th, 2011, in celebration of the publication Performa 09: Back to Futurism. This excerpt was originally published in Julieta Aranda and Carlos Motta's Broken English.


Seeking Martyrdom (Version 1), 1995. Pen and ink on gelatin silver print.

Shirin Neshat: With OverRuled, my current performance, I want to create a new experience for the audience, where for the first time they might feel that they are actually entering one of my videos or a film set. So there would be no longer a separation between the art and the viewer. I see performance art is an opportunity to have a collective event, where the artists and the audience have a shared experience. I suppose that is what interests me, as it is with filmmaking: the notion of community and redefining ways in which artists can engage and communicate with the various audiences.

Audience Member: I found your piece Turbulent to be very nostalgic. I have been reading many critical reviews on the relation between analog and digital and the old versus the new, and I wonder if that is what inspired you to make that piece?

Shirin Neshat: Turbulent was a piece that focused on the subject of how women are deprived from the experience of music and public performance in Iran. The video installation presented two projections on two opposite walls and the audience was seated in between them. On the one side, a male singer sang to a full theatre, and on the other side, a female singer sang to an empty theatre. If the male singer’s passionate song was traditional, the female singer’s powerful voice broke all rules of traditional music and pioneered its own expression. So at last, the piece became a form of confrontation between the masculine and the feminine and between the conformist and the rebellious. I’ve felt that from most of my past work, Turbulent is the piece that has been unanimously understood, possibly due to the use of music that struck an emotional chord with the audience and offered a truly universal resonance.

Audience: Your work is formed and influenced by cultural issues. Does your community in your country of origin have access to your work? How do you think your work empowers those communities, especially women?

Shirin Neshat: As most of you are aware, Iran is a dictatorship and artists such as me pose a problem for the government. I haven’t actually been able to go back since 1996, but thanks to technology, the internet and the power of piracy, my work has been widely seen there. I was really shocked to discover how many people had seen Women Without Men even in small towns all throughout Iran. Culture has a great place in Iranian society and artists are central to the social and political discourse. Since the 2009 election, artists have been very vocal through their work, through their participation in protests and through speaking in the media against the regime. Oddly enough, for a country that censors, arrests and imprisons its artists, artists have become the government’s greatest threat and art has become a form of resistance. One of Iran’s most important living filmmakers, Jafar Panahi, has been given six years in prison and banned from making films for twenty years in punishment for his recent films, but also for being active in the Green Movement. I think my work and movies-sadly - all such artists’ lives are at risk whether living inside or outside of Iran.

Turbulent, 1998.  

Audience: What do you think of the revival of performance art? Performance is more accepted now than it was 10 years ago. Why do you think this is happening?

Shirin Neshat: I am not as knowledgeable about the history of performance in the West as I should be. My inspiration for live performances is rooted in my Middle Eastern background. I see what I am doing less as a piece of theater than as an “event,” which relates to my interest in activism and in bringing together politics and art to the general public.

RoseLee Goldberg: Shirin, it would be really interesting if we could begin with a comment from you about moving across mediums, and what it felt like for you to create your first live piece in 2001.

Shirin Neshat:Let me begin by saying that ever since I’ve become active as an artist, I’ve taken a very nomadic approach to art forms. I have moved rather quickly from photography to video, to performance art, and then toward cinema. At times, I’ve wondered, why so much change? Why am I so restless? And I’ve come to the conclusion that ultimately an artist’s work is a reflection of the artist’s life and personality. I’ve learned to live as a nomad. I’m constantly on the move. I’ve never seemed to stay at the same place for very long. I’ve embraced the idea of new beginnings and I’ve felt the need to reinvent myself. In fact, I am terrified of stagnation and repetition. When I made the transition to filmmaking, as ambitious and difficult as that process was, I enjoyed the challenge and the elements of the unknown very much. In many ways, all these transitions have kept me on my edge, and have made me feel vital and relevant, not in respect to the art world, but to myself as an artist, feeling that I’m still learning, growing and experimenting. Going back to photography, I remember my first series called Women of Allah had a performative quality in the way that I posed for the images and played various roles. Later, with the videos, the physical design of the installations created a situation where the audience was seated in between the two screens, witnessing the story in two parts, never quite able to watch both sides at the same time. Therefore, the audience literally became a participant in the piece, as they were physically divided and engaged with the narrative. Later, cinema taught me about reconsidering the audience, as I moved out of the gallery and museum walls, away from a purely commodity-driven enterprise and toward a general public. When I first did live performance, I was terrified. Unlike film and photography where you can take time and edit, there is something un-nerving about live performance where you loose a certain amount of control; and you find yourself at the mercy of chance, accidents, and the chemistry of the audience and of the performers.

Guardians of Revolution (Women of Allah series), 1994. Black and white ink on resin coated paper.

RoseLee Goldberg: Can you talk further about being terrified by live performance and also about of the difference between working in live mode and in film? I also think that they are very different worlds. In live performance you can rehearse for weeks. I remember you asking me once, “Why do we need a whole week for rehearsal?” I said, “You will be grateful for that week later on.” Later on you told me, “Thank goodness we had that week, it has taken so long to figure it out.” You do need time to build the work during rehearsal. Another thing you said that was fascinating to me was, “Eye contact, you said that there was something incredible about being with the audience...” Could you talk about this more?

Shirin Neshat: The first live performance I did was Logic of the Birds. I was coming from making photographs and 10- minute- long video pieces, so the idea of making a piece that lasted around 60 minutes, and that had a form of development (a beginning, middle and end), became a challenge. I realized that coming from still images and short videos, one rarely thought about the audience’s attention span, as they could simply walk away. But in both film and live performance, you have the audience’s full attention for much longer, therefore one has to carefully calculate the narrative comprehension as well as the pacing and dramatic arc to keep the audience interested. I struggled with all of this at the beginning as I realized that I was far more experienced in creating provocative images than in telling stories. The most helpful in that regard was to surround myself with people who have the skills and necessary experience, such as my long- time collaborator and partner in life, artist and filmmaker, Shoja Azari. Throughout the past many years, I have learned that as artists we must not overestimate ourselves. For example, just because we have made short videos, we are not qualified to make a feature- length movie, or if you have done photography you are not necessarily fit to direct a performance piece. While we must take risks and experiment, we must respect and learn that every art form has its own language and set of rules. So blurring the boundaries between forms comes with a certain amount of education, responsibility, of course excitement and anxiety!

Production still from Logic of the Birds, 2001. Photo by Kevin Kennefick.

RoseLee Goldberg: How did your first live piece Logic of the Birds affect your subsequent work? Now that you are doing another performance, are ready to go through that anxiety again?

Shirin Neshat: The first time I even allowed myself to think about a live performance was when we were shooting Rapture, a video I made in Morocco back in 2000. There were several highly choreographed moments, as one hundred women in black veils moved about in a natural landscape and one hundred men in white shirts in a fortress. As the men’s and women’s bodies moved in lines, circles and triangles in juxtaposition together, an odd visual and aesthetic experience was created not unlike a dance performance. The live experience of watching these bodies move in various landscapes was so incredible that I suddenly thought about how powerful it would have been if my audience had been physically present to watch the actual scene unravel live, as opposed to encountering only its representation in the form of a video.


RoseLee Goldberg, art historian, critic, curator and author whose book Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, first published in 1979, pioneered the study of performance art.  She is the Founding Director and Curator of Performa.  

All artwork by Shirin Neshat.

Original conversation transcribed by Rebecca Schwebel.


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