“I realized that I have lived longer in this country than my own country,” says Shirin Neshat over Zoom. It’s the morning after the opening of her solo exhibition, “Land of Dreams,” at Gladstone Gallery in New York, and there’s already more to celebrate: in less than an hour, Joe Biden would be sworn into office as the 46th president of the United States. Like many others, Neshat is feeling hopeful.
The artist’s latest body of work, conceived and produced during Trump’s presidency, reflects a similar optimism, even when reflecting an American culture strained by division. The exhibition includes two films — shown in a two-channel installation within the gallery, and screened online — and over 100 portraits. “My lens was always looking back to Iran, where I was born. And now I gave myself the license to give a kind of critique of this country,” says the artist, who left Iran as a teenager and is based in New York.
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“For so long people like me — immigrant artists — shied away from giving our perspective about this country and everything that was going wrong,” she adds, listing just a few of the issues that have boiled up over the past few years: the rise of white supremacy, the Muslim ban, the immigration crisis. Now, more than ever, Neshat stresses the importance of artists like herself — an immigrant, a woman, a Muslim — adding their voices to the collective narrative of America, the country of dreams.
The artist turned her attention to the American Southwest, a longstanding symbol of possibility that also reflects aspects of Iran. The exhibition highlights juxtapositions — between Iran and America; fiction and documentary; dreams and nightmares — and shows that the distinctions are often quite blurred. “Our anxieties and fears — especially in light of the pandemic — they’re very similar,” she says. “And this divide that we have, especially between Iran and the U.S., this antagonism, is absurd, because what Americans worry about is not that different.”
Neshat and her partner Shoja Azari (who also served as cinematographer) initially set out on a road trip across America, in search of a desert landscape that felt similar to Iran. They ultimately settled on New Mexico for the beauty of the state’s landscape and also the harsh socioeconomic conditions for many residents.
“There’s this ambiguity — is this landscape Iran or the U.S.?,” she says. “I was also very interested that New Mexico is one of the poorest states in the U.S.; one of the most neglected states,” she adds. “It was very interesting as a foreigner, as an immigrant, to be working with these other immigrants, and other people who feel so displaced, or their status in America was under attack.”
Neshat hoped to include the state’s native community in the project. When New Mexico’s film commission told them they were unlikely to get permission, she went and introduced herself and her vision for the work in person. The artist established a friendship with a member of the Navajo Nation, which led to an invitation into his home and introductions to other members.
The idea of personal connections bridging divides between faceless organizations was central to her video works.
In the titular video “Land of Dreams,” actress Sheila Vand — as a sort of conduit for Neshat herself — plays an Iranian art student tasked with interviewing New Mexico residents about their recent dreams. While the video is fictional, many of the people shown were local non-actors, who allowed the production into their homes.
In a parallel video, “The Colony,” that same character is revealed to be an Iranian spy, working within an authoritarian bunker in the mountains to archive and analyze those same dreams. The result is absurdist political satire that aims to comment on how citizens become victims of people in power, governments and systems.
“As she collected people’s dreams and nightmares — about displacement, or abandonment, or the fear of violence, nuclear Holocaust, or religion — she started to [realize] some of those people’s dreams and nightmares are exactly her own anxieties as a displaced person,” says Neshat of her central character, Simin. “She was just an agent. And as an agent, she did the forbidden, which was identifying with her subjects.”
Last fall, Neshat returned to New Mexico to film a scripted feature-length film based on those two videos, which stars Vand as well as Matt Dillon, Isabella Rossellini and Anna Gunn.
The exhibition at Gladstone is accompanied by over 100 portraits, embellished with Farsi script and illustrations. Like the character in her films, Neshat also went door-to-door to photograph people and ask them about their dreams. She set up studios at pizza parlors and hotels, and paid everyone who would let her take their portrait. She also gifted each person a print of their final portrait.
The result is a portfolio reflective of New Mexico’s racial and economic diversity. “And so we had this incredibly meaningful relationship with the local people, whether they were functional or dysfunctional, Natives or Hispanic or Black or white,” she says. “The photographs to me are what America looks like today.”
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