The Iranian artist has lived in the U.S. in self-imposed exile for 40 years. But she hasn't turned her lens to American society until now, just as it’s going off the edge
“You can kill a person in a dream and you’re innocent,” laughs Shirin Neshat, considering how social codes can be obliterated by the simple act of falling asleep. The Iranian visual artist, known for photographs and films observing political tyranny in the country she fled during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, is fascinated by the power of dreams to mine our subconscious in a private world where anything goes. As with art and poetry, dreams can convey us toward realizations we might otherwise never have come to; there is sometimes great freedom to be found in madness and deep meaning in utter absurdity. “That’s why I think fiction is more truthful than reality,” Neshat says. “I really believe that.”
Neshat’s latest exhibition, Land of Dreams, consists of over 100 photographs and a two-channel film installation she began conceptualizing in the middle of Donald Trump’s first and only tumultuous term as President of the United States. This multidisciplinary work is the first in which Neshat observes the country she has now lived in for 40 years, documenting the residents of rural New Mexico and the landscapes of the American West. In the first video, also titled Land of Dreams, an art student named Simin is shown introducing herself to residents, requesting permission to photograph them in their homes and asking them about their most recent dreams. A military man has recurring nightmares of nuclear holocaust; a Native American woman dreams of searching for the child that has been taken from her, alluding to a very real American horror story; other people dream of lizards. On the adjacent screen, a surrealist dystopian film titled The Colony reveals Neshat’s protagonist in an industrial factory setting, analyzing her subjects’ dreams at the behest of an autocratic supervisor. (The two videos were debuted individually at The Broad as part of its recent retrospective of Neshat’s 30-year career.)
“It’s very much about this absurd narrative, dark humor, satirical look into the American society and how it’s just going off the edge—in the way that my own country had,” Neshat says of documenting contemporary American culture during the tumultuous, ‘post-truth’ Trump era. “It was just so ideological and the absurdity of that system still continues.”
Land of Dreams recalls a trio of double-channel films (Turbulent, Rapture, and Fervor) that Neshat created between 1998 and 2000—shortly before the 9/11 attacks and George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech caused a sharp escalation in the tensions that have defined US-Iran relations since the 1979 Revolution. Stark contrasts are employed to explore opposing forces: dreams vs reality, Iranian vs American political systems, the raw beauty of the desert vs the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of the factory. But as Simin breaks the rules and enters one of her subjects’ dreams, the new two-channel film also reveals our common humanity: the fears, anxieties, and imaginary lizard monsters capable of forging subliminal connections between people of all backgrounds. (In the exhibition, the dreams are recorded in Farsi calligraphy on many of the portraits, and the more fantastical elements depicted in a series of ornate illustrations.) “I think that’s what I love about being an artist—to really explore my own inner world, but also entice or provoke other people’s inner thoughts in a way that they might identify with some of the enigma that is in the work,” Neshat says. “I think what we’re talking about is just emotions. There’s a lot that we hold back.”
The morning after Joe Biden was inaugurated as 46th president of the United States, Neshat joined Document to discuss her ambitious new work. She reflected on the similarities between Iranian and American landscapes, the ironic events of January 6, and finding hope in a world where nothing makes sense.
Hannah Ongley: You’ve said previously that your father was very drawn to the American West. How did his romanticization of the West, and the rejection of his own values, influence your own relationship to these landscapes? And what drew you to New Mexico specifically for this project?
Shirin Neshat: Like you said, we grew up in Iran with this image of America as a land of dreams, a place where dreams come true. I remember very clearly that being my father’s obsession about sending his children here. But I was very dispirited, very depressed, when I arrived here. I was only 17. We all had this obsession with what America looked like from movies and Hollywood. But once I came here, the separation from my homeland and family was just devastating. Then, of course, the Revolution happened, and the separation became even deeper.
I haven’t lived in many places other than the East and West Coasts, so I’ve been around other immigrants, but I do have to say that there was something about this country that I took pride in, which was this idea of generosity, of letting the immigrants into democracy—everything that in my own country was lacking in many ways. Although I had some criticism of this country, I was always very happy to be living here. I think over the last four or five years, everyone sort of went on the edge by things changing: the whole identity of this country being slowly compromised, the rise of white supremacy, racist programs against immigrants and Muslims, a lot of racial discrimination, and corporations taking the lead in things in a way that they never had. For me, the whole idea and image of this country was slowly, in a very terrifying way, being compromised.
Hannah: Do you think anything has changed over the last 24 hours, following Biden’s inauguration?
Shirin: I certainly hope so and think so—I believe so. I was just telling my husband last night that I immediately feel safer by the change in administration. I think the fact that [Biden] immediately lifted the Muslim Ban and the horrible laws that [Trump] had put in place for immigration and the environment—it’s all very hopeful. I think we need that kind of optimism. But what happened in the last four or five years was very significant. In many ways, people were becoming very—like they were on drugs or something. Nobody was really caring anymore. As artists, in fact, we were just living in these bubbles. Between the pandemic and the political uproar and the anti-racism protests and the economy and unemployment, this year has shaken people to the core—and, I think, to the positive.
Hannah: You left Iran for the US during the 1979 Revolution, and returned for a brief period in 1990 after the death of Ayatollah Komeini. How has witnessing those seismic events shaped your perspective on America’s recent political chaos?
Shirin: The truth is that I’m a byproduct of the Revolution. The fact that I live here in exile is everything to do with the dictatorship and how the Revolution took place and eventually separated us. In some ways, we’re so used to political crises. In Iran, you have incredible uprising almost two or three times a year, people pouring into the streets. The atrocity that this government imposes on people is just out of this world, the violence that they impose on their own people. Then here, the domestic terrorism—you know, I was saying, now that there’s a pandemic, US Americans can’t do anything to other countries so they do it on themselves [laughs]. But it’s true.
What we saw on January 6 was more cruel and violent than what I even saw in Iran. It’s interesting to see the tables turn, where chaos and disorder happen in the most powerful country on the planet. I was a little bit offended when one of the senators, in an interview, said, ‘But these things only happen to the third world! They don’t happen to us.’ As an Iranian American, I really am invested in both sides in terms of what happens. I follow what’s going on in Iran and here very carefully. Even my family in Iran is following what’s going on here. You know, even the relationship between Iran and the US also depends on the government.
Hannah: It’s probably one of the only places in the world where it does. You know, American foreign policy doesn’t typically change much from one administration to the next, except when it comes to Iran and the Middle East.
Shirin: Obama was very close [during the Iran nuclear agreement] negotiations. And, of course, the government of Iran loves to rally around this anti-American sentiment, so the more they’re enemies—maybe Iran’s leaders can even last longer. But it’s interesting for me to [come from this background] because, for a lot of Americans, the pandemic was a shocker, they had never seen anything like this. More people have died than in World War II, the economy has collapsed, then to have Trump in power—he was completely incapable. He almost did a coup d’état on the government. These are things that don’t usually happen. Going back to my video, it’s interesting to see how the two countries of Iran and the US are beginning to look very similar [laughs].
Hannah: In your previous work you have often drawn sharp contrasts between Islam and western societies, which you do in Land of Dreams as well, but the differences are not always black-and-white, so to speak. What is it about the landscape and the people of New Mexico that reminds you of Iran?
Shirin: It was really the landscapes of the desert. We were looking for a landscape that sort of blurred the boundaries between Iran and the US. I wanted that desert landscape that at once the audience could look at and be like, ‘Is this America? Or is this Iran?’ [My colleagues and I] ended up choosing New Mexico because it had such fantastic landscapes, but also it truly resembled Iran in many ways. Also, I think one of the reasons for New Mexico was the demographics—the combination of the people who live there, from the Native Americans to a huge population of immigrants. You could really get an image of America in New Mexico. I think it’s a very sacred and beautiful state. And a lot of artists, naturally, have gravitated toward it.
Hannah: I assume that in the film Land of Dreams, the protagonist is essentially meeting the subjects the same way you did, knocking on people’s doors and asking to take their portrait.
Shirin: Yeah. First of all, I wanted to tell you something very important to me. I find something very beautifully poetic about the relationship between photography and dreams. Photography is like—you’re always capturing something permanent. Once you have it, it’s frozen in time. And dreams are something that vanishes. Once you think about it, it’s gone. It’s no longer a story. You instantly remember a little bit of it, but the rest of it you forget, right? So I really like this relationship between photography and the ephemeral part of dreams.
When it came to the production, I went first with two female friends and collaborators, and my dog. We traveled across New Mexico in different towns—Albuquerque, then we went to Farmington, which is mainly a Navajo nation, then to Las Vegas, New Mexico, a beautiful old town. We recruited people from different economic backgrounds—men, women, young, old—and we paid them a little bit of money. Sometimes we’d set up a studio at a pizza parlor, sometimes at a hotel, sometimes in the park, sometimes in their homes. And people volunteered. Either they really needed that money, a lot of them were homeless or mentally handicapped, while others were very functional. But basically, it was a traveling protest.
Hannah: It’s interesting that you touch on the idea of ephemerality and photography’s ability to immortalize something fleeting. It reminded me of how, in the ’70s and ’80s after moving to New York, you famously destroyed all of your early work. Do you find beauty in ephemerality when it comes to the work itself?
Shirin: It’s interesting you ask that. No one has asked me that before. The way I can explain it is this: originally, when I started, my ideas—like Women of Allah, it was so concrete, you know? It was about the Islamic Revolution and these notions of martyrdom, very socio-politically charged. But I was also really interested in poetry that took it to another place. So I was always interested in ways in which I could bridge the subliminal, subconscious, poetic, mystical with reality, politics, sociology, religion, and all of that. Later, I really got tired of political work, so I went toward music, with Turbulent, and I went to make a movie called Women Without Men, which was a magic-realist novel that I turned into a movie. So slowly I saw that surrealism, magic realism, poetry—and then, later, dreams—are ways in which you can still attack reality but not in such a direct way, if that makes sense. [Laughs] You can kill a person in a dream and you’re innocent.
I think that judgment—for example, if nothing makes sense, well dreams don’t really make sense, do they? So the judgment of the audience, or the reduction of the ideas into something so concrete, bothered me. In a dream state, you’re very truthful. You’re truly naked. I started to write my own dreams, and I found these very weird parallels, like how my mother appears all the time. I found out eventually that’s because she’s my only connection to Iran—it’s like ‘motherland.’ There are some very powerful things that happen in our subconscious that, to be honest, are not very different to other people’s dreams and nightmares. When you think about the photographs too, they’re not very believable. How many women do you see holding arms with half of their body naked [laughs]. Nothing I did is really believable, you know? There’s something about the lack of believability that really suits me.
Hannah: Some of them are more believable than others. Some of the portraits are very simple, with a plain backdrop. Is that because they couldn’t remember their dreams?
Shirin: [Laughs] So in the movie we’re making, we went to many more houses, and some people just say, ‘You know, I don’t dream, and if I dream I don’t remember them. I don’t write them down.’ So those are the people that didn’t have a dream or at least they couldn’t remember one to share with us.
Hannah: I was curious about the process of adding Farsi calligraphy, and the elaborate illustrations, to the portraits of people who shared their dreams.
Shirin: From the beginning, we knew that those photographs—which, by the way, were the first time that we did Persian calligraphy on western subjects. And I felt that our exchange was so wonderful, they were giving to me themselves, their dreams, who they were in their lives, and what I gave in return was our handwriting and our culture, imposed on the photographs. Essentially, there are two types of writing. There are some with bolder white calligraphy, which is only the names, place of birth, and date of birth of the character. Then the other ones are a very loose interpretation of their dreams from an ancient book that comes from Iran. They’re categories—it’s not very specific, it’s very loose. But also these strange creatures, the illustrations, are from things that are very derivative of dreams, like a human being with a cow’s head or a snake with a fish body. It was very suggestive.
Hannah: Land of Dreams has very little music in it compared to some of your earlier films. Music does appear, but it’s mostly natural noises we hear. What was the reason behind that decision?
Shirin: To be honest, since the beginning I felt that I was flooding my videos with too much music. I realized that of course working with different composers, they have a tendency, but I was also new to it so I couldn’t really tell. But over time I’ve grown to be more minimal about the use of music, because I find music a little bit overpowering, or too manipulative. Some of my other videos like Roja or Illusions & Mirrors were also about dreams, the music was so subliminal—just very little [of it]. Here, too, I only used the music of Mohsen Namjoo, who’s a very well-known Iranian musician and singer. He plays guitar. I just liked this juxtaposition of Persian instrumentation on the American landscape—as if it was the voice of the Iranian girl in the narrative. You’re looking at all this landscape, like the streets of this typical American town, but yet you hear Persian music. There was something really unsettling about this division between your world and their world. It reminded me so much of my own nostalgia of being a foreigner in this country and driving along roads and listening to Persian music while traveling on the American highways into towns where, you know, I was definitely an oddball within the community [laughs]. But inside of my car, I was in Iran.