Dirimart is presenting Shirin Neshat’s latest body of work, Land of Dreams. In parallel with the exhibition, her third feature film will be screened in three different theaters as part of the 41st Istanbul Film Festival.
“These are about a 111 photographs that were all shot in New Mexico in the United States, these group of photographs are like a portrait of America, a portrait of the nation and I specifically photographed people of diverse backgrounds, native Americans, African Americans, Hispanic immigrants and people who are poor, to functional to non-functional to young, women and men so this whole group of photographs is meant to be what America looks like to me.” ~Shirin Neshat
Q&A with the artist
Selections: What does America look like to you?
Shirin Neshat: It looks pretty sad. Obviously, this is from a perspective of an Iranian who is an immigrant and I mainly focused on people who are also marginalised and the ones that are at the bottom of the society but I feel that there is a melancholy and sadness in their expressions, it would be the same as the expressions of someone who is full of fear and anxiety. It is the first time I make work about America and the first time that I use Farsi calligraphy in the background of images of people who are not Middle Eastern but are Western.
S: Do you write people’s thoughts, their stories or their dreams?
SN: The whole project is called Land of Dreams, I was that lady in the photograph also the actor in the video. I photograph people and ask them for their dreams so the writings on borders are just their names, first and last name, place and date of birth but the ones with smaller writings are interpretation of the people’s dreams based on an ancient book from the 11th century in Iran.
If you really look closer to the works, there are original handwriting on the photographs and the paintings are also taken from the same book. The idea was bringing, for the first time, my signature and calligraphic work on the surface of images and portraits of people who are American. Americans and Iranians are normally enemies but here we find reunion and become very close.
S: Can you translate something from the writings?
SN: I wouldn’t be able to translate, as these are written exactly from pages of manuscripts and they’re from the 11th century so they are slightly Arabic. We never wanted to translate any of it because this book has never been translated into English but basically when dreams were about death or falling, this book has different categories of interpretation. The book is titled Creatures of Wanders, it is actually a poor translation from Arabic. The video is now about this woman, the photographer from Iran going to New Mexico, door to door, to people’s homes, asking if she could take their portrait and ask for their dream. So the video is very much a part of this work.
S: Why was it 111 photographs?
SN: I took 200 photographs but we really didn’t have the money to produce more. The people were so beautiful and their expressions were so powerful, I would’ve loved to have extended it more. In the video, the photographer works like a spy for an Iranian colony, it is kind of surrealistic, absurd and satirical but she worked with this colony that is full with Iranian people who are spying on American people’s dreams. She is collecting people’s photographs and dreams and goes back to the colony to give it to Iranian people who then start interpreting American people’s dreams so there is this kind of absurdity of this antagonism between US and Iran.
S: What are Shirin’s dreams?
SN: My dream are about never seeing home, about displacement, the idea of loss of motherland, and the loss of mother. I have many dreams and I make videos about them but they are more of nightmares than dreams.
S: Where is this show going after?
SN: This show has been traveling a lot, it started in Los Angeles went to London, New York , and is now in Toronto, it is here, it will go to New Mexico and it is going to Japan so it is traveling a lot.
S:Do you want to tell the Lebanese people something?
SN:I love the culture of Beirut. Iranian people have a love affair with Beirut which is classically known as the place that really promoted intellectual life in the Middle East. A lot of Iranian people were educated in Beirut and you know the political complexity of Christians living with Muslims then the whole secular vs. non secular then you had the refugees and endless trauma yet the culture is so alive, rich, the people are so wise, even young people who I was teaching. I think what is inspirational about Lebanese people and the culture is the strength and the resilience whenever there is a tragedy or hardship which are coming one after another. Lebanese people rise again, it gives me goosebumps when I think about it.
About the exhibition
The Iranian-born NewYork-based artist’s practice focuses on the concepts of religious and political power that influence human existence. As a young adult, Neshat experienced the rise of radical Islam in the 70’s and the Iranian Islamic revolution. As an Iranian woman who has lived in exile in America since the 90’s, she developed a desire to bring nuance to dominant narratives, such as Islam versus feminism. With her latest work Land of Dreams, for the first time in her career, Neshat turns her lens towards her host country, America, to investigate and document how white supremacy and the threat against immigrants rupture individual lives under the Trump administration. A body of 111 photographic portraits, along with a two-channel video installation and a feature film converge into one multidisciplinary immersive experience to present a portrait of contemporary America.
Created in 2019 in New Mexico, the project marks a visual and conceptual shift for the artist. The first video, Land of Dreams, follows a character named Simin, an Iranian photographer, who travels through West America to photograph locals in their homes. The protagonist asks her sitters about their most recent dreams and eventually finds herself wandering inside each individual’s subconscious. Cinematographic images of New Mexico’s sublime landscapes complete the plot.
The second video, The Colony, takes a rather sinister and dystopian turn, where Simin becomes an Iranian spy, assigned with archiving the dreams and the portraits of people she encounters. The documents are then logged and analyzed by dozens of dream scientists in a factory-like facility. Both fictitious and documentary, the videos evoke, through striking imagery and political satire, a shared humanity among those living under social, political, and economic injustice.
The photographic installation comprising 111 portraits of New Mexico residents taken by Neshat gathers the photographs that the fictional character Simin would have taken during her interviews. These portraits capture the diversity of American identities, including Native Americans, African Americans, and Hispanics of varying ages and genders. Like the protagonist, Neshat asks her sitters about their dreams and records some of them on their portraits in Farsi. Her practice of applying calligraphy to portraits resurfaces in this oeuvre. Through her unique point of view, Neshat creates a human bond between insiders and outsiders. This complex and interwoven body of work reveals a country where dreams are sold to many but granted to few.
Neshat’s third feature film entitled Land of Dreams premiered in the 78th Venice Film Festival in 2021 can be seen during the 41st International Istanbul Film Festival supported by Istanbul Arts and Culture Foundation. The movie features Sheila Vand, Matt Dillon, William Moseley, and Isabella Rossellini.
The exhibition is on view until the 22nd of May.
Images courtesy of the gallery.