There are many ways in which to be a political artist. For Shirin Neshat, poetry, calligraphy and cinematography can convey stories of female disempowerment more powerfully than “shock art.” Charles Shafaieh pays a visit to the home of one of New York’s most widely recognized artists.
Art for art’s sake is of no interest to Shirin Neshat. The Iranian-American artist mines the iconography, history and poetry of her homeland to explore both local and universal issues, from the chador and female body to ritual and performance. The video installations, calligraphy-lined photographs and live-performance work that results challenges the expectations and assumptions of Iranian and American, Muslim and atheist audiences alike. And she has made the leap from art to cinema: In 2010, her film about the 1953 coup in Tehran, Women Without Men, was an art house hit.
Neshat’s work often takes her away from her apartment, as she meets the many collaborators with whom she has formed an international collective producing, assisting and even starring in each other’s work. Despite this near-constant movement, Neshat remains attuned to quiet moments of beauty. When we spoke at her Brooklyn home and studio, she was transfixed by her Labrador, Ashi, who stared silently at a bird fluttering on the other side of a window. “That is something special,” she says, her eyes brightening.
Do you have a daily routine?
I’m very repetitious about everything I do. I wake up early, around 6:30 a.m., and have the most clarity in the morning. I eat breakfast, answer emails. I have a ritual of calling my mother in Tehran every day at 9 a.m. Then I try to prepare for work, because people arrive around 10:30 a.m. I make sure I’m quiet during this time, because when my team comes, it gets very busy. Then in the evening, I take dance classes—I’m obsessive about studying dance—and go out with friends or see movies. I don’t ever work at night.
Managing both a public and private life can be difficult, especially in New York.
It’s really difficult to balance. I’m a workaholic; I work seven days a week. My personal life is mainly around my son, who lives in New York—I try to be really selfish about making time with him. There are times when I feel that the work takes over, but I try to rely on my home, my partner Shoja [Azari], my dog and my close friends.
My immediate group of friends are also collaborators. Since I started making films and met a community of Iranian friends and others—visual artists, theater directors, cinematographers, painters, writers, singers—it has become an experience to support each other. I feel not just a responsibility but a great satisfaction that the relationship between us is reciprocal. If I could use anything in my power to help them, why not? It has always suited me very well to work with someone else—someone with whom to brainstorm and go through the journey together. I’ve never been one to just sit against a wall and paint.
That sense of artistic community is increasingly absent in Manhattan. When did you leave for Brooklyn?
About a year ago. We lived in a very elegant SoHo loft but, after 18 years, we felt it was time to move on because the area has become so corporate. We wanted to incorporate our studio into our living area, too. Bushwick, our new neighborhood, is where artists are moving, and it’s a very diverse area—very much like the East Village when I first moved to New York in 1983.
New York has become more clean-cut. The whole notion of bohemia doesn’t really exist here anymore. The underground artists doing crazy projects and performance pieces are not in galleries in Chelsea, which are clean and cold. You feel it’s all about the dealers and collectors, as opposed to the artists. In some ways, I come from the blue-chip gallery world—I’m represented by one of the best galleries, I’m friends with many important artists—but I’m not into showing up at every opening, trying to meet collectors or be at the right place at the right time.
There’s still lots of activity happening though, especially in Brooklyn. There are pockets of bohemian life and groups of artists here who are not at the center, which is very promising.