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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.

  • Words:
    Charles Shafaieh
  • Photography:
    Zoltan Tombor
  • Styling:
    Debbie Hsieh

“The projects I choose are very ambitious and almost impossible at times.”

Too polished an environment doesn’t allow for chaos and messiness to meld with beauty and order, which is something very important to your work. Is that true for your life as well?
Living in places that are too comfortable is anticlimactic for artists. For example, I really don’t enjoy going to fancy, trendy, very expensive restaurants—there’s too much pretense. I like places that are rough, loud, crazy, chaotic, down-to-earth. It’s similar to why I like Bushwick: There are rats here and garbage there, but you see beautiful scenes of mothers holding children’s hands going to school in uniforms, or crazy-looking artists walking around at 3 a.m., and heroin addicts. You see life as it is.

As an artist, you need to be confronted by the good and the bad, the order and chaos. Too much chaos or too much order is problematic. I like something in-between. Trying to balance that, every day, keeps me on my edge and feeling like I’m still a young emerging artist as opposed to feeling safe. Every day is a bit of a struggle and a challenge—I’m addicted to it. The projects I choose are very ambitious and almost impossible at times, and they can be very painful. I think that I subconsciously put myself in places where I’m testing myself.

Limitations—like those enforced upon artists living under oppressive regimes—can also engender better art than comfortable environments.
I’m a strong believer that limitations lead to a very creative process. When you’re within these parameters, in which so many things are not possible, you become very creative and imaginative to find solutions. In my work, I always enforce a set of boundaries in terms of what I will and will not do, which helps me. If infinity were the limit, I would just be lost! I don’t mean to overgeneralize, but I think that’s forgotten by Western artists, because pretty much everything—from nudity to insulting political leaders and religion—is acceptable in art for them.

Critics often ignore work if it isn’t overtly political.
Even artists become conscious about what succeeds. But I often think about artists like Paul Thomas Anderson, whose films are not politically relevant but are existentially important. It’s a mixed blessing when you make art that has an acute relationship with political ideas. On the one hand, it’s sexy, provocative, sensational; on the other, the theme takes over the form, and the subject dominates the art. My work tries to keep a balance between deeply poetic, universal and timeless issues.

Poetry and music are means by which you’ve shown how limitations can be transcended. Why do you keep returning to those two elements?
Music is a kind of pure emotion. I’ve used it in most of my work because most of my subjects are very silent, coming from oppressive lives. To have a voice as a musician is very symbolic because music transcends reality and its issues. There is a way to be expressive with music that you cannot be in normal conversation.

“I’ve never been one to just sit against a wall and paint.”

Similarly, the poetry written on my images is meant to arouse emotions and be very subversive, in a way suggesting the voice. Most Iranian people use poetry as a form of reflection, with somewhat mystical inclinations, and also to be subversive—because everything you’re not allowed to say overtly you can say through poetry. It’s very allegorical and metaphoric. That’s the main thing that I appreciate about poetry: It’s not direct and also so significant in what it means.

Dreams appear frequently in your work, too.
I’m fascinated by dreams and try to write mine down immediately. There are always references to reality—places you’ve been and people you know—but also things that bother you, anxieties, fears that you don’t usually like to think about. I like that they’re very abstract.

I’ve made many videos of my dreams and my next film—a kind of surrealistic, absurd political satire on the Iran/America tension but also a critique of poverty in America—will be called Dreamland. It’s about an Iranian woman, living in a very poor rural town in the Midwest, who is a census worker. She goes door-to-door to collect information, and at the end of each interview, she asks, “What was your last dream?” She makes it sound like it’s part of the usual questionnaire. But then she gets back on the highway and drives to a surrealistic Iranian colony where there’s an institution for the interpretation of Americans’ dreams. So she’s a spy who brings dreams!

Do you carry memories of your childhood in Iran with you?
I’m always more nostalgic about those moments when I was just meandering through my father’s fruit farm and the garden, when the spring would come with the scent of the blossoms. I don’t have nostalgia about school or friends but more so environments—my home, my hometown. These things I remember very vividly.

“Everything you’re not allowed to say overtly you can say through poetry.”

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