New York, 515 West 24th Street
Following Illusions & Mirrors and Sarah, the Iranian-born and New York-based artist Shirin Neshat’s Dreamers trilogy concludes with Roja. In her new exhibition at Gladstone Gallery, Neshat’s moving black and white film makes its New York premiere alongside a group of photographs of the film’s characters. Street-cast from an upstate town where the artist spends some of her time, the opaque figures reflect Neshat’s interpretation of American identity. While such subject matter signals a new path in the artist’s prolific career, her vulnerable approach and the voice of ANOHNI in Roja offer a uniquely immersive experience. Artspeak editor Osman Can Yerebakan spoke with Neshat about Dreamers.
Osman Can Yerebakan: In Roja, you build a Modernist atmosphere with references to Ingmar Bergman and Michalengelo Antonioni. The lead character’s search for a meaning in industrial surrounding reminds of Maya Deren.
Shirin Neshat: The whole concept of Dreamers trilogy comes from experimental and Surrealist film makers. I looked at Buñuel, Jean Cocteau, and Man Ray. Bergman is god, his images are so concrete with the characters, but for me, he’s more about the narrative. What I liked about Surrealist films is that their logic is not linear. They are also very visual. I made a magical-realist film called Women Without Men, so for me, as an experimental film maker, it’s always easier to tell my stories with Surrealism or magical-realism. I can be excused from from fragmentation. Also, when you dream, you see references to reality, yet nothing makes sense. You see people you know and places you’ve been, but they are disconnected and non-linear. I went with this idea that we can create stories that in such a way that gives the essence of the psychosis and reflects issues of this character whether it’s nostalgia or displacement.
Each film has its own psychological focus for the character, but they are equally non-linear and abstract. I made sure to give enough to the viewer to help understand the narrative. This film takes place in a barren land, and one of the earlier ones called Sarah was set in a forest, and the other one with Natalie Portman was shot by the ocean. I made sure they are very distinct landscapes. I had to create my own logics and principles for each video. The narratives are kept very fluid and for that reason I am not sure if people fully comprehend it, but when we dream, we wake up and try to make sense of fleeing parts as well. On the other hand, dreams are so important for being the only places we are completely free. This film is based on my own dream, and my idea of seeing my mother and flying. I often times try to write down my dreams. Sometimes my mother appears in them or a mother figure in general. I remember coming out of a modern building, and then saw my mother running toward me. When I got to her, she pressed against me.
OCY: There is the idea of being the black sheep in a community, especially in the first scene where the character is sitting amongst the audience. Another element is guilt which is represented through her mom’s rejection of her.
SN: It’s really about my experience in America while feeling alienated, but also being considered American at this point. I have been here longer here than I have been in Iran. Then in my home country, I feel a lot of nostalgia, but I am not welcome back. The film is a little about the experience of being in two different spaces that are politically, culturally, and geographically so different. In both places, there is certain amount of attachment, compassion, and love, but there is also fear, violence, and aggression. The singer in the begging of the film brings the character to tears, because she can identify with his emotions, but then he turns into a demonic character. When she sees her mother coming toward her, she thinks that she would be her savior, but she also turns against her. It’s about any of us who feels cornered or alienated. This is not really about me but about the experience of being an outcast. I am certainly very familiar with. I exaggerated it with complete Modernist architecture and the people in the film are not New Yorker types but real Americans who were mostly Republicans. They are very dignified, yet emotionally blocked. These photographs try to do the same thing. There is something very sympathetic and humane about them, and at the same time they are unreachable for me. These photographs are Americans from my perspective.
OCY: Does the blurriness in the photographs reflect your perspective of them? The same blurriness also repeats in the film.
SN: We have a home in upstate New York, and we are good friends with these people. We really made an effort in the beginning. For them, we look like we came out of another planet, because they never saw an Iranian before. In general, they look at us as if we were novelty items; they never met anyone that did not look like them. They never come to New York City. There is always a barrier where things stop. Even though I have been here for so long, when I am with them, I feel like an alien. I cannot see through them. When we try to have a conversation, there is a boundary that will never break. I never tried to capture American portraits before, so I really struggled. In the film, it’s a little easier, because they are only the spectators. Here, my photographs are about getting into the soul of these people. I realized that opaqueness and the level of unreachable state is my true experience with them. This does not make them negative people or I don’t think they think of me as hostile. They just cannot fully relate to me.
OCY: Their nakedness makes them look vulnerable and exposed. In some photographs, they almost look like saints from Renaissance paintings.
SN: In the photographs, there is something really appealing about them. The performer in the film, for example, brings you to tears, but we see that he has another side. For me it was a balance about capturing humane images of the people the way I see them. At the same time, I don’t relate to them; I don’t know them. Blurriness really expresses that. A friend helped with casting, although these people are all from the town where I live in upstate. They didn’t know me, but they knew of me, because we are the only Iranians in that town. They came to my house one by one, and we photographed them. There’s something timeless about these images. You cannot really define what period they are from. The most commercial way would be to take photos of them and then write on them, but I couldn’t do that—it’d be hypocritical. I thought what I see when I look at these people, and it was blurriness. I was experimental with the film as much as I was with photography. I had never done anything like that before in terms of camera techniques and the glass we put in front of the camera in certain shots.
OCY: What took you so long to photograph Americans?
SN: I always felt very cautious about not photographing people from cultures that I am not a part of. Something has happened in the last few years because I no longer make art about Iran. My work in Venice at the moment is about Azerbaijan. For me, the work is no longer about Iran, but it’s about an Iranian artist looking at other parts of the world. That does not mean I characterize them according to the way there are, but I try to portray them the way I see them. My attachment and distance to these people convey my art. These people are real Americans in the way they embody the best values of this country, but at the same time there is a lot of ignorance that is not forgiving. My intention was to grasp the good and the bad in them like all of us. You see that in the film, too. The mother rejects her as well.
OCY: ANOHNI is singing the film’s song, although it’s shot in a way that the man on stage seems to be singing. You’re not trying to hide the fact that someone else singing instead of him though.
SN: ANOHNI’s music brings me to tears. There is no way her voice will not affect that girl or any of us. I knew it had to be a very good American song in that scene. The song is “The Carnaval Is Over” by The Seekers from 1967. The actor chose this song which was a great coincidence. On the weekends he plays guitar at a bar in Lake Placid, but I told him that I won’t record his song. I asked him to choose a song that would bring the girl to tears and he chose this song. His voice was not so great, though. On the other hand, I know ANOHNI; we worked together in the past. I told her that I have to have her voice in this scene, and she said okay.