Photographer, visual contemporary artist, and filmmaker Shirin Neshat uses her camera as a weapon of mass creation to engage in universal themes such as politics, human rights, and national and gender identity. After much criticism of her iconic black and white photographs for the Women of Allah series, the artist decided to turn away from photography. She began to explore video and film using magic realism as a way to operate with creative freedom. Named ‘artist of the decade’ in 2010, Neshat has directed and produced over a dozen cinematic projects. Here, we offer an overview of some of her most celebrated video and film works.
1. Turbulent (1998): Shirin Neshat’s First Video Production
Shirin Neshat’s transition into making motion pictures came as a result of a shift in her thinking process about politics and history. The artist turned away from individual representation (self-portraits from Women of Allah) towards addressing other frames of identification that resonate with many cultures beyond nationalistic discourses.
Ever since its release in 1999, Neshat’s first video production Turbulent has received unparalleled attention due to its powerful visual allegories of freedom and oppression. The piece marked Neshat’s breakthrough into the international art scene, making her the only artist to have ever won both the prestigious Leone d’Or at La Biennale di Venezia in 1999 for Turbulent, and the Leone d’Argento at the Venice Film Festival in 2009 for Women without Men.
Turbulent is a double-screen installation on opposite walls. Its aesthetics are full of contrasts just like its message. A man stands on a well-illuminated stage singing a poem in Farsi written by the 13th-century poet Rumi. He wears a white shirt (a sign of support to the Islamic Republic) while performing for an all-male audience. On the opposite screen, a woman wearing the chador stands alone in darkness within an empty auditorium.
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As the man concludes his performance in front of a static camera and amid an ovation, the woman breaks the silence to begin her song. Hers is a wordless melismatic chant of mournful ululations, primal sounds and intense gesticulations. The camera moves with her following her emotion.
Although she lacks an audience, her message does not require any translation to reach the masses. Her presence becomes a rebellious act in itself by disrupting patriarchal systems that forbid women to perform in the public space. Her song, full of distress and frustration, becomes a universal language against repression.
Through this woman’s voice, Shirin Neshat speaks of a confrontation of opposites that has a political engagement at its core and raises questions on gender politics. The black and white composition emphasizes the tense dialogue on the differences between men and women in Iranian Islamic culture. The artist strategically places the viewer right in the center of both discourses, as if creating a political space for the audience to reflect, see beyond the surface, and ultimately take sides.
2. Rapture (1999)
Perhaps one of the trademarks of Shirin Neshat’s films is her use of groups of people, often placed outdoors. This comes as a conscious choice to eloquently comment on the associations between the public and the private, the personal and the political.
Rapture is a multi-channel projection that allows viewers to become editors of the scenes and interact with the story. Neshat uses this element as a way to reiterate the sense of her narratives.
The artist has expressed that video-making ‘took her out of the studio and into the world.’ The creation of Rapture led her to Morocco, where hundreds of locals participated in the making of the artwork. This piece embodies the risk-taking actions Neshat embraced to speak about gendered spaces generated by Islamic religious ideologies and the bravery of women despite cultural limitations.
Accompanied by an emotive soundtrack, this piece presents one more dichotomic pair of images side by side. A group of men appears engaged in their daily work activities and praying rituals. On the opposite side, a group of women scattered across the desert move unpredictably. Their dramatic body gestures make their silhouettes ‘visible’ under their veiled bodies.
Six women embark into a rowboat for an adventurous journey beyond the desert. Their outcome remains unforeseeable for the audience, as we see them depart into the ocean. As always, Neshat does not give us easy answers. What awaits these courageous women beyond the sea of uncertainty could be a safe shore of freedom or the ultimate fate of martyrdom.
3. Soliloquy (1999)
The Soliloquy project started as a series of photographs and a video to explore the violent temporal rupture and psychic fragmentation experienced by people living in exile.
It is also one of only two videos where the artist implemented color. Soliloquy feels like the experience of constantly entering and exiting a dream. Our memory often fails to recall the subtle details and variations of color, causing it to register experiences in black and white. In Soliloquy, Shirin Neshat’s memories come as visual archives of her past that encounter the full-color spectrum of her present vision.
We are presented with a two-channel projection where we see the artist engaged in a global pilgrimage represented by Western and Easter buildings. St. Ann’s Church in N.Y.C., The Egg Center for the Performing Arts in Albany, and the World Trade Center in Manhattan become the framing background of the artist’s silhouette. But her sight seems fixated on a bygone contrasting geographical landscape as she later appears surrounded by mosques and other eastern buildings from Mardin, Turkey.
In most of Neshat’s videos, there is a sense of choreography through bodies moving in the landscape. This has been interpreted as an allusion related to concepts of journey and migration. In Soliloquy, the connection of women with their surroundings is visible through architecture— which she considers as a key cultural phenomenon in the imaginary of a nation and values of a society. The woman in Soliloquy alternates between the corporate capitalist landscape of America and the contrasting traditional culture of eastern society.
In the artist’s words, ‘Soliloquy aims to offer a glimpse into the experience of a divided self in need of repair. Standing at the threshold of two worlds, apparently tormented in one but excluded from the other.’
4. Tooba (2002)
Tooba is a split-screen installation that touches themes of horror, fear and insecurity after the experience of extreme calamities. Shirin Neshat created this piece after the September 11 catastrophe in N.Y.C. and has described it as ‘highly allegoric and metaphoric.’
The word Tooba comes from the Qur’an and symbolizes the upside-down sacred Tree in the Garden of Paradise. A beautiful place to return. It is also considered one of the only female iconographic representations in this religious text.
Neshat decided to film Tooba at a remote outdoor Mexican location in Oaxaca because ‘nature does not discriminate’ based on peoples’ nationalities or religious beliefs. The artist’s visions of the Qur’an sacred inscriptions meet with one of the most painful moments in American history to convey universally relevant imagery.
A woman emerges from the insides of an isolated tree that is surrounded by four walls in a visually semi-desert landscape. Looking for a refuge, men and women in dark clothes make their way towards this sacred space. As soon as they get closer and touch the man-made walls, the spell is broken, and all are left without salvation. Tooba functions as an allegory for people trying to find a place of security amidst times of anxiety and uncertainty.
5. The Last Word (2003)
With a mature set of eyes, Shirin Neshat brings us one of her most political and autobiographical films to date. The Last Word reflects an interrogation the artist underwent during her last return from Iran. The audience is introduced to the film by an untranslated prologue in Farsi. A young black-haired woman appears in front of us walking down through what it seems like an institutionalized building. The dimmed and linear hallway is enhanced by sharp contrasts of light and dark. The space is not neutral, and it has the appearance of an institutionalized cell or asylum.
She exchanges glances with strangers until she enters a room where a white-haired man awaits her, seated on the opposite side of a table. Other men carrying books stand behind him. He interrogates, accuses, and threatens her. Suddenly, a little girl playing with a yoyo appears as a vision behind her. The girl is accompanied by her mother who softly brushes her hair. The man’s words increase in volume and violence the but not a single word is pronounced by the young woman’s lips until at a pinnacle moment of tension she breaks the silence with a poem by Forugh Farrokhzad.
The Last Word represents Neshat’s ultimate conviction on the triumph of freedom through art over political powers.
6. Women without Men (2009)
Shirin Neshat’s first film and entryway to cinema took over six years to produce. After its release, it transformed the image of the artist into an activist almost overnight. Neshat dedicated the film to Iran’s Green Movement during the 66th Venice Film Festival opening ceremony. She and her collaborators also wore green in support of the cause. This marked a climactic moment in her career. It was the first time she showed direct opposition to the Iranian government, resulting in her name being blacklisted and highly attacked by the Iranian media.
Women Without Men is based on a magic realism novel by Iranian author Shahrnush Parsipur. The story embodies many of Neshat’s interests with regard to the lives of women. Five female protagonists, with non-traditional lifestyles, struggle to fit into the Iranian societal codes of 1953. Neshat’s adaptation presents four of those women: Munis, Fakhri, Zarin, and Faezeh. Together, these women represent all levels of Iranian society during the 1953 coup. Empowered by their courageous spirit, they rebel against the establishment and face every personal, religious and political challenge life presents them with. These Women without Men ultimately create their own destiny, shape their own society and start life again under their own terms.
7. Land of Dreams (2018- in progress): Shirin Neshat’s Current Project
Since 2018, Shirin Neshat embarked on a road trip across the U.S. to find locations for her newest production. Land of Dreams is an ambitious project consisting of photographic series and video production on what the artist calls ‘portraits of America.’ These pieces were first released in 2019 at her largest retrospective at The Broad in L.A., but the project continues as she is soon to return to the southern states to record a full-length film.
Neshat has mentioned that at a subconscious level she gravitates towards marginalized people. This time and through her camera, she immortalizes the American people transforming them into monuments. ‘I am not interested in creating autobiographical work. I am interested in the world I live in, about sociopolitical crisis that concerns everyone above and beyond myself,’ Neshat says as she explores the parallels she currently identifies between Iran and the U.S. under Donald Trump.
Shirin Neshat expressed her concerns about the political satire she recognizes in today’s America, ‘This U.S. government looks more like Iran’s every day.’ Her poetic discourse and symbolic imagery allow her work to be political yet move beyond politics. This time her message could not be clearer ‘despite our distinct backgrounds, we dream the same.’
Similarly, Dreamers trilogy from 2013-2016 also explores some of these topics from an immigrant woman’s perspective and reflects the American political language as it was partly influenced by Obama’s DACA immigration policy of 2012. ‘This woman [Simin in Land of Dreams] is collecting dreams. There is an irony in that. A satire. The disillusioning image of America as a place that is no longer a land of dreams but just the opposite.’
At the end of the day, Shirin Neshat remains a dreamer, ‘everything I do, from photographs to videos and movies, is about the bridging between the inner and the outer, the individual versus the community.’ Through her art, Shirin Neshat hopes to continue raising sociopolitical awareness beyond nationalistic discourses to ultimately build bridges between people, cultures, and nations.