Interview with Shirin Neshat: Where madness is the greatest freedom

Telling universal stories about love, insanity, and death through film and music


Born in Iran in 1957 Shirin Neshat moved to America in 1974. For many years she was occupied with the Storefront for Art and Architecture in Nolita, New York where she was at the forefront of architectural and design curatorial culture. At the same time, she exhibited her own work as a visual artist. Originally known for black and white photographs featuring a veiled woman (often herself) with handwritten Persian calligraphy covering her face and body, in the last few years she has found international acclaim with her highly cinematic, enigmatic and musically rich films.

Adrian Dannatt: Tell us about the three new films in your latest show at Barbara Gladstone. Can they be seen as a cohesive group?

Shirin Neshat: I don’t think so, though maybe on a subliminal level. One is called “Passage” and is a collaboration with Philip Glass. It was shot in colour on 35mm film so it’s a different direction for me as I usually work in black & white on 16mm. Glass commissioned me to make a short film to be presented with a live orchestra playing. He also asked Peter Greenaway, Atom Egoyan and a couple of others. So he’s going to be touring playing live to these silent films. It was entirely my concept for the film, and once I shot and edited it I gave it to him and only then did he do the music.

It’s really on the subject of death, with a strange ritual happening, it’s a bit like a dream, a group of women digging the earth with their bare hands. The film is essentially about the journey of this man through various landscapes towards the women, and finally the climax is that all these elements come together and they go up in fire. For me this piece is more like choreography, a dance, like my previous film “Rapture”. It’s quite abstract and the most culturally unspecific film I’ve made, it could be from anywhere.

AD: Though it was shot in Morocco.

SN: Yes, and the women are dressed in the veil. But there’s no political message. It’s something incredibly universal that addresses the process of mourning and the dialogue between nature and earth, fire and woman, a cycle of birth that is continuing. It’s very much a metaphorical language.

The second film is called “Possessed” and it’s about a woman who’s mad and has dropped the veil. She arrives in a public square and people surround her and her behaviour becomes increasingly loud, again using no language, Sussan Deyhim did the music. The music replaces language. The crowd becomes conflicted, some feel she shouldn’t be allowed to be seen like that, others feel she should be left alone. This piece really touches symbolically on the sense of freedom you can achieve through madness. In somewhere like Iran where there is no space for individual freedom it becomes very threatening when someone descends into madness and creates chaos.

AD: Is that in any way a metaphor of the artist as outsider?

SN: I was interested in this association between madness and creative freedom. There are often writers, particularly women writers, who have been seen as being mad. Ironically, in Iran the most threatening people are writers because these are the people that motivate and provoke against the government. In Iran writers are the most significant voice, a communication between the people and the government. This film does refer to Iran more directly, but we all in some way envy those who are mad because they are able to be free in a way nobody else is.

AD: And presumably in Iran if you are seen as certifiably mad you have more freedom than if you are a certified artist?

SN: Absolutely. What happens at the end is the crowd seems more mad than she does. She leaves and they continue their fight. The actress who plays this part is the most well known actress outside of Iran. She was very active in Iran and then she left and now is very active in Los Angeles. The last film is a very simple one, not so narrative. It’s called “Pulse” and it’s filmed in one long take.

AD: Like Michael Snow’s “Wavelength”?

SN: It’s just a dark room with beautiful black and white contrast, the camera slowly enters the room and we see a woman kneeling by a radio. We get a little closer and music starts after the beautiful sound of a pulse, Sussan Deyhim did this music as well.

Then the incredible voice of this man comes on the radio, the love song is poetry by Rumi. The camera slowly comes round her and exits the room and that’s the end. What happens here for me is about entering this interior space of the woman, and the camera, music and art direction are all emphasising the sensuality of this space but we are also entering her mind. We take a glimpse into the private world of this woman and it becomes very erotic. She’s not wearing a veil, her arms are exposed, her legs are exposed. The song really becomes the main conversation here, it’s a beautiful song.

AD: The use of music is very important in all your films, do you ever fear the music can become too dominant?

SN: We try to be equal partners. Music in my work is never a backdrop as it is in feature films, where you have language and dialogue. For me the music replaces all that. The music becomes the “voice” and at least 50% of the piece. But for some people the music of the films becomes overpowering. I do my best to work with the composers so that the music is not too overwhelming. The music is what is going on inside the characters’ heads, we purposefully drop all speech, all realistic sounds. We see what’s going on outside, we hear what happens inside.

AD: You talk about “space” both as the private psychological space of a woman and physical space where the films take place. Is an architectural element a constant in your work?

SN: Yes, I guess I didn’t think about it but a lot of people have said that my working so long for “Storefront for art and architecture” has effected me! Space defines so much about the character, the group, the country and the context. With the Philip Glass piece I knew it had to take place outdoors in landscape.

AD: Was it easy for you to move from your still photography into film? Was that something you always wanted to do?

SN: I’ve always been interested in the moving image. In my very first show in New York I showed video and Super 8 film. The major shift I made was due to my frustration with photography, the idea of making objects. I felt I was spending so much of my time writing calligraphy on photographs, I felt trapped in craft. I think the possibilities of storytelling in film are so much wider, not having to rely on a single image: that idea of entertainment and music and stories. The work becomes more about an experience than an object. I met this group of people I’ve worked with since “Turbulence” and they’re all involved in film, so they’ve been a big influence on me.

AD: It is interesting that both you and Matthew Barney are making films through the Barbara Gladstone Gallery. This seems a very positive practical model of being able to finance films through their resultant photographs, editions, prints and multiples.

SN: I sell the video, too. I don’t know if Barney does as well; I think maybe he does. The objects become a souvenir of the film almost. Barney, of course, is making much more expensive films than I am, but both our production is very unlike typical art production and much closer to cinema. Even a 10-minute film can take me a year and I’ll employ many, many people. They’re big productions and we don’t make that many editions. But I don’t make photographs for financial reasons. In some ways, at heart, I’m still a photographer and every shot of my films, is a photograph. Some of the photographs are taken from the film but others are not, they’re entirely independent. Although I’m still preoccupied with photography but it has become secondary to the films.

AD: Through Barbara Gladstone a method has developed to create this audio-visual work which is unique to the art world.

SN: She’s willing to take chances, to let you do things in your own way which is not conventional. A lot of dealers would never have taken these chances to begin with. Barbara never asks me: “What are your ideas?”; and whether I produce two photographs with this film or 15, she never pushes me, she never says we need to make money. She has 100% confidence in her artists.

AD: You are a photographer, but I assume you also use a cinematographer?

SN: Of course, always the same one. We frame things together, we plan shots, we do detailed storyboards and within that we improvise. But we have a structure. Often he initiates ideas, he’s Iranian too.

AD: Would you like to show your films in cinema theatres, in the way Barney has been showing his “Cremaster”?

SN: Well, you know I have been showing in film festivals for the last few years and actually taken slightly seriously by the film world. But if I had to just reduce it to cinemas? No, the best way of seeing my work is still in a space which is not a theatre, when you’re being immersed and submerged in these images, you’re much more involved than just sitting on a chair watching. It is a very spatial experience.

AD: What about the difference between film and video? These are very specifically “films” rather than video works.

SN: In fact I love film so much more and I don’t like video. There’s such a difference in quality and also my cinematographer refuses to work with video. When you show them in museums or galleries you’re stuck with video projectors which lose 50% of the quality of your image. That’s one of my frustrations, that art world people have no idea how much they’re missing in terms of quality. I know this has essentially been one of the reasons Matthew Barney moved to showing in cinemas, he doesn’t want to see his films on video.

AD: What about the current vogue for Iranian films? Are you an “Iranian filmmaker” now?

SN: Well, actually, I just came back from London because I was in an Iranian woman’s film festival, so I was with five other ladies, prominent film directors back in Iran. I’m friends with Kirostami and all these people. I have obviously been very much pulled by all that team and gotten to know them well. I identify very much with that whole community and have become a part of it.

AD: Would you rather your work was not identified with this theme of women in Islamic society?

SN: Well, the work obviously does deal with that, but that’s just its surface. I think the "woman" becomes a tool to enter another discussion which is larger than just that of women, it’s a way of doing a cultural study. But, aside from that, the work tries to go even beyond the Iranian situation. It uses a very specific cultural lens, but the intention is to reach areas which are universal. With these new films, one is about love, one about madness and one about death. All of these topics could be from anywhere; it’s just that I present them from my own cultural point of view.


Born 1957 Qazvin, Iran, lives and works in New York

Currently showing Barbara Gladstone, 515 West 24 Street, New York 10011, Tel: +1 (212) 206 9300, (until 29 June)

Selected solo exhibitions: 2002 Castello di Rivoli, Turin; 2001 Musée d’art contemporain, Montreal, Canada; Irish Museum of Art, Dublin; Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York; Kanazawa Contemporary Art Museum, Kanazawa; Hamburger Kunsthalle; 2000 Serpentine Gallery, London; Kunsthalle Wien; Lia Rumma, Milan; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas; Wexner Center, Columbus; Malmo Konsthall, Malmo, Sweden; Art Institute of Chicago; Galerie Jerôme de Noirmont, Paris; Henie Onstad Artsentre, Oslo, Norway; Tensta Konsthall, Spanga, Sweden; 1998 Tate Gallery, London; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Maison européne de la photographie, Paris; Thomas Rehbein Gallery, Köln; 1997 Museum of Modern Art, Ljubljana, Slovania; Annina Nosei Gallery, New York; Lumen Travo, Amsterdam; Artspeak, Vancouver

Selected group exhibitions: 2001 “New acquisitions from the Dakis Janou Collection, Deste Foundation, Centre for Contemporary Art; North Carolina Museum of Art; Beyeler Foundation, Basel, Switzerland; Biennial de Valencia, Valencia, Spain; French Institut, Rabbat, Morocco; Croatian Photographic Union, Croatia; 2000 “Corpo Chimico”, C· di Fra, Milan, Italy; “Photography now, nn international survey of contemporary photography”, Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans, Louisiana; “State of the art: recent gifts and acquisitions”, Walker Art Center; Lyon Biennial, Lyon, France; “La beauté in Avignon”, Avignon, France; “Continental shift”, Ludwig Forum, Aachen; Sydney Biennale; Kwangju Biennale, Kwangju, Korea; Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Multi Media Performance: 2001 The Kitchen, New York

Film Screening: 2001 San Francisco Film Festival, San Francisco; London Iranian Film Festival; Virginia Film Festival, Charlottesville; Pacific Film Archive Festival, Oakland 2000 Telluride Film Festival, Colorado; Locarno Film Festival; Rotterdam Film Festival