Dreams are incredibly powerful. I think only in dreams are we free and naked. In dreams we search in the deepest regions of our soul, where we see who we are, what we are afraid of, and everything we want to use to avoid reality.
Shirin Neshat1Charlotte Jansen, ‘In Johannesburg, Shirin Neshat’s New Videos Conjure the Power of Dreams’, 9 Aug. 2016, artsy, <www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-dark-dreams-inspire-shirin-neshat-s-new-surrealist-video-installations>, accessed 15 Sep. 2019.
In 1993, artist Shirin Neshat found her voice. Over the course of four years between 1993 and 1997 she created what would be her breakout piece, the photographic series Women of Allah. Neshat initiated the body of work following a visit to her native Iran, the first since leaving the country in 1975 bound for the west coast of the United States. The photographs were an attempt to come to terms with an experience of Iranian society so unlike that she had left many years before, prior to the Islamic revolution in the country.
Born in Qazvin in 1957, Neshat left the family home with her siblings while she was still in high school. She believes that had she stayed she would have become a revolutionary, like her closest friends, seeking political change in the country.2Gerald Matt & Shirin Neshat, ‘Gerald Matt in conversation with Shirin Neshat. Austrian Cultural Forum New York, July, 17th, 2017’, in Thomas Häusle (ed.), Shirin Neshat: Dreamers Trilogy, Verlag für moderne Kunst, Vienna, 2018, p. 83. The popular protest movement culminated in revolution in 1979, which saw the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the self-proclaimed ‘King of Kings’, overthrown. The Shah was the son of a former general who became Prime Minister before being appointed Monarch in 1921 following a British-backed coup (thus ending the 136-year Qajar dynasty as rulers of Persia). Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s rule was also facilitated by a foreign government, with a CIA-backed coup ousting Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1956. This background helped fuel a sentiment that the Shah was illegitimate and a puppet of external powers, which was exacerbated by the regime’s methods of preserving its rule. The Shah spearheaded the arrest, then exile, of Grand Ayatollah Khomeini in 1964, who continued to agitate through making speeches against the Shah and the regime’s brutal reign. These were widely distributed throughout the country on cassette tapes and formed the backdrop of resistance for Neshat and her young friends in the conservative and traditional city of Qazvin.
In 1979, four years after Neshat left Iran the uprising forced the Shah into self-imposed exile. An absent leader of the revolution until that moment, the Ayatollah returned to the country, forming an Islamic republic. Eleven years later, Neshat returned to her birth country to find a culture vastly unlike the one she had left as a teenager, not least in the perceived role and the social and legal positions of women. As women’s rights advocate Mahanz Afkhami writes, while the Ayatollah had successfully called upon
‘sisters’ to engage in the revolution to regain their God-given rights and freedoms … even before a new constitution was drafted, he annulled the Family Protection Act, declared that women could not serve as judges, ordered that women in the workplace must be veiled, and announced public spaces must be segregated by gender.3Mahnaz Afkhami, ‘ “Sunlight, open windows, and fresh air”: the struggle for women’s rights in Iran’, in Melissa Chiu & Melissa Ho (eds), Shirin Neshat: Facing History, Smithsonian Books, Washington, DC, 2015, pp. 45–6.
The 1980s saw the mass mobilisation of women in the Republic, encouraged to defend the new order and the country during the fierce Iran-Iraq war, while ‘Islamisation’ intensified with the introduction of further legal discrepancies between the rights of men and women.
These societal changes – the veiling of women in Iran, their segregation from men in public and work, and their revised status as unequal in the eyes of the law – have proved key catalysts for an enormous amount of conjecture on female subjectivity in Iran, in academia, literature and the arts. When reflecting on her experience of returning to Iran, Neshat describes ‘a very dramatic country that was all black and white’, drawn as she is to the visible aesthetics of a society changed radically since she was last a woman within it.4Matt & Neshat, p. 83. While she had felt an outsider in America – as an immigrant, Iranian woman and Muslim – having returned in person to Iran, she was now truly an outsider in her birth country.
The series Women of Allah depicts in high-contrast, black-and-white photography, images of veiled women posed for the camera. Cropped portraits taken by Neshat, the artist has then added calligraphy in Persian script to the surface of the images. The texts are drawn from contemporary Iranian literature, poems and prose, all written by women. The range of subject matter, from the personal to political, poetic to polemical, incorporates a range of voices and divergent views. The breadth suggests a complexity of subjectivities and agency, existing in Iran, in contrast to a singular, simplified Western critique. The works are also in part a consideration of the encouragement of female militancy in protection of the post-revolutionary Islamic Republic, held in tension with the shift in the social and political position of women in the country.
The conceptual and aesthetic territory Neshat developed in the series was to directly inform her early video productions, Turbulent, 1998; Rapture, 1999; and Fervor, 2000, which marked her as a significant new voice in international contemporary art. The works are poetic in their cinematic structure; visually (again rendered in black and white) and sonically arresting. The artist adopts various formal aesthetics that are binary, to depict the gulf between men and women in Iran: white shirts for men, black veils for women, and often also one screen for men, one screen for women. All three installations engage with the topic of gender; the first, Turbulent, around the participation of women in cultural forms, in this case, explicitly musical performance. The second, Rapture is a symbolic allegory of the separation of men and women and the ways in which they occupy space, and the third, Fervor focuses on the desire between a man and a woman, and the act of leaving it unrequited due to social constraints. Following the creation of these works, Neshat heard from friends and family in Iran that she had come to the regime’s attention, and she would not be safe if she visited her homeland again, effectively declaring her a persona non grata, an exile. While Neshat has consistently produced work since, it is in these early videos, and this rupture of exile, that forms the groundwork for her recent video trilogy Dreamers.
Dreamers explores the world of women’s dreams. In contrast to the explicit depiction of and rumination on Iranian culture, these works tap into her experience as a life-long outsider, as an itinerant traversing spaces and cultures rather than embedding comfortably within them. In many ways, the characters and their dreamy narratives are projections of the artist herself, in which she reflects on some of her own personal nightmares and dreamscapes. They speak of the anxieties at the root of the transcultural experience of the migrant, or refugee, as an increasing segment of the population of the contemporary world.
Rapture, in particular, can be seen as an early precursor to the Dreamers trilogy in its exploration of space and open-ended, allegorical resonance. The work comprises a room with two screens projected on opposite walls, with a group of men (dressed in white shirts) occupying one, while a group of women (in black veils) occupy the other. The work begins with a sequence depicting a different space on each screen, a hilltop fort on one and a rocky landscape on the other. A group of figures begins to resolve within each environment, a singing group of men in the fort, and a silent group of women in the landscape, each walking towards its camera. The spaces are established as quasi-symbolic: the built environment of the fort and the craggy untouched landscape outside and beyond it are signifiers for each group. In setting up this ‘allegorical duel’, as Neshat puts it, she writes:
The fortress represents a typically masculine space in which individuals are confined by an endless and absurd series of walls and barriers. By way of contrast, the women are depicted first praying in the barren desert, then migrating to the seaside where they commence pushing a heavy boat from the hillside towards the water. A few women eventually board the boat and sail away, a kind of escape towards an unidentifiable destination.5Melissa Chiu & Melissa Ho (eds), Shirin Neshat: Facing History, Smithsonian Books, Washington, DC, 2015, p. 113.
The use of allegory in Rapture, as well as the representation of space as highly symbolic and non-literal, allows this work to be seen as a departure point for the Dreamers trilogy. Illusions & Mirrors, 2013, the first video in the suite, features actor Natalie Portman as the protagonist. Portman is led by a blurry figure away from the dream archetype of the seashore, with its crashing waves and sand dunes, to a stately home in ruin. Neshat forgoes language and instead uses visual effects to create a dreamlike atmosphere. As she says:
I was very fascinated by surrealistic filmmakers, like Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, [Luis] Buñuel, and Maya Deren; in their work they even used the camera in a way that was very dreamy. It’s kind of the logic of a dream that you are faced with references of reality, but nothing makes sense.6Hayley Weiss & Shirin Neshat, ‘In dreams’, 18 Aug. 2016, Interview, <www.interviewmagazine.com/art/shirin-neshat>, accessed 20 Sep. 2019.
Neshat goes on to note Man Ray’s use of a glass pane in front of the lens of the camera to distort the image, a technique Neshat employs throughout Illusions & Mirrors to indicate the warped and indistinct dream space, one that lacks the clear fidelity of the waking world.
The dream quickly descends into a nightmare as the protagonist enters the house, a symbolic architecture linked to Sigmund Freud’s theory of ‘the uncanny’ (or unheimliche in German, which translates literally as ‘unhomely’). Of course, Freud’s development of his theory of the mind (including, crucially, the existence of a dynamic unconscious) was indebted to his study and interpretation of dreams, the plane where the unconscious roams free from the polite bounds of social mores. For Freud it is the site where, through an act of symbolic transference, anxieties and libidinal desires find ‘visual’ form.7For further discussion on Sigmund Freud and his theories in relation to visual art see the author’s essays ‘Surrealism’s prehistory’, ‘Dreams’ and ‘The uncanny’, in Simon Maidment & Elena Taylor (eds), Lurid Beauty: Australian Surrealism and its Echoes, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2015, pp. 10–12, 88–9 & 98–9. According to Freud, the uncanny occurs when the familiar is infected with the unfamiliar, and ‘belongs to all that is terrible – to all that arouses dread and creeping horror’.8Sigmund Freud, ‘The uncanny’, trans. Alix Strachey, On Creativity and the Unconscious: Papers on the Psychology of Art, Literature, Love, Religion, Harper and Row, New York, 1958, <web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/freud1.pdf>, accessed 10 July 2015, p. 1. The house in Illusions & Mirrors acts as a signifier for the uncanny and upon entering it the protagonist comes into contact with her doppelgänger, initially misrecognising it as her image reflected in a mirror. The perceptual shock is the uncanny at work, as the protagonist stumbles back, reeling. ‘Misrecognition’ is the term used by psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan to describe ‘the mirror stage’; that is, the crucial moment in the individuation of subjectivity, the creation of the ego or self-identification as subject and object. When the doppelgänger fails to move in unison with the protagonist, the illusion is shattered and all individual subjectivity and agency is called into question for the dreamer.
In Sarah, 2016, it is a forest environment that becomes a site of haunting; mysterious and unknowable. The protagonist Sarah is played by Sara Issakharian, an Iranian-born artist. Beginning the film lying face up, submerged in a body of water, she then appears wandering through a dense forest, coming across the old brick chimney where a house once stood, and where a family possibly once lived. Following a trail of cut hair that looks like her own, she spots a Caucasian woman sitting alone with her back to her. Observing the woman for a while, she explores the forest further, coming across an unsealed road, which is frequented by various processions of people, one after another, perhaps endlessly. Made up of either religious women or military men, the purpose of the gatherings is opaque but appears to be a binary of either mourning lives lost or seeking to enact death. After hiding from the groups, Sarah comes to the edge of the forest that gives way to a lake. Approaching it she sees herself, or her doppelgänger, floating on her back in the water, before becoming submerged, staring back at her as she drowns. The non-linear narrative and changes in camera perspective of the film create a disorienting feeling of a recurring dream.
Roja, 2016, is more explicitly focused on Iran and Neshat’s own dreams. Both Roja and Sarah feature non-actors; in the case of Roja writer Roja Heydarpour, herself a first-generation Iranian immigrant to America. As such, both works echo Neshat’s biography. Roja, in particular, can be read as the unconscious attempting to reconcile her identity; her relationship with American culture and her identification with a home country that no longer exists, except as an island of nostalgia and memory.
In the opening scene, the Iranian-American woman watches a shirtless man perform The Seekers song ‘The carnival is over’ on a theatre stage, while surrounded by a white, Western audience. The song’s lyrics were adapted from a Russian folk song about a seventeenth-century Cossack rebellion leader who ends his love affair with a Persian princess by throwing her into the sea in an apparent sacrifice to his motherland. After completing the song the singer challenges Roja aggressively from the stage to reveal herself – as a liar and manipulator. As she flees the theatre it is revealed as a modernist edifice, referencing the Brutalist architecture favoured by regimes. The scene impossibly shifts to a natural landscape that recalls that occupied by the women in Rapture, craggy and desolate, but also reminiscent of the expanses of the American West, particularly as codified by the cinema in Westerns. Roja is thus occupying a liminal space that is both the American West and the Middle East, the space of her mind and the site of her anxieties. Roja runs towards a figure that appears to be her mother, an Iranian woman in a black veil who moves to meet her. As they reach one another and she stands before her, her mother’s lips are moving and she hears the singer’s voice again telling her she is a manipulator and liar. Her mother pushes her away and the force drives Roja back and up into the air, backwards, flying above the landscape. Roja, like perhaps Neshat, is thus exiled, from her family, from her homeland and from her new home, belonging nowhere but the otherwise empty sky above, looking down.
As Neshat has pointed out, and other critics too, there are strong connections across the trilogy to the films of the Surrealists, but there is an aesthetic and temporal quality to them that recalls the film Last Year at Marienbad (1961), the black-and-white masterpiece directed by Alain Resnais. Part of the French Nouveau Roman (New Novel) movement, with a screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet, it is also closely aligned with the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave), though eschewing the neorealism the movement was partly renowned for. Neshat’s films adopt the experimental editing techniques and ambiguity of Nouvelle Vague cinema, and its ambiguity, but lean heavily into the symbolism and affect of Last Year at Marienbad, itself a reverie on time, memory and perhaps dreaming. Resnais’s previous film Hiroshima mon amour (1959) is a similarly slippery film. Written by Marguerite Duras, it is unsurprisingly sensuous rather than coldly structural like Last Year at Marienbad, which explores love, guilt and memory, through the coupling of two lovers. Together the two films have a great deal connecting them to the Dreamers trilogy. Nouvelle Vague director and film critic Eric Rohmer, describing Hiroshima mon amour, points out that it ‘has a very strong sense of the future, particularly the anguish of the future’.9 ‘Table ronde sur Hiroshima mon amour d’Alain Resnais’, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 97, July 1959, in Antoine de Baecque & Charles Tesson (eds), La Nouvelle Vague, Cahiers du cinéma, Paris, 1999, p. 56.
Roja’s anguish stays with us like an after image following the trilogy, along with the emotions resonating with a woman out of time and place – betwixt and between cultures – surprise, confusion, dislocation, alienation, disappointment and curiosity. It is the internalised, individualised experience inaugurated by Rapture. Through these three video installations, Neshat recreates an unstable and mesmerising constellation of the dream space, inviting audiences to travel with her through an inner life to a destination defined by uncertainty.
Charlotte Jansen, ‘In Johannesburg, Shirin Neshat’s New Videos Conjure the Power of Dreams’, 9 Aug. 2016, artsy, <www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-dark-dreams-inspire-shirin-neshat-s-new-surrealist-video-installations>, accessed 15 Sep. 2019.
Gerald Matt & Shirin Neshat, ‘Gerald Matt in conversation with Shirin Neshat. Austrian Cultural Forum New York, July, 17th, 2017’, in Thomas Häusle (ed.), Shirin Neshat: Dreamers Trilogy, Verlag für moderne Kunst, Vienna, 2018, p. 83.
Mahnaz Afkhami, ‘ “Sunlight, open windows, and fresh air”: the struggle for women’s rights in Iran’, in Melissa Chiu & Melissa Ho (eds), Shirin Neshat: Facing History, Smithsonian Books, Washington, DC, 2015, pp. 45–6.
Matt & Neshat, p. 83.
Melissa Chiu & Melissa Ho (eds), Shirin Neshat: Facing History, Smithsonian Books, Washington, DC, 2015, p. 113.
Hayley Weiss & Shirin Neshat, ‘In dreams’, 18 Aug. 2016, Interview, <www.interviewmagazine.com/art/shirin-neshat>, accessed 20 Sep. 2019.
For further discussion on Sigmund Freud and his theories in relation to visual art see the author’s essays ‘Surrealism’s prehistory’, ‘Dreams’ and ‘The uncanny’, in Simon Maidment & Elena Taylor (eds), Lurid Beauty: Australian Surrealism and its Echoes, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2015, pp. 10–12, 88–9 & 98–9.
Sigmund Freud, ‘The uncanny’, trans. Alix Strachey, On Creativity and the Unconscious: Papers on the Psychology of Art, Literature, Love, Religion, Harper and Row, New York, 1958, <web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/freud1.pdf>, accessed 10 July 2015, p. 1.
‘Table ronde sur Hiroshima mon amour d’Alain Resnais’, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 97, July 1959, in Antoine de Baecque & Charles Tesson (eds), La Nouvelle Vague, Cahiers du cinéma, Paris, 1999, p. 56.