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Interview with Shirin Neshat: “For Iranian artists, being silent is like taking the side of the demon”

As her debut movie, “Women Without Men”, screens in Basel, the artist explains that cinema is closer to her people

The Iranian-born, US-based artist Shirin Neshat is best known for her photographs overwritten with Farsi script, and for her video installations. Her work is principally concerned with gender difference and the position of women under the Islamic regime in Iran. Her latest work, showing tomorrow and Sunday as part of Art Basel’s film programme at Stadtkino Basel, is the feature “Women Without Men”, freely adapted from the novel of the same name by Shahrnush Parsipur, which is currently banned in Iran.

As a young woman, Neshat was sent to the United States by her Shah-supporting parents to avoid the Islamic revolution. After art college in California, she worked for a non-profit organisation in New York, beginning her serious art practice after her first return trip to Iran in 1990. In 1999 she won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale for her works Turbulent and Rapture. Her new film relates the differing experiences of four women—Munis, Fahkri, Faezeh and Zarin—at the time of the Western-backed coup in 1953 that overthrew the elected government in Tehran and restored the Shah to power. In 2009, “Women Without Men” won the Silver Lion for best director at the Venice Film Festival.

The Art Newspaper: “Women Without Men” has its roots in shorter pieces you made…

SN: The book has five women characters. I eliminated one of the characters for the film. But for the group of video installations that I conceived as a series—people could go room to room and visit the different characters—I made all five. As you go room to room it becomes a narrative. By the time you have seen all five you begin to put the story together yourself. It’s a very different experience, a very different logic, than in the actual feature film. But the aim was [always] to make a feature film. I wanted to ask what is the difference between the language of cinema and the language of video installation. So when I decided to make a film, I [thought] I should make one where the same idea is broken down in video to see how they differentiate and how I can retell the story in different ways. I knew that this was a film where art has to meet cinema, magic has to meet realism, art has to meet politics.

TAN: What made you want to adapt an existing piece of work?

SN: All my concepts in my video installations have been inspired by literature, mostly poetry, sometimes novels. “Women Without Men” was so close to the way I think, the way that I make my art. It was very conceptual in the way that it was written. All of my past work has always been about this way of navigating the emotional and psychological issues of a single human being versus bigger questions about the world, the socio-political realities, Islam…

TAN: What about the changes you made? In the novel Munis’s brother kills her, whereas in the film she takes her own life.

SN: I thought it was too clichéd, too cruel, to make the brother a murderer. I turned that into a suicide, but the suicide turned into a kind of flight. Flight has a very powerful meaning in Iranian traditions of mysticism. A flight is not an end of a human life—it’s freedom.

TAN: The depiction of Zarin in the film is particularly startling and shocking. It’s unusual to see an anorexic woman portrayed so graphically: everything about her is exposed.

SN: Zarin is a prostitute and she sees her customers as without faces. When we were casting we couldn’t find anyone Iranian. When I saw [Hungarian actress Orsi Toth] I was very surprised because I didn’t know she was that thin. We went back to the script and rewrote it—she is silent because she doesn’t speak Farsi and she is also anorexic. What becomes critical for her is her silence and her body. She reminded me of mystics…they are the most tortured people, they have suffered the most. But ironically they become the most spiritual too in the way of compassion and self-sacrifice.

TAN: You’ve spoken about your parents’ devotion to the Shah. Do you think you could have become the artist you are if it hadn’t been for the Westernised perspective you gained?

NS: All my friends became very involved and active in the revolution. [By] sending me to the outside, to family in the West, I [was] isolated [from] any of these realities and I was trying to survive as a human being, alone, young, in a foreign country, which was not pleasant. So my work is my way of returning to some of the elements that I was taken away from.

TAN: Do you also think this film will affect your ability to go back?

SN: I haven’t been able to go back since 1996.

TAN: Some of your work has been shown there since then…

SN: Only a couple of times, two video installations in a museum during the [relatively open] Khatami period. With this film there is no possibility…the book was banned, [Shahrnush Parsipur, the novel’s author] was imprisoned. We’re all blacklisted. But it’s being distributed underground.

TAN: You’ve expressed some frustration with the limited audience in the art world…

SN: Cinema is closer to the people, to the public culture you can go to a cinema and watch a movie without [knowing any] history of cinema. Many of the Iranian community never go to museums or galleries to see my work, but they will go to the cinema.

TAN: What is the difference between being an activist and being an artist?

SN: Something terrible about being an artist is that we’re so caught up with our ego we have to constantly battle to control it—we always need to be praised and accepted and loved. There is something wonderful about activism, to forget about yourself…to do things that are for the benefit of others. It’s healthy for us as artists. [And] for Iranian artists, I believe we don’t have a choice. Being silent is almost like taking the side of the demon.

TAN: You’ve just been announced as chair of a jury at the Venice Film Festival later this year. Is that a further move into...

SN: Cinema! The [section] that I’m head of in Venice is Orizzonti, which shows more experimental work. I don’t normally do this. I’m very happy to be in the film world, as much as I wish to remain in the art world. I don’t see why you can’t do both.