Artist’s Talk: Shirin Neshat

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Artists’ talks provide both the chance to observe an artist’s public self-fashioning, and to venture behind the scenes of art production. Shirin Neshat’s profuse account of her professional trajectory insists on the collaborative origin of her work. Her narration is marked by two moments of rupture: the first when she decided to quit her art education, which she deemed too conventional and too focused on the discovery of talent; the second when she decided to give up photography and take up video instead, creating double-channel projections that could circulate outside of the elitist world of contemporary art. In her words, she is “addicted to new beginnings,” such dramatic changes having ultimately increased her will to collaborate with other artists, actors, curators, or directors. (In fact, this very event was conceived as collaboration between the newly appointed member of the Courtauld faculty, Sussan Babaie, the director of the London Film School, Ben Gibson, and the independent curator, producer and writer, Vali Mahlouji).

The talk started off with the projection of a video entitled Passage (2001) conceived and realized with American musician and composer Philip Glass. Amidst a stark yellow desert, a traditional Islamic funeral ceremony is being prepared: the camera intercuts between the procession of men, carrying the body enshrouded in white cloth and the circle of women digging the grave with their hands. Nearby, a young girl plays with small stones. The procession reaches the burial site as the soundtrack climaxes and the overall tone becomes highly dramatic; a fire ignites behind the girl and encircles the gathered group.


This short film integrates all distinctive features of Neshat’s work: the portrayal of the two separate worlds of men and women, the reassessment of traditional rituals, the choice of contemporary political debates that are of interest both for Islamic and Western audiences (after all, the artist moved to New York as a young adult, in 1978, bridging both cultures in her biography). After being attacked by activists, artists and critics for her work, she has resolved to make highly stylised films and photographic installations, in the attempt not to take any political position. Even when asked about her personal religious belief, she is evasive: Neshat is careful to keep any matter of possible political conflict aside.

What emerged out of this talk, then, was the existential difficulty of being a successful artist directly confronting such politically charged issues: as a consequence of her success, Neshat is constantly pushed by galleries to make recognisable (and sellable) work all the while being criticised by members of the same artistic milieu. Confronted with a young audience such as the Courtauld’s, Shirin Neshat felt compelled to offer this advice: fight to make any creative work available to wider audiences, consider making tangents, and most importantly, collaborate.