Local passport: Iran in SoHo

THIS WEEK I had the anxiety-turned-into-pleasure of interviewing Shirin Neshat, an internationally acclaimed multimedia artist. Anxiety because I admire her work and knew she was knowledgeable and articulate about so many worldly things I was not: religion, feminism, gender politics, geo-politics. In my usual line of work, I talk with community leaders, preservationists and winemakers more often than art stars.

Ms. Neshat’s latest work includes a performance piece and upcoming photography exhibition inspired by both the 2009 Green Revolution during the Iranian election and the Arab Spring uprisings this year. These were events that I could place a map pin to, but little else.

Ramin Talaie, the photographer assigned to this story is, by coincidence, also Iranian and a long-time admirer of Ms. Neshat. I was glad to have him along to break the ice and be available to fill in if the conversation halted. (His first act of service was to correct my pronunciation as we waited to be buzzed into her SoHo studio. Whew.)

I didn’t have to worry about the conversation limping along. After fussing a little bit with her jewelry and fretting over a bad night’s sleep, Ms. Neshat was eager to discuss a multitude of issues—and with a surprising freshness, as if she hadn’t already been asked these questions by 100 other reporters. Perhaps that’s because she sees herself as a chameleon, changing forms instead of colors, so the questions and the issues are never exactly the same.

Here are a few Q and As from our conversation. More appears in my interview with Ms. Neshat in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal.

 Do you considering yourself a change agent?

That’s a very interesting idea because I’m so restless, I keep turning a new page in myself as if there’s something in me that can’t stand being the same. but look at me, I wear the same makeup, there are certain things that don’t change in me, but I keep being afraid of being repetitive. Maybe you’re right. There’s an anxiety in me that keeps making me want to turn a new page.

It’s interesting you brought up anxiety. I expected curiosity.

I have a lot of anxiety—literally. And I have a lot of curiosity. I think that this curiosity and anxiety is what is at the heart of my art. Its what drives me to … Shoja [my husband] often tells me if you try to neutralize this anxiety, probably neutralize your imagination.

But I am immensely curious and I’m an immensely hard worker, meaning it’s not just work that is intuitively based but work that is hard-earned. I do a lot of research, I do my homework. I’m very conscious of the fact that there’s me as a person then there’s this world and all that it comes with …  and we meet somewhere in the middle.

 You have sharper edge and definition of who you’re representing and why? Is that a woman, an artist, an Iranian or an exile?

It’s all of them, I think. I have a strong affinity with Iranian women’s plight today. I think they continue to remain heroic in the context of what is happening. They constantly inspired me as really amazing beings as young women from older women in terms of artistically, in terms of intellectually, the activism point of view. As an artist, yes, I think I am part of the art, the cultural … the activist you would say. I am part of that community where our work has become a great threat to the country of Iran, to the government.

It gives me a great pleasure that art is a form of resistance, even though it puts me at risk. I just love the idea that my work could be that thread and that …. the people who are working with me—they’re all in the same shape. They’re amazing artists from Iran who are forced to live in exile—all wanted by Iranian government. And it’s fantastic that we create this imaginary court and we ourselves are on trial and we speak back to our own government. Yes, I’m working as an artist, and I’m working as a woman and I’m taking responsibility as an Iranian who lives in change.

 Here’s a triangle: what three things about yourself would you put on each point?

I think its really interesting because I see that I’m super, super strong—I can be at any moment of crisis and you will never see anyone stronger than me and unafraid and yet so extremely fragile that I’m always on the edge. These are the two things I know that are actually opposite, so it’s me as a tough woman, me as the most fragile. And three, as someone who … I think the other thing is my need of a community. I have such an absence of a community because I’ve never been around my family and the way I live is so tribal. I was always an outcast even with Iranian people or western people. So there’s a part of me that wants to feel like I belong to a community but it never really happens. So that’s the anxiety, the strength and the outcast.

 If I were to put artist here, what would I put on the other two points?

I think Iranian, activist … woman

 That’s actually 4 points. What would you put in the middle?

Woman. I have a very feminine approach to even activism or even making art or being an Iranian. That’s more at the center because my emotionality is definitely very female.

Photo of Shirin Neshat: Ramin Talaie for The Wall Street Journal

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