Two Iranian Artists and the Revolution BY ROBIN WRIGHT – CULTURE DESK SEPTEMBER 15, 2015, The New Yorker

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Parviz Tanavoli: plenty of ‘nothing’ – exhibition

An exhibition in Wellesley, Massachusetts, highlights the work of master Iranian sculptor who has made folk and religious forms his own

Shadi Harouni for Tehran Bureau

It is rare for an Iranian artist to be widely celebrated at home, withstanding the scrutiny of a nation in love with both art and the contemporary and yet highly critical of its living artists because it recognizes the contemporary as a category imposed from the outside. Born in 1937, Parviz Tanavoli has become a legendary figure through a prolific career as artist, scholar and teacher. Iran’s first significant modern sculptor, he works in a style distinctly his own, undeniably modern, and entirely Iranian.

In bringing together over 50 years of his art in his first US solo museum exhibition, the Davis Museum has the task of engaging with thousands of years of cultural heritage, which Tanavoli draws on with fervour and ease. He neither imitates nor ignores the Iranian visual lexicon, but rather makes it his own and expands upon it.

Tanavoli is one of the handful of artists responsible for the Saghakhaneh style, which developed in the early 1960s as young, mainly western-educated artists sought to reconcile distinctly Iranian forms with the language of contemporary art. In doing so they turned to traditional forms, touching on pre-Islamic and Shia Muslim art and architecture, as well as Iranian folk motifs.

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Disciples of Sheikh San’an (1975) Photograph: Courtesy of Parviz Tanavoli

Among those associated with the style, Tanavoli’s work embodies the widest range of cultural signifiers, from the grandiose to the familiar, from the ancient to the now. His scholarship has been impressive in its scope and influence. Tanavoli has published books on locks, talismans, gravestones, horse and camel trappings from tribal Iran, rugs and textiles, make-up boxes, tablecloths, ceramics, and the magic of letters and numbers, among other topics. He is by temperament a collector, and the innumerable hours he has spent scouring flea markets, villages, and artisans’ workshops have deeply affected his work.

It is indeed often difficult to distinguish an established cultural motif from one Tanavoli has established. When one thinks of an Iranian form, one is as likely to visualise a Tanavoli as an ancient relief. The pseudo-cuneiforms covering his more recent Wall series are just as much etched into my mind as the 2500-year-old inscriptions on the side of a granite boulder at the foot of Mount Alvand in Hamedan province, to which I made weekly pilgrimages as a child.

As the country has grown more secular, Tanavoli has built up and maintained certain religious motifs as a significant part of his visual lexicon. A good example is his relationship to locks, as fastened by devotees to the lattice grillwork of Shia shrines.

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The Poet (1973) Photograph: John Gordon/Courtesy of Parviz Tanavoli

He shows the same devotion to saghakhanehs, small niches in walls offering passersby drinking water in memory of Imam Hussein, who with his followers was cut off from water before his martyrdom at the battle of Kerbala in AD680. Tanavoli’s devotion to form while excluding function releases the artistic tradition from its mythical aura.

While the lock has been a site of both ingenuity and metaphor in Iranian heritage, it is Tanavoli’s sculptures and extensive research that make it so significant. He ties in religion, myth and history with contemporary hope. He equates the praying hands that fasten locks onto shrines with his own, which sculpt them in the studio, often as small breasts or disproportionate penises.

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Innovation in Art (1964) Photograph: Courtesy of Parviz Tanavoli

Tanavoli’s fervour for Iranian formal heritage is balanced by a sense of irreverence and play that give his work relevance beyond a specific cultural context. In Innovation in Art, 1964, he cuts a vaginal opening into a handmade Persian rug to make room for a toilet ewer, a scatological object most common and most rejected in the Iranian domestic psyche. The ewer is painted after a Jasper Johns Target and the intricate patterns of the rug are flattened into kitsch as they are crudely traced in paint.

His signature Heech series, which has for years been a staple of Tanavoli’s practice, was conceived of in 1965 as a protest. The three letters of the word heech, meaning nothing or nothingness in Farsi, took form in the decorative Nastaliq script both as a protest against the empty overuse of calligraphy in the increasingly popular Saghakhaneh style and the individuals, the institutions and the market that embraced this emptiness. The many years Tanavoli has spent with Heech, and the sheer number of pieces produced with his factory-like ambition, take it beyond the cynicism of its initial protest.

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Parviz Tanavoli Photograph: Courtesy of Parviz Tanavoli

It is radical for an artist to make “nothing”. But Tanavoli’s heech is constant neither in form nor narrative. The pieces are made in all sizes and media, from bronze to fibre-glass and neon lights. Heech emerges from a box, melts into its chair, lies beneath a table and embraces another. As it takes form it grows both endearing and ridiculous. Its irony, not lost on the artist, points to his nostalgia for the figure, a need for play, for narrative, for history.

Tanavoli cannot stay on a heech hiatus. However freely he has drawn from and built upon his own heritage, he has always done so with great care. It is partly this sense of responsibility that has given him the popular status he enjoys in Iran. While it may be a source of pleasure and inspiration, it is no doubt also a burden for any artist, one he has borne seamlessly, and with grace and humility.

Parviz Tanavoli at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, curated by Lisa Fischman and Shiva Balaghi, offers more than 175 objects from the artist’s expansive oeuvre. The exhibition opens today and runs through 7 June 2015

http://www.theguardian.com/world/iran-blog/2015/feb/10/parviz-tanavoli-solo-us-exhibition-iranian-sculptor

Iran’s most celebrated visual artist, Parviz Tanavoli, speaks to MEMO about his work Amelia Smith Tuesday, 03 February 2015 16:32

Later Tanavoli went to Italy to study. It was on his return, he recalls, that he realised the role locks played in Shia Islam and Persian culture. In Iran public water houses were built in bazaars and neighbourhoods and during the hot summers passers-by would stop to take a sip of water. Gradually people started to make donations and the water houses became shrine-like decorated with imagery of the imams.

“People who have wishes or problems go to the shrines and tie up a strip of their clothing or fasten a lock to the grille of the shrine hoping that they can unlock their problems and cure their sicknesses or disease,” explains Tanavoli. “So the lock has great significance in Persian culture.”

In the sixties the lock became one of the iconographies central to a new movement co-founded by Tanavoli, termed Saqqakhneh, the Farsi word for water house. Dubbed spiritual “pop art”, Saqqakhneh sought to incorporate Shia symbols into art and often you will see padlocks on the body of Tanavoli’s sculptures and in the work of the young artists that joined the movement.

Another concept central to Tanavoli’s work is the principle of “Heech”, Farsi for “nothing”. Like the lock, the word Heech has been moulded by the artist and incorporated into the anatomy of his sculptures numerous times. It began in 1965, he says, in protest to the popularisation of calligraphy that at the time became fashionable and was exhibited in nearly every gallery. “I gave calligraphy up and only used one word,” he says.

Tanavoli describes the shape of Heech as malleable and soft, a word that can be put in a cage or on the walls. “I found there is so much in the Heech, that Heech is not nothing, Heech is something. Then later, as time went on, I realised that there is so much meaning behind it and so many poets prior to me, from centuries ago, have paid attention to this word and have used it and that is how it began.”

Parviz Tanavoli, Poet Turning into Heech (detail), 1973-2007. Collection of the artist.  Photo by John Gordon.The early poets, Rumi, Khayyam and Hafez, wrote a lot about Heech, points out Tanavoli, and posed the question of whether existence is nothing or whether non-existence is existence. “They wanted people to think about that – don’t underestimate the nothingness. As important as existence and thing are, no thing or nothing is important too.”

Work that features the Heech is the most popular and sought after of Tanavoli’s art. He says this is because people can relate to it and find something in the concept they can connect to. “It’s a simple shape, it’s abstract, and it’s very meaningful. It has a sculptural body different than other known sculptural figures,” he reflects. “I think there are many reasons it became popular.”

In 2008 Tanavoli’s The Wall (Oh Persepolis), a two metre bronze sculpture etched with hieroglyphics, made a record sale when Christie’s auction house sold it for $2.84 million, the highest ever paid for a piece of artwork from the Middle East. Despite this, Tanavoli says that commercial success has not compromised his work. “I didn’t follow the market or market requests, in fact I turned it down in many instances and I followed my path. I continued doing my thing and opted out. I haven’t changed, I haven’t really commercialised any of my art.”

Though Tanavoli would not describe himself as “political”, there is certainly a political element to some of his work. Most artists, he says, are somehow involved in the politics of their time. “All the artists I know somehow are, but they may not reflect it directly, they might be very indirect. Somehow artists stay away from it especially in the area that we live. It’s not very safe to be political.”

Heech in a Cage – literally a Heech coming out of a silver cage – was made in protest of Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, a facility set up to imprison and interrogate suspects in the “war on terror”. The prison has attracted worldwide controversy for its use of water-boarding, the force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strike and detention without trial.

“I was very bothered when they put all these people in jail without giving them a fair trial. The torture and the way they were kept. I always felt that even if there are innocent among them, this is damaging American democracy. I decided to make a monument to the innocents of the Guantanamo.”

Parviz Tanavoli, Heech in the Cage, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.  Photo by John GordonThe monument was intended to be an enlarged version of Heech in a Cage which would then be donated to the people of Afghanistan; Afghanis were once the largest nationality represented in Guantanamo. However, Tanavoli couldn’t find a sponsor or a location in Afghanistan willing to take it, and so the project was never realised.

Closer to home Tanavoli has been involved in a drawn out conflict with the local government. In 2002 the artist’s house was turned into a museum by request of the city of Tehran with the backing of then Mayor Mohammad-Hassan Malekmadani who was keen on art and culture. But when Ahmadinejad became mayor he closed the museum declaring “it wasn’t part of our culture it was foreign culture,” recounts Tanavoli.

The artist went to court and fought for six years to get his house back but by this time much of his artwork had been taken. Last March he retrieved 13 pieces through a court order, but a few days later people from the municipality hired trucks and cranes, came back, broke the door down and took everything again.

“They don’t like my work, they’re not even interested,” he says. “But now they have realised that it is worth some money and that’s all they’re interested in. I wish they had even taken care of it. Several of my works are broken, some are damaged, some kept in very bad conditions and not handled professionally and so they are going into a state of decay. I want to get them back. I don’t know if I will or not, I still haven’t given up.”

Tanavoli says that wide-spread censorship on art and culture is more relaxed than it was in the Ahmedinejad years, under whom hundreds of books were censored, publishing permits were denied, films were banned and theatres shut down. “It was the worst period of all these eight years,” he reiterates. “Things are loosening now, they are better and of course more books are published, films are shown and theatres are again going back to their lives. So it goes up and down.”

Though he has a studio and a house in Tehran, Tanavoli and his family moved to Canada in 1989 and now lives and works between the two countries. “I couldn’t sell my sculptures there. I wasn’t even allowed to sell my sculptures there,” he says, explaining why his family moved. “Our children had to go to college for higher schooling and they didn’t have any chances, especially the girls. We have two daughters, so we decided to move to Canada for the sake of the children and then also to re-start my life. It wasn’t easy but of course things are better now.”

A decade before his move Tanavoli retired as head of the sculpture department at Tehran University, at the time of the Islamic Revolution.

Tanavoli’s work can be found in private and public collections from the British Museum in London to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art in New York. At the beginning of February a retrospective of Tanavoli’s work will go on display at the Davis Museum, Wellesley College in the US where over 175 of his pieces will be exhibited. Tanavoli says it will be a good opportunity for Americans to experience Iranian culture which often gets lost in news reporting from such a volatile region.

“I am very happy this is happening, especially in the States, because of this embargo and lack of communication,” says Tanavoli. The US placed sanctions on Iran following the US embassy seizure in 1979 and has maintained them, and broadened them, for most of the period following this.

“I think this might open the door. Americans have the right to see the other side of our culture; I mean the cultural part not just all this bad news. Of course the embargo has stopped all of this for a long time. So this is a good time, a good period, and I’m very much looking forward that there is going to be communication through art and Americans can see a taste of the art of Iran and myself and that part of the world.”

Parviz Tanavoli’s retrospective exhibition will be on display at The Davis Museum, Wellesley College from 10 February to 7 June.

Infinite Possibility: Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian Portugal’s Serralves Museum offers a retrospective on the work of an Iranian artist feted by New York’s glitterati but whose geometric designs are inspired by Islamic art

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When a 20-year old Iranian art student moved to New York in 1944 from her hometown, the ancient city of Qazvin, she soon found herself mixing with the brightest players on the city’s art scene including Willem de Kooning and Andy Warhol. John Cage crowned her “that beautiful Persian girl”.

But the work of Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian had a different source, not in Warhol’s Factory or Manhattan’s Studio 54 nightclub but beneath the crystalline high-domed hall of the Shah Cheragh mosque in Shiraz, southern Iran. There, she had experienced in 1966 a transformative encounter she compared to “walking into a diamond in the centre of the sun”.

The first museum survey of Farmanfarmaian’s work isolates the past 40 years from an illustrious and lustrous career. Not only does it showcase a wealth of material, it highlights recent forays into moving sculpture and painterly works on paper that suggest fresh potential in an artist who is now 90.

Infinite Possibility – Mirror Works and Drawings 1974-2014 is presented at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto this winter. Curated by the museum’s director, Suzanne Cotter, the period of her career covered by the show reflects Farmanfarmaian’s complete adoption of abstract geometry, a genre she made her own in the 1970s by translating it into three dimensions via mirrored sculptures and reliefs.

The show presents the artist, who signs her works simply as “Monir”, as a prolific and interdisciplinary figure. Passing visitors to Serralves will be drawn in by the aesthetic majesty of the riches on display; on the surface alone, the dazzling lustre of this period of Monir’s work is hard to resist. But beyond the glittering surface lies grit: in her practice as an abstract artist, Farmanfarmaian was and remains a pioneer both as an Iranian and as a woman – the most celebrated, and perhaps the only, contemporary artist working in mirror mosaic.

Seeing Farmanfarmaian’s work exhibited at Doha’s The Third Line gallery in 2013 prompted Cotter to bring both Monir’s sculptures and sketches to Porto. The artist later thanked Cotter in an interview with Artforum, the international magazine, for “being the first to notice that my drawings were something different and deserved a special focus”. Cotter wants the sketches to be seen as abstract compositions in their own right, not merely as preparation for three-dimensional works.

Most of the material included in Infinite Possibility comes from Monir’s personal collection and has not been previously shown in public. As with many artists of her time, both she and her work were marked by Iran’s political circumstances and a swathe of her oeuvre was lost in the throes of the 1979 Iranian revolution. Indeed, the works on paper were originally born out of necessity while the artist was deprived of her Tehran studio for a decade after leaving once again for New York when the revolution broke out.

In her dedicated workshop, which reopened in Tehran in 2004, Monir works alongside artisans and craftsmen trained in traditional Persian decorative arts and construction including aineh-kari (mirror mosaics) and khatam-kari (inlaid marquetry). After some initial persuasion of the artisans in the 1970s, with some reluctant to take orders from a woman, many of the original craftsmen are dedicated to Monir and remain in her atelier today.

In many senses, Monir works in the spirit of old masters. Her Tehran workshop recalls the studios of 17th-century European painters, but also that of the collaborative Persian kitabkhana, which defined the artistic output of the early modern period in Iran. The kitabkhana (literally, ‘the house of books’) was the atelier of artists and craftsmen working in the service of the Persian court in the 1600s. Designs on paper were circulated around craftsmen from different disciplines, including potters, architects, and illuminators working on the borders of manuscripts – so that the same patterns appeared in different media. As with the kitabkhana, Monir’s designs on paper have also informed textiles, sculpture and interior design throughout her career.

Monir also has taken both sculptural and architectural commissions from a dedicated pool of patrons. Her large-scale mirror mosaics have iced everything from the Senate building in Tehran to the Dag Hammarskjöld tower in New York. An early version of one of her Mirror Ball (1974) spheres sat on Warhol’s desk: its sparkling siblings are lined up at Serralves in a silent disco.

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Monir in her salon, Tehran 1975, as seen in the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art catalogue. Photograph: The Third Line, Dubai/The Third Line, Dubai
Within Infinite Possibility is an example of her geometric vision in a domestic context. At the end of the exhibition are double doors of frosted glass that she originally fashioned for her New York apartment in the 1980s. A glowing portal, they throw the grey light onto the surrounding walls through interconnected shapes scattered on their translucent surface.

Monir’s work fuses the heritage of traditional Iranian craft, particularly that of architectural decoration, with the western philosophies of minimalism and abstraction that informed her friends and contemporaries like Frank Stella and Robert Morris. Geometric, pattern-based abstraction has appeared in Islamic art for thousands of years. A similar aesthetic boomed in Western art during the 1960s, as geometric minimalism became a popular art movement as a measured, rational cousin to the volatility and physicality of abstract expressionism.

In both instances, geometric art retains a connection with a scientific and mathematic thought, be it the late ninth-century Persian polymath Omar Khayyam or the modern geometer. The axiomatic coordinates of Farmanfarmaian’s sculptures allows them to tessellate into the “infinite possibilities” that she envisages. An animation in Bahman Kiarostami’s Monir, a documentary film about the artist which had its premier at the Serravles exhibition, shows the six elements of her Convertible Series (Group 8) from 2010, splitting and re-connecting into a kaleidoscopic myriad of combinations.

Although Monir’s work resonates with this global dialogue of sixties’ minimalism, her mirror sculptures are not only dimensional but also display a unique animate quality. It was an idea sparked from watching the changing hues play across the glass interior of the Shah Cheragh mosque as people circulated within. Surfaces of her Families (2011-2013) – groups of up to six variations on a single shape, grandly showcased in the second half of Infinite Possibility – are similarly faceted so that “every colour moves”, as the artist explains in the Kirostami documentary: the experience changes each time a visitor is reflected in the work’s surface. The monumental, rotating Square (2014) signals a move into kinetics, where twisting quadrangles are stacked on top of each other, their surface reduced from the signature scattering of mirrored pieces into a single veneer of polished steel.

Considerations of Monir’s oeuvre have often searched for spiritual symbolism. This results not just from her connections with traditional craft but from the influence of religious architecture seen in the mosque niches of her grand Murquanas (2012) or the origami-esque Nomadic Tent Design (1978). And with the mathematical foundations of repetition and progression, many have deconstructed her works to find a connection to Sufi numerology. But the artist shakes off such claims in Kirostami’s Monir, where she describes her motivation as purely secular and formalistic. There are no attempts to calculate the infinities of existence, she says: “It is just the hexagon and line, [there is] no philosophy behind it.”

Her method of working is simultaneously intuitive and calculated. In another scene from Monir, which takes place in her workshop, the artist grazes a ruler across a sheet of squared tracing paper, taking a pencil to shade in a grid of lozenges, whilst muttering a chant of “here, here, and here”. There are echoes of automatism in the impulsiveness of her drawing, at odds with the mathematical perfection of her sculpture. In her drawings, so generously laid out at Serralves, scribbled half circles are scattered like confetti over frames of geometric line. Within nets of triangles, rectangles and hexagons, Monir has inserted shards of mirrored glass, working across mediums whilst still employing her artistic vocabulary and compositional principles.

Within the Serralves retrospective, Monir’s work begins to occupy a third space, the intersection of an imagined Venn diagram between spheres of sculpture, architecture, painting and draughtsmanship. Works mounted on the walls take their cue from her education as a fine artist on canvass under the tutelage of the American modernist painter Milton Avery in the 1950s. In her most recent drawings, delicate petals and blooms have begun to creep in, making flowerbeds within her famous hexagons and undulating semi-circles. These motifs mark a return to softer elements plucked from the beginning of her artistic career, where she created still lives of flowers, department store illustrations and monotype prints – an endeavour which won her a medal at the 1958 Venice Biennale.

Her always untitled sketches provide a greater scope for her experimentally. As the fine, calligraphic line used to conjure the blossoms increasingly intermingles with the graphic solidity of shape, the designs on paper would present a sculptural impracticality. One begins to realise that these drawings are, as Cotter says, more than potential brainstorms for large-scale works; they are drawings for drawing’s sake. The textures within her works on paper explore the infinite possibilities that drive her practice even further than before, and are shown in compelling independence at this exhibition.

After having made art for more than 70 years, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian is still very much a practitioner. After Porto, the exhibition will be travelling to Monir’s second home, with a showing at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York opening in March.

The author’s visit to the exhibit was supported by the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art. Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Infinite Possibility – Mirror Works and Drawings 1974-2014 is showing at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto, Portugal through 11 January

Natasha Morris for Tehran Bureau

http://www.theguardian.com/world/iran-blog/2014/dec/27/-sp-monir-shahroudy-farmanfarmaian-iran-infinite-possibility

SEEN in the Studio: Shirin Neshat By Sarah Trigg – http://www.vulture.com/2014/12/seen-in-the-studio-shirin-neshat.html

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Stationed above a busy corner on Canal Street, the studio of the Iranian filmmaker and artist Shirin Neshat whirred with several working film editors and assistants upon our arrival. Neshat is best known for her black-and-white cinematic films addressing gender issues within Islamic culture. She shares the space with her partner Shoja Azari*, a fellow filmmaker and frequent collaborator. Conversations in Farsi and Italian were shooting back and forth among the crew. “We are very lucky because our studio is like a community. We’re all close friends and we’re together all the time basically,” said Neshat.

Corner of Neshat’s studio that is dedicated to her photographic and calligraphic work.
Most of the studio was dedicated to editing except for Neshat’s photographic and calligraphic work area, which took over a corner of the room. Handwriting sheathed many of the figures in the photographs. Neshat has been busy with plans for three major museum exhibitions — the first opened in Doha this past November at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art; a forthcoming exhibit will open at the Hirshhorn Museum this May; and in March 2015, she will show a site-specific photographic installation in Baku, Azerbaijan, inaugurating the first contemporary art museum to open there.

Poster of the Iranian singer Oum Kalthoum, Neshat’s subject for her upcoming feature-length film. * (see image 2)

On top of her loaded exhibition schedule, Neshat has been working for four years on a feature-length film that she plans to shoot in 2015. The work is about the iconic Middle Eastern singer of the 20th century Oum Kalthoum, who died in 1975 yet continues to have a profound influence over the region. “Her music affected literally millions of people from Israel to Saudia Arabia to Algeria to Egypt to Iran to all kinds of places in the way that she sang, her poetry, and how she threw people into a state of ecstasy. But she is also known to be a nationalist and a symbol of peace. A very important symbol particularly for Egyptians today. The story is from the perspective of an Iranian artist making a film about an Egyptian female artist. It’s not really a biopic, but a very personal kind of perspective and my way of looking at the importance of this woman and her impact on other women in the region.”

Neshat pulled out a poster of another heroine, Forugh Farrokhzad, a beloved Persian poet. “Both who she was and her poetry has been a huge influence on my work and many other women. Here she is when she was young.”

Literature strongly impacts Neshat’s work, such as for her moving and highly acclaimed 2009 feature-length film Women Without Men, an adaptation of Shahrnush Parsipur’s novel of the same title about four female characters and their struggle to escape oppression. “When I shot Women Without Men, there were Iranians, Moroccans, Americans, Germans, French, Belgians, Austrians. We were making a period film about Iran in the 1950s with this kind of community of people, and at times it was a real challenge, because when you make a film, all the birds have to fly in the same direction, so to speak. But we all had a different system of working. We had different habits. Like, for example, when to break, how many hours to work. Different languages. It means we have to dance around each other’s characteristics and nature of working.”

Neshat’s vintage copy of the Book of Kings ( see image 4) with iconography that she references in her work.

“This is a book I’ve used in a big way,” she said, opening the pages of a large vintage book. “The Book of Kings series from the 10th century. It’s an epic book of poems, mythological, about Persia before the Islamic conquest, and there were all these people getting beheaded, wars, and people who are patriotic — heroes. I used a lot of it on this new series that’s all about patriots of contemporary time. About how their lives are always in that place of violence, atrocity, and death.” She pointed to a photograph of a man. “Visually, I borrowed a lot of the illustrations that you see on his body. I bought this book at auction and someone had gone [in], a child, and put these red marks where there’s blood. The series I’m working on is 80 photographs, and it’s named after this ancient book.”

Neshat’s copy of her grandparents’s Koran (see image 5).

The second half of our interview took place in her home located around the corner, where more of her influential objects resided. “I have the Koran here. This is a very precious thing. All original calligraphy — all by hand — that I inherited from my parents. It belonged to my grandparents. It’s the only one I know of that has Arabic and Farsi. Usually the Koran is only written in Arabic. I’m using this a little bit for the work that I’m doing at the studio. I have a feeling this was maybe my grandmother studying the Koran, and this was maybe her homework. Sometimes she uses red, sometimes black. And that’s exactly what I do in my work. This is the only thing I inherited from my grandparents.” Born in Iran, Neshat’s family left the country for the U.S. around the time of the Iranian Revolution.

A view of Neshat’s collection of tribal jewelry (see image 6).

“I’m very interested in books that feed me a certain inspiration and films that constantly open my mind in terms of the subject matter or the style of the film — the form. I’m a nomad. I’m a traveler. I tend to pick up things here and there. I’m particularly interested in tribal jewelry. Things that are handmade by people and somehow are very ancient. To me they’re a work of art. I find them fascinating, how they speak to you about their history, and they’re also really beautiful. I’m also very affected by images. Photographs that I pick up here and there that speak to me and somehow eventually find a way into my work.”

Neshat’s collection of charms (see image 7).

She located a stack of etched metal plates. “I bought these in Iran a long time ago. They are very rare. This is where I got my ideas in terms of writing calligraphy on the bodies. These are charms. When you make a wish. Every one means something. I’m not even sure what the meaning of the symbols are. As you know in Islamic cultures, it was taboo to replicate images, for example, of the prophets, but it was allowed to draw outlines of bodies and just fill it in with words. So here, I think, is a very sexual piece of a man and a woman. He’s touching her and then there’s a fish below, which has to be about fertility. This could be a charm for someone who wants to get pregnant. Some of the writing is in Arabic and some of it is in Farsi, but I haven’t been able to make out what it means.”
I asked Neshat about her working habits and what she does to prepare for shoots. “As you can imagine, any time you start a big project, there is a lot of anxiety. You can be as prepared and scripted as you want to be, but you always wish this magic will be out there waiting for you that will help you achieve something that you’ve been really dreaming of, but you’re not really sure that that magic will be there when you get there. I think what I’ve learned is that I always arrive — whether it’s a photo shoot one day or a film that takes eight weeks — I just try to go with the flow and to be very prepared but just be expecting the most unpredictable things. Also, because we often work with non-professionals actors, the human dimension of it — you can’t really predict what type of people you will be dealing with. I just came from a week of shooting in Azerbaijan of men and women who didn’t speak the same language and had never been exposed to art. I’ve learned that tremendous bonding happens as long as you are really open to that possibility. With film, of course, it’s just like — economy. You have to be really fast, and you have to be super-prepared, but I collaborate with people who have the skills and the expertise to help me when you’re sort of stuck. Usually when you go like that it’s hardly possible you will fail entirely. Sometimes I’ll work four years on a script, shooting, and then when we edit it, it’s completely different story!” she laughed. “You have to keep an open mind.”

Listen to Neshat talk about her favorite directors, from Fellini to Linklater: https://soundcloud.com/vulturedotcom/shirin-neshat-on-her-favorite-directors