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Trapped between two worlds

Displacement is at the heart of Iranian American artist Shirin Neshat's work.

October 09, 2005|Tyler Green | Special to The Times

New York — IN artist Shirin Neshat's newest film, "The Last Word," a man sits behind a long table, an ominous book in front of him. Identically attired men bring him more books, perhaps evidence of some kind. A woman sits across from the first man. She was beautiful once; she could be again.

The man glares at her. "We've been keeping an eye on you.... I can make you regret being born." Tears well in the woman's eyes. "Do you know how much evidence we have against you?" he asks.

The woman stares back. Her tears fall. Finally she begins to speak, but not to address the threats. Instead, in a chanting melody, she recites poetry. Her voice, shaky at first, grows stronger. The men are transfixed. They stop their work and stare. The interrogator falls silent, his mouth slightly open.

The woman rises. Having staggered her interrogators with the beauty of her words, she walks away.

"The Last Word" is quintessential Neshat: The 17-minute film is about power and fear, Islam and gender, but it is not overtly about any specific political situation. It is a neatly abstracted meditation, open to interpretation.

Neshat, 48, is arguably the best-known contemporary artist to come from Iran. Her work -- photography, video and now more filmic pieces -- is in many major American and European museum collections, and she won the top prize at the 1999 Venice Biennale. "The Last Word" (2003) is making its debut in her second full-career museum retrospective, on view now in Spain and traveling to Germany and Japan. Her first New York gallery show in four years opens Saturday at Barbara Gladstone, and a monograph chronicling her career is due out in this fall from Steidl.

Yet in Southern California, home to the largest Iranian immigrant population outside Iran, major museums have not collected her work, her last solo exhibition was in 2001, and she remains relatively unknown.

It's no small irony, then, that much of the work revolves around issues of displacement. In photography, in video and now in film, Neshat creates characters trapped between systems: Iran and the West, male-dominated society and womanhood, beauty and horror.

"Shirin's work is really as much a poetic moment as about a political moment," says curator Douglas Fogle of the Carnegie Museum of Art, who worked on a Neshat survey at the Walker Art Center in 2002. "There's a certain kind of meditation on exile, on being not at home anywhere."

Neshat herself puts it more forcefully: "I have an obsession with my relationship with Iran and how that's been taken away from me.... Art is the only thing where I can completely be free and create this other world that allows me to become complete."

A garden in New York

THE SoHo loft that Neshat shares with her son and with boyfriend Shoja Azari is dense with flower arrangements. Each bouquet is at least 5 feet around and 6 feet tall, and all are built the same way: Spiny branches of quince extend into space, their peach-colored blooms punctuated by pink cherry blossoms and red star lilies.

As a child growing up outside Qazvin, a northwestern Iranian agricultural center, Neshat loved to play in her family's garden and fruit orchards. "I can't have a traditional Iranian garden here, so

In 1974, when she was 17, her family sent her to Southern California to finish high school. With the Iranian revolution gaining momentum, the family thought it safer for her to stay. In 1980, as the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini solidified power, the government took away the family home and farm, forcing her parents to relocate to Tehran. For 12 years, -- while she earned undergraduate and master's degrees in art at UC Berkeley, married an American, had a son and then moved to New York -- Neshat didn't see her parents at all. And she didn't consider herself a practicing artist.

"I didn't feel like I had anything to say," she says. "I was a wife, a mother and an administrator at a nonprofit."

That began to change when she returned to Iran in 1990. "I grew up in this beautiful house with a beautiful garden," she says. "And now my parents were living in an awful modern apartment in Tehran, and that was really, really depressing.

"I realized that they had really suffered. But they had really grown. I was stunned. I became very critical of my own life. I had no real convictions. I felt there was something wrong about this individualistic living I'd been doing. Everything was about me."

That visit, and others that came after it, changed Neshat's life. She divorced her American husband, and she began to make the art for which she is now known: a four-year photography project, "Women of Allah," begun in 1993, then a series of film installations, one of which, "Turbulent," won her the prize in Venice.

Although Neshat has appeared in her own works, she says they are deliberately ambiguous and that she does not portray herself. It is easy, however, for viewers to identify themes that could be considered autobiographical.

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