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Trapped between two worlds

Special to The Times

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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

In 1996, for example, at the end of her last trip home, Neshat, like the character in “The Last Word,” experienced captivity, in her case for only a few hours and at Tehran International Airport. Although she says she was not told the reason for her detention, she believes it was prompted by “Women of Allah.”

The series of theologically risque images shows a chador-wearing Neshat holding a gun or showing exposed skin -- hands, feet, face -- covered in text. This questioning of the philosophical and ideological underpinnings of the Islamic revolution, including martyrdom and gender roles, Neshat says, may have prompted the incident.

“They gave me just enough trouble so that the message was I shouldn’t reenter,” she says.

In questioning the role of women in Islam, Neshat says she discovered a topic that intrigues the Western art world but that fundamentalist Muslims were not eager to discuss.

The photographs have been shown in the U.S., Japan, Switzerland and Italy as well as close to home in Turkey, but they have not been exhibited in Iran.

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Longing for home

IN late 2000, curator Okwui Enwezor asked Neshat to create a work for the 2002 incarnation of Documenta, the once-every-five-years art festival in Kassel, Germany.

“I had thought a lot about going to Iran and going to my father’s ex-farm,” Neshat says, to create a work that would symbolize the conflict between the government and her father, who had recently died. “This farm became very metaphoric. I had called my brother, and he was trying to get me a visa to enter the country. Then 9/11 happened.”

As the Twin Towers were falling, Neshat was dropping her son off at school a couple of blocks from the World Trade Center. Like thousands of others, she fled north in the city. It was the next day before she could return home.

“The police had barricaded the whole area where I lived, and we had to pass through barriers and show IDs,” she says. “I was surrounded by other Iranian people, and I was scared.”

Everywhere she went, she was conscious of being a Muslim, an object of suspicion. The idea of returning to her father’s farm seemed a silly luxury.

She wanted to make a film installation about being a foreigner in post-9/11 America.

The result was “Tooba” and an ensuing body of work that focuses less on gender and Islam and more on larger East-West themes. “Tooba” showed first in Kassel and then in other locations internationally. It also became the first Neshat work to be shown in her home country, at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.

“Tooba,” Neshat says, is an examination of issues surrounding emigration from the Islamic world to the West, the circle of leaders whose fundamentalism impels the journey and what the journeyers find when the reach the West.

Critics found the work confusing -- one thought it had to do with Mexican laborers -- and “my own sister wanted to know what it was about,” Neshat says.

Artist Farhad Moshiri, reached by e-mail in Tehran, said that “everyone was truly impressed with it as a work of art” but that “when people found out that it was supposed to represent something about the current Iranian condition, they became defensive and turned off.”

After Documenta, Neshat says, “I came back rather frustrated with the art world. I thought, ‘I don’t want to make another video installation.’ ... I’d had it.”

She wanted to move away from work intended for an art-world-only audience, toward something with crossover appeal. She focused on two projects: One is a feature film she is working on now, “Women Without Men,” based on a novel by her friend Shahrnoush Parsipour. The other was “The Last Word,” based on Parsipour’s experience as a prisoner of the Iranian government -- a one-screen film and thus a relatively straightforward presentation. Earlier works have tended to be film installations, often consisting of two facing screens with room for viewers in the middle. This technique inserts the viewer into what Neshat considers her own predicament, that of someone caught between worlds, Iran and America, not fully of either.

“My work always, always has to be kept in mind as a work between two places, not just an Iranian work,” she says.

Curator Paulette Gagnon of Montreal’s Contemporary Art Museum says that Neshat “focuses on the experience of human beings in regard to others.”

Gagnon, organizer of the 2001 retrospective that traveled to the Walker and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, says “her work is also an invitation to the public to discover another [world]. It establishes differences among us in a disconcerting form.”

Particularly disconcerting can be Neshat’s penchant for depicting an uncomfortable scene with great beauty. The space in which the woman in “The Last Word” is interrogated, for example, is a cavernous, cinder-block-walled hall, but the lighting, piles of books and even the countenances of the people involved make it attractive, if not conventionally beautiful.

“Once, after I spoke somewhere, a woman questioned me, comparing me to Leni Riefenstahl because, she said, ‘You, Shirin Neshat, aestheticize violence.’

“I don’t think so. The only reason I became an artist is because of my anxieties. I don’t have a talent; I feel like this is my only way of coping with my angst and my anxiety about little things, bigger things.

“I try to find beauty in the middle of the horror, and vice versa,” she says. “Sometimes, really horrible things -- you can turn into a weapon of beauty.”


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