In Iran, where Shirin Neshat was born, censorship and oppression make it impossible to create art that does not take a position on the regime under which it was produced. In the West, things are different. Here, there do not seem to be any limits to free expression. But according to Neshat, this freedom comes at a cost; a new internalized regime change has taken place in the art world over the past 20 years: explosive commercialization and unrestrained market forces have turned the power balance between artist and capital upside down and threatens to erode art from within – unless the artists rise up.
As a young woman, Shirin Neshat moved to the United States to study at California University, Berkeley. Since then, she has won numerous awards for works that address differences between the Middle East and the West, often from a female perspective. Now she visits Denmark with a big exhibition about her latest film, Looking for Oum Kulthum, at Faurschou Foundation in Copenhagen’s Nordhavn (North Harbour) district.
Singer and actress Oum Kulthum (1898–1975) is the most prominent female star in the history of the Middle East, but she was also an enigmatic and very private person. Neshat’s film portrays a female Iranian film-maker who attempts to make a film about the person behind the secretive icon.
Meanwhile, the film-maker struggles to balance her personal life, career and artistic integrity, as she chases the elusive human being behind the legendary Oum Kulthum. This elusiveness may hold an important lesson for contemporary artists, says Neshat:
‘Oum Kulthum is perhaps the most important artist in the Middle East from the 20th century, but we know next to nothing about her; she really kept her private life private. After spending six years doing research for this film, I had to realize that it’s impossible to get under the skin of Oum Kulthum because she manipulated her own image so thoroughly in order to avoid being swallowed up by the public.’
And to Shirin Neshat, setting limits is crucial four the ability to focus – and to avoid losing oneself.
Infinity is the limit
When we discuss how the art scene in the West has developed in recent years, she expresses greater concern than she does over totalitarian censorship; as she puts it, there is never any doubt about the role of art in a dictatorship:
‘In Iran, the public depends on the artists, relying on them to ‘report’ on the people’s suffering – artists not only speak to people: via film, music and literature, they are also the voice of the people. As artists, we can put topics on the agenda and spark debates that are normally out of bounds. That is, of course, especially true in Iran, where we don’t have freedom of speech, but face extensive censorship. Here, art can be a very powerful weapon.’
Shirin Neshat lives and works in New York, where she is represented by the highly acclaimed Gladstone Gallery, and she thus has inside knowledge of the Western (art) world as well.
‘The best way I can describe the difference between artists who, as myself, come from very oppressive regimes, and artists from more liberal societies is that we have a lot of limits, which is a mixed blessing. Even though I live outside Iran, I continue to impose limits on myself and my work. Those limits help me. They help me hone my blade in terms of whom I want to hit, and how.’
‘By contrast, artists in the West don’t really have any limits; infinity is the limit. Here, artists can attack their government, their leaders, their religion and so on and get away with it. I find that difficult to handle. I am paralysed when there are too many possibilities.’
An artist may maintain a work-related focus with self-imposed dogmas, as Neshat does. Another and more central concern for the West is the commercialization of the art world that has developed over the past 20 years. According to Neshat, there has been explosive growth in the flow of money and a radical shift in the balance of power between artists, galleries and museums.
‘I have great respect for museums, galleries and collectors, indeed, for everyone who supports the arts. But artists have to avoid being seduced into compromising in their work in order to adapt to the whims and fads of the marketplace. There is too much money changing hands in the art world today, and at times, artists are subjected to an unconscionable pressure to produce a saleable output.’
Shirin Neshat is a slender woman of 61 years. Her hair is pulled back into a bun, and her brown-green eyes are framed by a wide, dark eye shadow that extends the lower lash line to her cheekbones. Her tone is warm and composed. Experienced. But as our conversation turns to the topic of the influence of the market forces on the art world, there is heartfelt indignation and concern in her gaze.
‘In the past, the artists led the way, and the museums and galleries followed; today, the collectors, museums and galleries are in charge, and the artists follow – that just isn’t right. Especially during the past 20 years, money, market, commodification have begun to dominate the art world completely. I know very few artists who buck this trend, and I really think it’s wrong for us to follow the dealers. Just because they are awash in money, we try to match their parameters, and that is fundamentally wrong.’
She becomes aware that she has raised her voice and continues on a softer note:
‘I’m not saying that all artists have to become activists, but overall, the market has become much too dominant.’
The right partner
This turnaround, where artists adapt to the market instead of the market adapting to the artists, is clearly an issue of great concern for Neshat. She does make money selling her works, but the ones that she devotes the most time to barely break even – if she is lucky. As she was when she met Jens Faurschou. He contacted Neshat and offered to stage an exhibition to accompany her film in the foundation’s magnificent setting in Nordhavn, with no view to any monetary gain. Partners of that calibre are far too rare, and having good partners is crucial, as Neshat explains:
‘You have to find the right partners. Let’s be honest, this exhibition is not going to sell; there is nothing to sell. But Jens Faurschou reached out to me! And it knocked me off my feet that they were willing to devote so much space and time to an exhibition that is never going to turn a profit. I really respect that!’
’Artists have to find partners who see eye to eye with them about what art should be. Instead, everyone’s trying to work out how to implement their next big money making strategy. We need an alternative movement. We need artists to rebel. As Western artists, think we need to contemplate where things are headed and find alternative ways of intervening in the trend that is already unfolding – I sound like a preacher,’ says Neshat with a laugh, then adds,
‘But if you wind up being pushed out of the art world, labelled as irrelevant, you will still have your dignity and the knowledge that you followed your calling. Ultimately, we are on our own. So we have to ask ourselves, why am I doing this?’
A symbol of unity
This is where the return of Oum Kulthum may be relevant to artists in both the Arab and the Western world, as artists can in fact play a central role:
‘Oum Kulthum is particularly relevant today, for several reasons,’ says Neshat. ‘Today, 40 years after her death, she remains the most popular singer in the Arab world. She is the only person that everyone from the Middle East, Jewish or Muslim, Sunni, Shia, secular or not, people from Israel to Saudi Arabia and Algeria – everybody loves Oum Kulthum. She is the only symbol we have of unity, peace, solidarity – and she fought her whole life for peace and an Arab community.’
Oum Kulthum’s potential for unifying what Neshat characterizes as a divided Middle East was a strong motivation in the making of Looking for Oum Kulthum.
The exhibition hosted by the Faurschou Foundation is constructed as a mini-cinema, with cushy seats where visitors can watch the film Looking for Oum Kulthum. Afterwards they can delve into the extensive ‘behind the scenes’ exhibition with costumes, props, notes, images, music and many other items. There is a lot to find for someone searching through the lens of Oum Kulthum.
‘In my view, the Muslim world is divided – especially today – and it’s amazing to see a female artist who brought everyone together, and who is currently the only person offering a focal point for a sense of unity across the Arab world.’
In addition to leading the way for a possible internal Middle Eastern community, Neshat believes that a figure of Oum Kulthum’s status may be able to correct the Western image of the region, and that is particularly important right now, she points out:
‘Especially at a time when the West views the Middle East as a barbaric place, it is important to show how culturally rich and cosmopolitan we were.’