September 1, 2019 5

Shirin Neshat: “Looking for Oum Kulthum” | Talks at Google

Shirin Neshat: “Looking for Oum Kulthum” | Talks at Google

Actually unusual for me to talk to people who
barely know me and my work, but also be given five minutes
to summarize my entire career and then have a conversation. But it’s actually more
interesting to talk to people who don’t know
anything about my work. But as you explained,
I am Iranian born but I have lived in the
US, I think, now longer than in my own country. And the first body
of work that I made after being proven
to be a terrible painter was photography. And actually, I’m
not a photographer. I don’t even own a camera. I actually hire photographers. I direct the photography and
then I deal with the process after. But I’m just going to– since
I want to speak very little and have a conversation, the
first serious body of my work after 10 years of not
working at all at art was a group of work
called “Woman of Allah.” And this is basically
a series of photographs that I did that sort of really
focus on the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the role
of women in militancy during the Islamic Revolution. And the whole concept of
martyrdom and the idea of being a martyr
and what it meant in terms of being in
this intersection of love of God, and yet cruelty
and violence and death. And for most of
those photographs, I pose myself and I
photographed friends. And this photography
continued later on, after I made many movies, into
this book, a series called “The Book of Kings,” which
was like over 10 years later. And it really was about the
2009 Green movement in Iran. It was more than
10 years, far more. But again, it captures
another pivotal moment in Iranian history. If the first one was
the Islamic Revolution, this shows a more
modern Iranian society, but still battling
with people who are fighting against tyranny
and political oppression, et cetera. So this body of work was about,
I don’t know, 65 photographs. I’m going rather quickly. But what you’ll see constantly
is the female body– I mean, the male
and female body– being a very significant
part of my photographs. And always this
inscription of text that were poetry
by people of Iran. And so now I’m going,
again, quickly. This is another
body of work that I did in Egypt, which was
immediately after the Arab Spring, that sort of captured
the notion of patriotism and the euphoria
around the revolutions that we experienced all
over the Middle East, yet the terrible
aftermath, which was a lot of genocide and death. The big group of photographs
I created in 2015 and ’16 was in Azerbaijan,
which previously was a part of my own country,
called “The Home of My Eyes.” And in this series, I
basically acted more like a documentary artist. I photographed the local
people, as Azerbaijan being a place of
mixed ethnicities, from Turks, Armenians,
Persians, and Russians. But all of the people
that I photographed had common hand
postures that were very similar to the Christian
paintings, the El Greco’s paintings. And the theme being the idea of
home, or the absence of home, and what meant to these people. There are literally inscriptions
written all over their bodies that are the transcripts of the
interviews that I conducted. I make a lot of videos. I’ve been active in
media, video since 1998. This was my breakthrough
into the art world with video, which won the
Golden Lion in Venice biennial. But again, it was literally
taking the aesthetics of my photographs
but having it move and now having music
and choreography and a story that had a
beginning, middle, and the end. This is another piece,
“Fervor,” which again, it became a little bit more narrative. But as you can see,
they are highly stylized and very fictionalized. And these were all
shot in Morocco. So by now I began to shoot
videos and films outside of US, mostly in Morocco, in Egypt,
in Turkey, in different places. So these are examples. That’s it. OK. And so the next thing I wanted
to share with you is that since 2000– no, since 2002– I’ve been busy
making feature films. I made a film called “Woman
Without Men.” that was based on a magic realist novel. That won the Silver Lion
award in Venice Film Festival. That took six years. And I just completed
this new film, “Looking for Oum Kulthum,”
that we will show some clips. But that was based on an
Egyptian singer in Egypt. And I spent 12 years
making two feature films. And I also did an opera. So that said, we go right
to the conversation. SPEAKER: Being an Iranian
female living in New York, this informs a lot of your work. You’ve lived in
exile, basically, in the United States. Can you talk about what it
was like to have that happen, and what your return
to Iran was like, given that that was
sort of the starting point of all of your work? SHIRIN NESHAT: Well, at
the time when I grew up, there was a lot of
Iranian families were sending their
children abroad to study because
lack of, you know, situations, colleges,
universities. And so we were all sent out. But we didn’t predict
the revolution. And at that time, my father sent
me and my sisters and brothers. And they all went back. And I happened to be in the US
when the revolution happened. And so unfortunately at
that time, I was very young. I came and I was 17. And the revolution
happened, I was in college. Actually, I was at UC Berkeley. And immediately
after the revolution, they took over the
American embassy in Iran. The hostages were taken. So there was an incredibly
strong anti-American sentiment. So I found myself alone in a
country without financial help and without the loving
family around me. But also, against the
war, politically, as there was a strong reaction. So I didn’t see them, not for
the 20 years, but 11 years I didn’t go back. And eventually when I went
back, I started to make art. And then the country,
the government, found my work problematic. And then since 1996,
I have not been back. SPEAKER: Wow. And I think that
sort of leads us in, when you said the government
found your work problematic, your work is highly political. And you often talk about
having a social responsibility. So I was wondering
if you can talk about the idea of being
the voice of a country that you haven’t lived
in in a very long time? SHIRIN NESHAT: You know you
don’t have the possibility to distance yourself from
the political reality. And the political
consciousness is something that is not a choice. And I think that’s difficult
for Americans to understand, that if your everyday life
is defined by this and that– for example, this
recent breakdown– again, the exit of America
from the nuclear deal, it’s a huge issue for my
family in Iran, for me and the future of
us as immigrants. So I think the work
is a manifestation, is kind of artistic reflection
on the political reality. But it’s not a propaganda. It is rather a kind of
a fictional work that somehow tries to shed
light on the complexity of the situation. And so I don’t see myself
as the voice of the country, but the fact that my work
has properties in the way that it communicates
about the people and to the people of Iran. SPEAKER: Well, you’ve
made photographs. You’ve made short films. You’ve made feature
length films. Can you talk about
how your process changes between each medium? SHIRIN NESHAT: I think that
this kind of nomadic behavior is a little bit
about my personality because I’m extremely restless
and nervous, and always living in a very nomadic lifestyle. I’m never anywhere
for very long. People like me, I
think a lot of us are like that, and
that we tend to learn very quickly new places,
new languages, new food, new environment. It’s just a way of life. So we’re not really fixed
at any place, any situation. And so somehow I feel like
this lifestyle has also been my relationship
to the mediums, that I’m not really
faithful to anything. I’m not really good at anything. And I haven’t been– SPEAKER: We think
you’re good at things. SHIRIN NESHAT: Well,
I’m not educated in it. But I spend a lot of time. Like I said, I spent
six years making a film. So I spend a lot of time
studying whatever I’m doing. But I give myself the
license to feel adventurous and also to struggle
and be on that edge because I feel like by
embracing a new medium, you’re re-inventing yourself. And that’s often keeping
yourself excited as an artist, as a human being, that even as
you get old, you feel young. And you fail. And I think that’s been
my nature as a person. And I think, in a way, it
informs the way I work. SPEAKER: What’s the process
over six years of making a film? SHIRIN NESHAT: Well,
I do other things as well because I have to
also survive as an artist. I do exhibitions. The process of the film has
been, first of all, script writing, and then finding
the right producers, then finding the money,
location scouting, and actually casting, et cetera. And I think the
two films have been the most painful
experiences I’ve ever had, worst than giving
birth to a child. But the point is that
at the end of it, I feel like is a
great accomplishment. But in some ways, I think
every frame of the film becomes a photograph. And every few minutes
becomes a video installation, and that also you are
able to communicate to a larger audience that are
not just gallery museum goers. And you are really
thinking about the masses and the general public. And I think that gives
me a great pleasure. SPEAKER: Wow. So I think that’s
a good point for us to turn to “Looking
for Oum Kulthum,” which is your most recent film
project, one of these projects that has taken a very
long time to complete. Its a movie within a movie. Its about a Persian
director’s attempts to film the life and legacy
of the Egyptian singer Oum Kulthum. Can you give us a little
bit of the back story about how you
discovered her, or why she was so fascinating to you? SHIRIN NESHAT:
Well, first of all, I have to say that even
though my work looks very sociopolitical on the surface,
there’s always something very personal about the work. It’s always been about my
experience, my perspective– not my experience, but
the way I view things, the way I frame my questions. And so it has this
very personal approach. With “Looking for Oum Kulthum,” Oum Kulthum is the biggest,
the most important artist of the 20th century in the
Middle East, without a doubt. Happened to be a woman,
happened to be gay, happened to be nontraditional. She never got married. She never had children. And yet she is loved by men, by
women, the Sunnis, the Shias, secular, non-secular, and from
Israel to Saudi Arabia to Iran to– it’s an amazing phenomenon. And so this film is about an
Iranian woman artist living in exile questioning the
success of an iconic artist from the Middle East, and
really facing the question of, how can we as woman
become successful? And does this mean that we have
to sacrifice personal lives and issues that are deeply
traditional expectations from a woman? And so this woman– myself, I had a child,
but single mother– and so how do you navigate
between romantic life and traditional role as mothers,
but yet pursue your passion and pursue your career
and be successful? So it’s really a
question of a smaller artist to an iconic artist. And of course, this
script was impossible. And so if you go in and
out of a period film to the film behind that– and highly controversial
because she is the biggest artist of Egypt. So it’s been showing
in the Arab world, and interesting reactions. SPEAKER: That’s actually
one of the things we wanted to ask you
about is, how was it perceived in Egypt and in Iran? SHIRIN NESHAT: Well,
the Iranians are upset. They say, why can’t you
find an iconic woman singer? Why do you have to go
to Egypt because there’s no Iranian artists that’s
ever reached that popularity? And I needed a break from Iran. But I think with the
Egyptians, it’s been really– at the beginning,
they were like, what? You? I mean, not even
Egyptians have dared to make a film about
her because she’s too sacred and untouchable. And some people say,
in fact, maybe this was the best way to
approach it, as a film inside of a film because we
were very honest about this, that this is an attempt. This is the vision
of an Iranian artist. This is not a documentary. This is not a biopic. This is not exactly the story. But this is the
way this woman is struggling to tell the story. And I went with the
film to Tunisia. It opened in Egypt, in Lebanon. It’s opening in Morocco. And of course, in a small scale. But it’s interesting that the
film is finding its audience. And I think it is
not ever a film that would have a huge audience. And it is not targeting
a commercial audience. But I think it’s
something that would last. It would have a life
longer because it’s really an artistic project. It’s not meant to
be anything that you will see in Union Square. What do you call
the movie theater? SPEAKER: Regal Cinema. SHIRIN NESHAT: Yeah, if
it’s lucky somewhere. SPEAKER: You did take
it to Toronto, though. Out to the film festival. SHIRIN NESHAT: Yeah, Venice. And it will open in MoMA
for a week in July 26. And it will have a week run,
which I’m very happy about. SPEAKER: So go see it. What was it like
to sort of take it to the Toronto Film Festival? What was it like? You’ve done a lot
of film festivals. You’ve taken things
on the circuit. How does that work for you? SHIRIN NESHAT: I think this
one made me very nervous because first of all, second
film is always very difficult. So it was an Arab story. And I’m not Arab. So a lot of the
audience often are Arab. And then you’re
like, oh, are they going to throw tomatoes at me? And also that is a
very artistic film. So you always have in the mix. It’s always sold out. The screenings are full because
people love her and everything. And it’s always a great mix
of receptions and critics who don’t like it, who like it,
absolutely don’t relate to it, to those who appreciate it. So like everything
I’ve done, it’s never, ever like praise
completely or destroyed. But I’m still going on fine. So it’s a mix. But I think slowly it’s
finding its audience. SPEAKER: And in terms of the
story and the main character, the film seems to have
some reflection of you in terms of it’s
a female director. She encounters some push
back from being a female, from being Persian. Is this personal? SHIRIN NESHAT: It’s
about my experience. It’s about my own
struggles to make this film, my own shortcomings. Even the script we
wrote is problematic. It’s not a perfect script. And this woman also
struggles with the script. It is just impossible
to know how to go under the skin of this
incredible, incredible woman that was a myth, you know. It was not even a human. And she actually wanted
to remain as an image. So what I asked for
was an impossible task to devour and demystify a
myth that was just impossible. So in this film, I tried
to be really honest about, I chose a very difficult
subject and I didn’t completely succeed. But what did I learn
about this from her? And what was the angle? What was the obsession about? And I think then when
you get very intimate about the process, there’s
honesty about the film that if you are
that kind of person, you understand this film by no
means tried to be pretentious or trying to
compare me with her, but really showing the
artistic practice involving a lot of struggles and failures
of an artist, but also doubts. And I think that’s something
that we don’t give credit to the artist, that the
process, it’s often painful. And it involves taking risk
and that doesn’t always succeed in a positive way. But that is part of the process. And that’s all I tried to show. And even the film as at the
final, it’s not a perfect film. And I’m the first one to say it. But I think that’s
what it was all about. SPEAKER: What do you think
is so imperfect about it? SHIRIN NESHAT: The
script, I think. Because again, the
way that we try to navigate between different
periods and the story of the Iranian woman versus
the story of this iconic artist and how to balance everything
between the political reality when she lived, her
own political reality as a woman in exile, there’s
a lot of information. There’s a lot of
metaphorical meanings that we wanted to weave
into the story about woman, about being artists
that are living within political
reality that affects their work and their
success and failures, and me as an exiled
artist, she as the one who became very loyal
to the political leaders in order to stay successful. So there was just
so much intentions that we tried to build
into the narrative that maybe it just
was imperfect. And I think that’s OK. SPEAKER: It’s totally OK. And I think one of the
things that’s interesting is obviously this fits
into your larger practice in terms of an Islamic
female protagonist. But you often talk about that
you’re more interested in form than you are in the content. And so I was wondering if you
can talk a little bit about how making narrative
film sort of fits into your larger practice
of photography, of sort of short, experimental
film, and if you think you were successful there. SHIRIN NESHAT: I’m glad you said
that because very often people just focus on the theme
because I’m Iranian and I’m– but in fact, I think
I consider myself among some of the
Western, also, artists who are beginning to break away
from the museum and gallery walls and try to
experiment with what it’s like for a visual artist to tell
the story, what kind of form would it take without
mimicking conventional cinema, but also not making
things that are completely incomprehensible. I asked the director
of the opera last year at Salzburg
Festival, Aida, with Anna Netrebko and
Riccardo Muti, the conductor, what is the nature
of ambitiousness and experimentation? But I think that is
happening more and more. Both the film festivals,
the music festivals are really welcoming artists
coming from other mediums to experimenting with this. And I have to say
that I do photography, I do video installations, I do
film, I’m making a new film. And I still do
performing arts, and not because I’m good at
all of these things, because I enjoy the process. And I think it’s
good to give yourself the goal of being able
not to stay stagnated within one form of work. I could have stayed
with those pictures, with writing calligraphy
for the rest of my life, make a bundle of money and
make zero money making films. In fact, I put everything
I have from the photography into the film. So it’s a kind of stupid because
there’s– money never plays in the equation. And so I think that’s
a decision I made. SPEAKER: It’s a
true labor of love. SHIRIN NESHAT: It is. And I stand behind it. And I will never be very rich. SPEAKER: You
mentioned the opera. Something that you said
that I really thought was interesting was
you said, “Sometimes the boundaries between Aida
and myself are blurred.” What do you mean by that? What’s your
relationship to Aida? SHIRIN NESHAT: Aida is the
story of an Ethiopian princess in exile in Egypt. And the director of
the music festival invited me because
Aida, just historically, has been highly problematic
opera for a lot of Middle Easterners because it’s the most
cliche and orientalist opera. And that sort of badly
stereotypes the Middle Eastern, even in the ancient times,
Egypt and Ethiopians, make them into this
very barbaric– and then the Westerners
are the glorified– it’s written by an
Italian composer, Verdi. And so he found it
very interesting that if I could take this– which was a huge task– this narrative and sort of maybe
a new reinterpretation of it, that somehow kept the
grandiose of the classical Aida and didn’t compromise
the value of it, but yet was able to address
the kind of cliche and sort of didn’t have the
elephants and the horses and the people painted
black walking– so I took three years. And I had to do it. It’s also very controversial. It was never done in this way. But it was completely
successful in the way that was really highly attended. But it was also
very controversial. SPEAKER: That sounds
like a huge undertaking, as are a lot of your films
now that you’re doing. You’re doing really
elaborate projects. And I want to turn back a little
bit to your work with film. One of the films or short
films that you started with was “Turbulent.” You went to women without men,
that you mentioned before. What’s sort of happening on
your path with film right now? And they have this undercurrent,
or at least Turbulent does, about music. And you talk about
the power of music. So you’re a visual artist
who is using music. SHIRIN NESHAT: Yeah, I
mean, I think, again, because so much of my work
is about the sociopolitical religious realities,
music brings with it something very gutteral,
very emotional, something that doesn’t need translation. I think that helps,
in a way, neutralize some of that political
content of my work. And because I think my work
is as much about existential, universal, timeless,
and emotional issues as it is about today’s realities
and political realities. And I just want
to take this point and just mention
that another reason that I go toward a very stylized
or surrealistic narrative– “Woman without Men” was based
on a magic realist novel– and the reason I
feel so comfortable with dreams and
surrealism is because it allows you to make
reference to reality, but yet also stay in another
place that sort of gives you some space from that. And at the current
film that I’m working, I think is the first time
I really talk about it, is called “Dreamland.” And it’s really,
in a summarize way, it’s about the
surrealistic novel that would be shot in the US
about Iranian people spying on Americans’ dreams. And it’s absurd. It’s a political satire. But it really is,
it’s institution, this kind of Iranian colony
that is the future of Trump doing with Iranian people. I would say refugee camp
full of Iranian people, but sort of oddly
and ironically, there is an institution
within this colony that it’s actually a
room for interpretation of American people’s dreams. And there’s a woman who,
every day, goes on the highway to a small little American town. And her job is secretly she goes
as a census worker door to door to people’s homes,
asking information. At the end, she says, and
what is your last dream? People say, dreams? Do we have to tell our dreams? Say, yes, it’s part of
the survey for Washington. So she’s a spy. But she carries their
photographs and their dreams back to that colony so they
can interpret the dream. So my idea, again, of
creating a narrative that there is symbolically
in an absolutely absurd and satirical
way it sort of critiques this tension between two
countries– the superpower who dominates the world
and the fanaticism that exists in the absurd
Iranian government. And that the humanity in
between the two parts– and so this is the
story we’re doing. And I’m hoping we
can shoot it in 2019. SPEAKER: Wow. Well, we look forward
to seeing that. And there are so many
dichotomies in your work, including this sort of play
with reality versus sort of these more magical,
fantastical sort of aesthetics that you even
bring into “Oum Kulthum.” And there is a sort of tension
between the beauty and also the undercurrent of what
you’re having to say. SHIRIN NESHAT: I think
you put your finger on absolutely the right thing. Every single thing
I’ve ever done is about the notion
of opposites. The paradoxical
men, women, east, west, mysticism, and violence. And “Woman Without Men” was the
orchard in the city of Tehran. I think that’s
the only way I can think in general about the
good and evil and all of that. And so I never see
anything in one way. SPEAKER: You were named
artist of the decade by “Huffington
Post” at one point. That’s a big deal. And you’ve received
a lot of awards and you’ve worked
on so many things. And I’m just curious,
at this point, what accomplishments
are you most proud of and what are you
interesting, every time somebody says nice thing about
me, I think, but, really? Because I always consider
myself a struggling artist. I think it’s a
good thing, maybe. And I everything that I do
is so hard to accomplish. And we work so hard, like
I work seven days a week. And so I never see myself
as a success story. And it always blows my mind when
people say flattering things. I even criticize my work
more than necessary because, not to be humble, but
I just see it that way, that it deserves criticism. So I’m very flattered when
people say nice things. SPEAKER: Well, there are a
lot of nice things to say. I think we should, at
this point, roll the clip. And then we can
open it up to Q&A. AUDIENCE: So I’m
saying, I’m from Egypt. And growing up, I always heard
about her sexual rendition as a rumor, not, like,
a confirmed fact. So I was wondering what do
you have to say about that, and whether the movie addresses
the issue at all or not. SHIRIN NESHAT: Yeah. I mean, I’m really
glad you brought that up because first
of all, every Egyptian you speak to has a different
explanation or impression and relationship to Oum Kulthum. So what I found, also, about
her sexual orientation, everyone said
something different. Some people say she absolutely
was in love with so-and-so. But she did eventually
marry her doctor. At the end, when she died,
she was married to him. And she adopted a son. And many people say
that she was absolutely working with men, but
in love with woman. And at the beginning we did
a lot of research about that. And we, indeed, there was a lot
of images and videos of her, really, the time that she
laughed a lot and seemed– because when she was performing,
she was always very rigid. The time that she was seem
most relaxed was around woman, you know. It seemed like she
really felt comfortable. Of course, it happens
for a lot of woman, just even if you’re not gay. But I think everything
hinted at the fact that for her conservative
environment that she lived, it was absolutely
out of the question that she could be open about it. But also the Egyptians
didn’t really wanted to devour her personal
life in that way, like the way we do
with celebrities here, which I really respected. Some people I talked to
said, it didn’t matter to us. Some people said,
oh, no, she was not. And some people
say, yes, she was. But in general, I find that
the status that she reached, it’s wildly different. You have Michael Jackson
here, I mean, his sexuality– like, the biggest American
icon as a pop artist. But you understand
that he really was devoured, in the way,
for his celebrity status. But Oum Kulthum, they
just loved her music. And it didn’t matter if she was
a woman or a man or gay or not. And that’s what I admired
about her and her relationship to her audience, that they
didn’t destroy her like the way we do. You know, Amy Winehouse,
Whitney Houston, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday. Every great artist
that we build up, we bring down because we
just– oh, she was very freaky. But in reality, like I said,
I’ve found that she has this very sacred place that you
just cannot take away from her. And people were really
the most religious, conservative community
just left her alone because they loved her. And I think that’s so rare. And it honestly is something
I took a lot of pride that we in the Middle
East have an artist in that level of
popularity where four million people went– it was one of the
largest funerals ever in the history of
Egypt, after Nasser, I think. In America, in the West,
you have never, ever seen this many people go for,
even for Michael Jackson, to a funeral. The artist just
never that popular. And in a way, it didn’t
matter her sexuality so much. I hope– long answers. SPEAKER: Any other
projects you would like to tell us about that are
forthcoming beyond the movie that will have to wait a
couple of years to see? SHIRIN NESHAT: Well,
the movie will also have that art component and
I’m working on some exhibition in relation to that. But it will be confirmed soon. So it will be both for
New York and Los Angeles. So hopefully it
will be out in 2019. SPEAKER: Well, we
look forward to it. SHIRIN NESHAT: But thank you
for spending your lunchtime instead of eating. SPEAKER: Thank you. SHIRIN NESHAT:
Really appreciate it. [APPLAUSE]

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