Shirin Neshat: Land of Dreams
On ViewGladstone Gallery
January 19 – February 27, 2021
Comprised of more than 100 photographs and a two-channel video installation, Land of Dreams is the New York premiere of Shirin Neshat’s latest body of work. The show marks a monumental conceptual and visual shift for the artist, whose repertoire has often looked back at her native Iran. Here, her explorations and camera are fixed on her adoptive home in the United States.
Neshat grew up in Iran, amidst the rise of radical Islam leading up to the Iranian Revolution in 1979. She emigrated in the 1970s to attend art school in California and has lived in the US ever since, making work that investigates how a country can be ideologically transformed in a brief period of time. The perpetual antagonism between the US and Iran gave way to the absurd and satirical narrative of Land of Dreams, which looks at ways in which Iranian and American society may not be as different as we assume they are. This is no surprise, as the work was conceived during the Trump era, when the rise of white supremacy and fanaticism in the US went from being under wraps and not as apparent, to becoming terrifyingly present and largely acknowledged as a component of reality.
The two-channel video installation is perhaps a mirror of these dystopian realities, ones that signal at the duality of existing between two countries and feeling like one never quite belongs to either. The titular video Land of Dreams (2019) follows a young Iranian art student, Simin, played by actress Sheila Vand and based on Neshat herself, as she travels across New Mexico to take portraits of people she encounters. Once the portrait is taken, Simin asks her subjects to recount their latest dreams to her. The viewers get to experience these recounted dreams through ominous voice-overs, with shots of dauntingly beautiful landscapes.
The second film in the exhibition, The Colony, plays right alongside and at the same time as Land of Dreams, and presents us with a dark twist in the narrative. The Colony reveals Simin, the same art student we see in the first video, as an Iranian spy, reporting and analyzing the dreams of her American subjects in an unsettlingly cold and factory-like dystopian bunker, hidden in the mountains. As the film progresses, we start seeing the protagonist emotionally identifying with her subjects’ dreams—the same ones recounted in the parallel video. What emerges is a look at the ways personal connections are sometimes used to bridge the divide between faceless organizations and the people they supposedly serve.
The choice of New Mexico as the home of this project is auspicious. Neshat chose it because of its diverse population: comprised of white Americans as well as African-American communities, a large Hispanic immigrant community, and Native American reservations. The location also offered sublime desert landscapes, ones that felt similar to the artist’s native Iran. The topology of the land plays an important role, serving as a backdrop to the surreal narrative we are watching and making it all the more dazzling, while also providing an eerie and unsettling atmosphere, forcing the viewer to question the narrative of the film.
The two-channel film installation at Gladstone runs alongside more than 100 portraits—embellished with illustrations and Farsi script detailing some of the subjects’ names and dreams. Similarly to Simin, Neshat went door-to-door and photographed people, asking them to recount the last dream they remembered. This resulted in an expansive study and presentation of New Mexico’s diverse racial and economic landscape—creating a portrait of what America looks like today. Combining Neshat’s unique artistic language with her documentary approach to portraiture, Land of Dreams is a surreal yet realistic lens into contemporary American culture during the Trump era.
Neshat is no stranger to finding herself in the narratives of her protagonists. In her film Looking for Oum Kulthum (2017), made in collaboration with Shoja Azari, Neshat explores her own plight as an Iranian woman artist and filmmaker living in exile while capturing the extraordinary life of the legendary Egyptian singer. Though their journeys were different, the film brings both artists together through the sacrifices and struggles women artists face, and the price they have to pay when daring to exist outside of the confines of male-dominated societies. Similarly, the experience of Simin may be based on that of Neshat’s. When the art student/spy undergoes the process of collecting people’s dreams and nightmares—ones that revolve around displacement, fear of violence, and abandonment—the protagonist begins to realize that some of these nightmares and dreams are similar to her own anxieties as a displaced person. This gets to the heart of one of the most important messages in this show: our dreams, nightmares, and anxieties are similar. They’re human, no matter the land or the nationality. But Land of Dreams is also a political satire revealing how citizens become victims of powerful regimes and systems of power.