Shirin Neshat: Interview by Linda Weintraub - Excerpt from In the Making

Q: What was the first indication that you were likely to become a
recognized and respected artist?

SN: I haven’t really thought about this at all, maybe because I never really
dreamed or planned to become active or successful as an artist.  Everything has happened so spontaneously in my career that I have no explanation such as that.  In fact, particularly at the beginning, I anticipated that the attention will momentarily fade, that it wasn’t going to be a lasting experience.

Q: What were the circumstances surrounding your first exhibition?

SN: I was first invited by Franklin Furnace [in 1993] to make a solo exhibition.  This was part of their effort to highlight new artists and give them a full solo show. As you can imagine I was numb from having no previous exhibition, not even group exhibitions, to suddenly have a solo show.  I took their invitation very seriously and spent a year preparing a show.  It included photographs, video, and a film, all of which I had never experimented with before.  During the same time, Exit Art invited me to participate in their highly acclaimed exhibition called Fever..  I had minor visibility but it became an interesting experience nevertheless.

Q: What is the most significant exhibition you have had?

SN: My solo exhibition at Serpentine Gallery in 2000 was, in my mind, the most significant exhibition as it presented the Trilogy [Turbulent, Rapture and Fervor] together with Women of Allah series.  It was the first time that even I, myself, was able to see the work together in such a context.  Also, their perfectionist attitude toward the installation was just marvelous. I had never seen my films look better.  The catalogue was the best book produced about my work.  Finally, the audience was tremendous.  I had never seen such number and range of people show up for my work.  I was completely stimulated by the energy of this exhibition.  I will never forget the experience.

Q: What is the most significant sale you have had? 

SN: When the Whitney Museum of American Art purchased Rapture in 2000, I was very happy.  I have always felt that my films are like my children and I must make sure they find the right home.  So I was so relieved to pass it on to an important museum in New York.

Q: Is there someone, or some people, who promoted your career when you were still unknown?
were still unknown?

SN: Annina Nosei was very critical to my early career.  She was the first person in the commercial scene to recognize my work, take it seriously, and offer me a solo show at her gallery in New York.  I will never forget our friendship.  Then it was my friend and curator Octavio Zaya who at the earliest stage took notice of my work, wrote about it, and promoted it by including it in various international exhibitions.  I can think of numerous others who have been very critical in the development of my career.  They include Francesco Bonami (curator/critic), Dana Friis-Hansen (curator), Enwezor Okwui (curator), Paolo Curti (Italian dealer, the first person who bought my work) and many others.

Q: How does you work get marketed?

SN: My work is only marketed through dealers.  I work mainly with Barbara Gladstone Gallery.  Occasionally I work with Patrick Painter Gallery in Los Angeles.  My experience is, the less dealers you work with the easier it is. I have never shown work in Iran.  It’s not yet the right moment.  It won’t get approved by the government.  There is no museum or outlet there.
 
Q: What are your feelings about the commercial aspect of being an artist?

SN: It is a reality what any artist has to face.  Frankly, I don’t really think about it too much or do anything about it.  So far everything has happened outside of my control.  Also, the market has a logic of its own that I don’t understand or want to understand.  But I accept that commerce is one major aspect of being an artist today if you want to financially survive from your work.

Q: What is your relationship with your collectors? What does you work contribute to the life of a collector?

SN: I have become friends over the years with many of them.  I really appreciate their sincerity and support.  I never take people’s faith for granted. I am always very flattered when someone is willing to invest their money on my art. 

Q: How are the costs of producing your work allocated? 

SN: My films all have producers and I must keep a close eye on the budget and receipts.  Usually while we make films there is a production manager who takes charge of that type of things.  I get paid by the sale of my work and fees for any extra type of work.  My travels for exhibitions are usually covered by the host institutions.  I cover all my expenses such as rent, material, etc.

Q: What percentage of your income is earned by the sale of your art?

SN: Ninety-five percent of my income is from the sale of my art.

Q: Do you have a mortgage and health insurance? 

SN: Yes.

Q: Are these issues difficult for you?

SN: Not at the moment.

Q: Please describe your studio.  Who runs it?  What is the role of assistants?

SN: My studio is at my home.  I have made the largest and most beautiful room as my studio.  This room is very bare.  Nothing is on the walls.  It has only one long table in the middle for our meetings, a couple of desks, my file cabinet, my
 music, computer and lots of flowers.  I think the studio is where one should be able to meditate and be quiet.  I don’t have many assistants. I need the time to be alone in my studio, since I work always in collaboration with people when I make my films.  My one assistant who is an artist mainly does errands. I don’t have him do anything else at the studio.  But I must mention that the Barbara Gladstone Gallery takes care of most of my administrative work so I really don’t need a person to do such things at my studio.

Q: .Do you do anything now to enhance the value and appreciation of your
work in the future?  How do you assess the longevity of your career and
your reputation?

SN: No, I just work on my art.  It is my gallery that thinks about such issues.

Q: What role did school play in your preparation to become an artist?

SN: Hardly at all.  School for me was never a blossoming period.  I can’t entirely blame this on the school system.  I was not personally prepared for anything more than that.  In fact I ended up feeling like I had to reject my education to return to making of art.

 Q: How has your choice of a place to live and work affected your career?

SN: I have always decided to work at home because I have a child and it has made it easier for me to work at odd hours at home.  I have never had a conventional studio like most artists because of the nature of my work.  My studio is more like an office and a living room than a studio.  I often edit my films at home which makes it all so much easier than spending day and night at outside editing studios.

Q: Can you tell me more about how you are raising your child?

SN: I am raising a ten year-old son.  He is Korean/Iranian, but he doesn’t see many Koreans. He lives in a true melting-pot. He mostly sees Iranians and Americans and we live in Chinatown.  But he is very American.   He likes American values and he wants to make sure we are not ethnic with him.  He enjoys everything.  He has traveled a lot.  I want him to speak Farsi, but he is resisting.  All my friends are Iranian, so he is more integrated with Iranians.  He has a concept of where he is from and I am happy about that.  I want him to be proud to be Iranian even though he lives here.  I am a reminder of this other aspect of his heritage.  I want to keep the fire alive.

Q: What are some cultural differences between Americans and Iranians?

SN: There are subtle cultural differences and mannerisms in the way we deal with one another.  For Iranian people, others come first and then you.  Here, there is more emphasis on the individual.  We have the tradition of being overly accommodating.  Here there is always a boundary.  Places you can’t go over.  But being always with Iranians has its own problems.

Q: .What advice would you give the current generation of  aspiring artists?

SN: My only advice is to spend less time on thinking about success and put all the energy in making art itself.  Otherwise your relationship to your art changes.  It becomes less genuine and honest. Art should not be born from a pressure of becoming successful but something deeper.  This is always a danger and the cause for mediocrity in art.  If a great idea or art is born, everyone will come to it sooner or later.  This is a fact. 

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