Shirin Neshat, Land of Dreams @Gladstone

JTF (just the facts): A total of 111 black and white photographs , framed in black and unmatted, and hung against grey walls in the front and back gallery spaces. All of the works are digital c-prints with ink and acrylic paint, made in 2019. Physical sizes are either roughly 14×10, 24×16, 36×24, 47×31, or 81×54 inches, and all of the prints are available in editions of 5+2AP.

The show also includes a two-channel video installation in a small interior gallery space. The work is monochrome HD video, 23 minutes 58 seconds, made in 2019. It is available in an edition of 6+1AP.

(Installation and detail shots, as well as film stills, below.)

Comments/Context: While Shirin Neshat has consistently explored the contours of film and video in the past decade or two, she always seems to return to photographic portraiture as a common thread that ties her various projects together. The Iranian-born artist has generally made work exploring the societal freedoms and oppressions in her home country (as in her 1993-1997 series the Women of Allah), but has also ventured more widely in the larger Arab world, most recently in Egypt, both before and after the uprisings of the Arab Spring (as in her 2012 series The Book of Kings), bringing facets of religion, gender, and violence further into her conceptual mix. Stylistically, her portrait sitters have often been set against dark studio backgrounds, with their faces then covered with intricate hand-drawn Islamic calligraphy and illustrations, bringing layers of poetry and protest to the otherwise anonymous faces.

Neshat’s newest project, Land of Dreams, offers a noticeable departure from her previous efforts, in that for the first time, she turns her attention to contemporary America. The structure of the project is relatively straightforward. In 2019, Neshat traveled to New Mexico and made portraits of a wide variety of local residents, gathering subjects from many walks of life, including old and young, male and female, and a cross section of races, including the large Native American and Hispanic populations. The resulting images provide a collective portrait of the diversity of the region, at an anxious time when the divisions and differences among us were being amplified by many, including our own government.

Neshat doesn’t address these heightened tensions directly in these photographs, but instead orients the discussion toward the more universal (and open-ended) subject of dreams. She asked each sitter about his or her dreams, which Neshat later transcribed, translated into Farsi, and turned into black calligraphic lettering and elaborate illustrations that decorate the portraits (her sitters’ names, birth years, and places of birth were similarly transformed and painted in white on the bottom of many of the images). The result is set of photographs that capture both visual likenesses as well as swirls of abstract hopes, dreams, fears, and anxieties.

The portraits have been installed salon style in a single room, the images hung in dense clusters that cover three of the four walls of the spacious gallery space, and the photographs themselves have been printed in various sizes, ranging from quite small to larger than life-sized. The overall effect is to amplify the sense of diversity in the aggregate community, of all kinds of people brought together in one multi-layered and interconnected group. Cowboy hats, beards, tattoos, weathered faces, crossed arms, and penetrating stares offer us a few clues to particular personalities, but mostly Neshat has looked closely at each individual, waiting for those fleeting moments when authenticity overcomes wariness when posing for a stranger.

Neshat’s methodical overpainting transforms these portraits from straightforward, and in some cases darkly melancholy, likenesses into something more fanciful, like pages from an ancient illuminated manuscript. The tiny script also forces the viewer to come in much closer, making the interactions much more personal, even in such a large space. And even if we can’t read Farsi (and I can’t), we can imagine the dreams as they spill out in words onto the surrounding space, punctuated by expressive birds, angels, leafy trees, multi-animal hybrids, dragons, and other mystifying allegorical incidents. The click of recognition comes when we see that the minds of ordinary folks like ourselves are filled with a cacophonous mix of thoughts and wanderings.

When seen together, the portraits become a kind of archive, and Neshat builds on this idea in her related two-channel video. On one side, Neshat essentially crafts a dramatized or fictionalized version of her own story – a young female “art student” drives around the dusty hills of New Mexico knocking on the doors of residents and asking them if she can take their portrait. In a handful of separate episodes, we follow along as Simin is warily welcomed inside, chats with the person, takes their photograph, and then shyly asks if they might also tell her about their latest dream “for her art project”. Surprisingly, the encounters quickly turn from aloof and formal to something more personal, as the dreams are recounted as haunting interior voiceovers.

On the other side of the video installation, Neshat upends the innocence of this setup, casting Simin as an Iranian spy who is capturing and cataloging portraits and dreams of the residents for some unknown purpose. She is largely seen working inside a hidden underground facility buried in the New Mexico desert, where lab coated people hustle around high tech facilities processing the dreams. Simin becomes drawn into one particular woman’s dream, actually briefly stepping into the interior action while trying to understand it, but she is soon harshly reprimanded by her superior for breaking protocol. The story ends with her leaving the facility and heading back out in the desert, presumably in search of additional truths.

When the two video narratives are interleaved, and then supported by the many photographic portraits nearby, the overall outcome is a rich, but quietly sensitive tapestry of the place and its inhabitants. While Richard Avedon set his subjects from the American West against a blinding white background, which made every detail and imperfection visible, Neshat has essentially reversed that aesthetic, enveloping her sitters in supportive darkness and encouraging us to see them as more than just their surfaces. Their dreams add to this complexity, expanding what we can see (or imagine) rather than reducing it.

Neshat’s Land of Dreams of course operates on both specific individual and broader national levels, tapping into the powerful myth making and inherent optimism of the American Dream. But in a time of harsh divisiveness, it chooses to circle back to celebrating commonality and communication, and the shared hopes that brought every one of these people and their families to America, either recently or generations ago. In each face Neshat has documented, we see the very real lines of struggle and hardship, but when that pattern is repeated across all different kinds of Americans, and embellished by both their aspirations and their fears, it’s clear that our similarities far outweigh our differences. Perhaps we needed the perspective of a perceptive outsider like Neshat, applying her own learnings from a lifetime of wrestling with Middle Eastern divisions, to remind us that the wellspring of our shared American experience still runs deep.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $15000 and $85000, based on size. Neshat’s prints are regularly available in the secondary markets, particularly I Am Its Secret (edition of 250). Recent prices at auction have ranged from roughly $3000 to $115000.

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