Shirin Neshat, Our House is on Fire @Rauschenberg Foundation Project Space

JTF (just the facts): A total of 22 large scale color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and a smaller area on the second floor. All of the works are digital c-prints and ink from the series Our House is on Fire, made in 2013. Physical sizes are 62×40 for the vertical portraits, 60×48 for the feet, and 57×85 for the wider images of hands/feet; all of the prints are available in editions of 5+2AP.

The show also includes 3 prints from The Book of Kings series, ink and acrylic on LE gelatin silver prints, framed in white and matted, and made in 2013. These prints are each sized 12×14; no edition information was available. Finally, there are two limited edition pigment prints from the Our House is on Fire series on view, framed in black and matted, and made in 2013. These prints are sized 24×16 and proceeds from the sale of these works will benefit an Egyptian human rights organization. The upstairs installation also features the poem A Cry by Mehdi Akhavan Sales. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Following up on the ardent Arab Spring patriotism of her previous body of work, The Book of Kings, Shirin Neshat’s newest series traces the more painful personal consequences of the failed revolution in Egypt. Commissioned by the Rauschenberg Foundation as part of its One-to-One program, Neshat traveled to Cairo and made intimate, large scale portraits that capture the losses felt by the population. Seen together, it is a deep and penetrating investigation of mourning, and of the searing memories that linger on in the aftermath of conflict.

Nearly all of Neshat’s subjects are community elders, with weathered, wrinkled faces that have already endured the hardships of passing years. Larger than life size faces peer out from the enshrouding darkness like ghosts, with furrowed brows and grim stares, a few punctuated by tears. Neshat’s signature overpainted calligraphy adorns their faces, but unlike the bold texts of the young passionate activists of her previous series, here she opts for tiny filigreed text, so small and faint that it becomes indecipherable, mixing together with the natural lines of aging like a transparent layer of dead skin that has yet to be sloughed off. Her palette has been consciously washed out, emptied and softened to be nearly monochrome and punctuated by the bright whiteness of individual whiskers. Each face tells a poignant tale of grief and perseverance.

Even more heart wrenching are the images of feet, corpses with toe tags sitting in the endless blackness. Like death mask portraiture or Andres Serrano’s morgue series, they force us to confront the immediacy of death, the blue sheen of the skin on a child’s stubby toes resonating with aching sadness. Neshat balances this nearly unbearable mournfulness with three images from The Book of Kings, where hands and fists are placed over hearts with passion and zeal, chests decorated with illuminated scenes from epic battles. It’s a smart contrast that brings together the spectrum of emotions at work.

This new series functions best as a kind of counterpoint to Neshat’s last body of work, the quiet weary pain of the old a foil to the whipped up ardor of the young. But while extra large face portraits have become annoyingly ubiquitous in contemporary photography, Neshat’s Egyptians are more than just rugged exoticism; they bravely tap into fresh wounds that have yet to heal. With each successive project, she is slowly documenting subtle facets of the emotional landscape of the modern Arab world, and unflinchingly showing us the universal human sentiments beyond the headlines.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a non-profit, museum-like location, the works on view are not overtly for sale. Shirin Neshat is represented in New York by Gladstone Gallery (here), so collectors interested in these works should likely follow up directly with the gallery. The two smaller limited edition prints are for sale on Artspace (here and here) for $4000 each. 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 $70000.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Triangle Books (here). Softcover, 200 x 200 mm, 40 pages, with 30 color photographs. Includes an essay by Hervé Bize in English ... Read on.

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