Past Piccadilly Circus high street, with its glossy retail invitations to “buy three and only pay for two”, down a cobblestone lane and past the 19th-century facade of the Royal Academy of the Arts, you emerge on the serene gallery row that is Cork Street.
Here, standing alongside fine European brands and everything quintessentially British sits the Goodman Gallery: the newest addition to the Goodman Gallery family headquartered in Johannesburg. The gallery itself opens at street level through floor-to-ceiling glass walls: a transparency that invites gazes from all passing by. This is not how the rest of the neighbourhood grants access. A sense of exclusive entry pervades most of the surrounding spaces.
Fittingly, here is where Iranian storyteller Shirin Neshat’s first solo exhibition in London in 20 years can be found. A collage of over 60 portraits hung salon-style stare out onto the street from the ground floor of the exhibition space. On the lower level, two short films tell the story of these portraits.
The films follow a young researcher named Simin, played by actress Sheila Vand, who is based at a hidden Iranian research facility in New Mexico where people’s dreams are documented and interpreted.
We follow Simin as she drives from house to house, interviewing Americans from all walks of life about their latest dream. We then witness her reporting back to the research facility: an industrial, clinically dystopian space in sharp contrast to the sprawling desert landscape of Simin’s fieldwork.
The portraits we see hanging in the exhibition represent the same photographs Simin takes of her research interviewees in the film, only they are the portraits of real people living in New Mexico, taken by the artist as she travelled across the state recording people’s dreams.
Fiction and reality collide
The fictitious world of Land of Dreams and its secret Iranian facilities mirror the real-world journey of the artist. Neshat’s work uses ancient Iranian cultural practices of dream interpretation to gain a new understanding of America: its own mythical land of dreams.
The show is arresting. In Neshat’s characteristic classicism, all the imagery – including the films – are in black and white, but it is the pointed gaze of each person back at the camera that blurs the line between audience and subject.
There seems to be no particular ordering or categorising of images. Small portraits hang alongside large ones and some are set against a backdrop of handwritten text and illustration. We learn that this text is the story of the subject’s dream, written in Farsi.
Ways of knowing
In Islamic-Iranian culture, dreams are regarded as allegorical ways of knowing. Books, much like dictionaries, are arranged in alphabetical order, depicting and explaining visual narratives and motifs that appear in dreams.
This real-world practice gives both the fiction of Land of Dreams and its reality a heightened sense of significance, introducing a new way of seeing and understanding in a society heavily dominated by Western principles of truth as all things rational and quantifiable.
Neshat is no stranger to the blurring of dreams, reality and contrasts. These have governed her life and career.
Born in Iran in 1957, Neshat moved to the US in 1974 to further her studies. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 prevented her return to Iran, and it was only in 1990 that she was able to visit her home country.
That visit was a shock to her system. The Iran she had left behind as a teenager had been replaced by forces more repressive, conservative and theocratic. This experience catalysed Neshat’s use of photography, film and storytelling to reconcile the conflicts of culture and society she was experiencing.
With formative works such as Women of Allah, a photography series, and Women without Men – her directorial debut, which won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2009 – Neshat has grown into one of the strongest feminist voices in contemporary art. It is not surprising that she was awarded the Master of Photography at Photo London 2020.
Land of Dreams represents the first time the artist has shifted her gaze from Iran, Islam and gender to that of her new home in America and its own tensions.
The result is a natural movement from the artist as a gendered subject to sympathetic observer in a political moment that is seeing America under President Donald Trump morph into something similarly conservative to the Islamist Iran from which Neshat herself was once exiled. For an artist who has built a thriving career interrogating social politics of her homeland, this shift in gaze begs the question: “Why now?”
In an interview for a BBC Sounds podcast, Neshat explains:
“For the longest time I thought of doing a project that takes me back to America … I am someone conflicted between both nations who [is] cornered by both [Iran and America] … I didn’t want to make something that is very simplistic in terms of pointing fingers, but something that frames questions I have about both cultures. I think it’s important that at the end you find that the American and Iranian administrations are very similar in terms of their levels of tyranny, injustice and fanaticism.”
Considering this, Land of Dreams offers a portrait of individual Americans who express feelings of exile and entrapment in one of the US’s poorer, more diverse states. It is also a portrait of one place tossed and turned by forces greater than the individual, so much so that it renders each individual remarkably alike, to one another and to the viewer.
The dualities of difference and sameness, and of exile and belonging, are inescapable, just as it is difficult to divorce the present moment from the captured one.
Land of Dreams went on show at a moment in which the world was just beginning to understand the potential scale of what has now been declared a global pandemic: Covid-19.
As we isolate ourselves from each other and create new ways of living under restriction, the question evoked by Neshat’s work hits home a little closer than before: how might we relate to one another when we see we are not so different after all?