by Lisa Zeiger
“All I can see is the frame.”
–Robert Mitchum in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past
The art of Shirin Neshat is the pure, clear pool at the heart of a Persian garden. On its surface play fountains of poetry and music, films and visions. In its depths reside all the sequestered emotion, alluring ritual, and ambivalent traditions of the artist’s native Iran. Long gone from another country, Neshat exalts its beauty in the photographs, video installations and feature films she has been making since the early 1990s. To paraphrase Henry James, she is someone on whom nothing is lost, least of all the lessons and losses of her own life, in particular the chasm of her exile from Iran.
Neshat came to America as a high school student in 1975, living first in Los Angeles, then attending U.C. Berkeley where she earned an MFA in 1983. In the wake of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Neshat would not revisit her country until 1991, returning twice more to visit her family, until, in 1994, she was detained and interrogated at the airport, mistaken by authorities for a political dissident with the same name. She has never returned.
In 1999 Neshat’s work came under attack in the Iranian press. Thus, her videos and features set in Iran have been filmed elsewhere, from a school auditorium on the Lower East Side to Essaouira in Morocco, a location Neshat chose because it was there that her great influence, Orson Welles, filmed Othello.
Land of Dreams, first shown at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, and now, until February 27th, 2021, at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea, is Neshat’s first film and photographic project set in America. An American citizen since 1983, Neshat preserves the stranger’s clarity of perspective; the mixed blessing of all outsiders. Forty-five years is a long time to long for what has been lost, or snatched away. Persia perfumes Neshat’s entire oeuvre with memories too beautiful, too passionately loved to ever put away.
Land of Dreams is nevertheless a resolute portrait of where Neshat lives now. Her inquiring eye has come at last to take a long look at America. But Iran is with her still, sub rosa. “We drove across the country to search for a landscape that at once looked like Iran and America’s Southwest.” And, Land of Dreams, about the working-class inhabitants of New Mexico, mysteriously interlocks with a second film, The Colony, about a clandestine Iranian think tank lodged in the desert. Shown alongside Land of Dreams on a split screen, The Colony slowly reveals esoteric studies the Iranians are making of the local population. We come to learn their project’s content and methods, but its underlying purpose remains cryptic.
Filmed in black and white outside Albuquerque, Land of Dreams delves the inner lives of American citizens and migrants of every race and national origin. All, regardless of legal status, are caught in the garish headlights of the Trump era, now, thankfully, past its tawdry twilight.
Shirin’s alter ego, Simin, is a young Iranian photographer taking a solitary road trip through the Southwest. With calculated shyness, Simin knocks on strangers’ doors, meeting householders who permit her to photograph them in their homes.
The dwellings Simin visits range from the elaborately decorated domain of a kindly house-proud woman, to a shack with shattered windows where a young invalid lies sleeping, seemingly unable to wake up. Christian icons are clustered on a shelf above her head. Simin brings her camera invasively close to the face of her unconscious subject, snapping away at her helplessness.
To these sittings Simin appends a coda. She asks each stranger to recount their latest dream. One might quip that Simin stirs the melting pot, for she demands introspection of her subjects, a painful habit Americans avoid. Still, in plangent tones, her sitters describe their dreams, all of them ominous. A former soldier tells Simin, “This wasn’t a dream. It was a nightmare.” In it he sees the sun dying; a pitch-dark apocalypse, in which drops of black oil and grease rain down from the stricken sky.
The house-proud woman dreams of a home invasion, her collection of elephant figurines smashed by filthy urchins who slash her paintings and smear mud on the walls. Her dream ends with a boy in rags raising her figure of the Madonna high above his head and dropping it violently on the floor.
In another house, Simin meets a Navajo woman who mourns in dreams her confiscated native religion, torn from her by Christians who scream at her, “it is for your own good!”
In the decrepit shack, the invalid sleeps on; her dreams sealed in the kingdom of her head.
Shirin Neshat’s soundtracks are almost always of voices: skeins of speech, songs, or a few words repeated in long chants. In Land of Dreams we hear monologues without melody, a rhythmic rise and fall of American voices intoning unguarded, un-American litanies of sadness and dread. In New Mexico’s unbounded desert, looming with monoliths, the residents confide in Simin their dream-stories of private fears and mass destruction. Collective terrors surface from a netherworld tailor-made for America; the evil twin Jung called The Shadow. The catastrophic dreams recorded by Simin presage a bonfire of America’s official vanities: exceptionalism, optimism, justice, and democracy itself; all ploys poised to go up in smoke.
The Colony, which shares the screen and the character of Simin with Land of Dreams, is about an immense research institute devoted to recording and archiving the dreams of the local population. The Colony is hidden in a vast bunker within a jagged, towering rock formation. The only entrance is an incongruously small, modern metal door embedded in rock which Simin unlocks with her own set of keys, with blithe license to come and go. The door is puzzling, for it’s a dead giveaway of the human machinations beneath the cover of landscape.
Inside is a concatenation of intersecting metal staircases, tiers, and catwalks designed to disorient the huge battalion of workers. This irrational yet regimented space is, of course, Orwellian, but its configuration can be traced back to a much earlier carceral prototype. The Colony is a contemporary, corporate version of the Panopticon, the “enlightened” prison designed in 1791 by the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, its first exemplar built in New Delhi in 1817 and still a prison today.
Michel Foucault describes the Panopticon as a place where discipline is enforced not by the extreme corporal punishment of earlier eras, but by internal surveillance abetted by dehumanizing uniformity, which included the prisoners wearing masks. The Panopticon’s torture is psychic. An unseen guard in a central tower sees every prisoner, housed in tiers of cells inside a circular building, none of whom can see him. The inmates live, therefore, in ceaseless, agonizing uncertainty as to whether they are being watched.
Bentham’s alternative name for the Panopticon was “The Inspection-House,” signifying authoritarianism exercised, as it is today, by ever more ingenious forms of scrutiny. The single guard in the central tower is, in our time, supplanted by stigmatic medical evaluations, DNA swabs of offenders, mass facial recognition, and cellphones that listen in on our most private predilections, either to aid Government prosecutions or to proffer merchandise based on material hankerings overheard. These novel forms of surveillance are likely the comparatively innocent tip of an incalculable iceberg.
Foucault observes that in modern times, Bentham’s strategy of state power has taken an invisible but exponential step. He coins the term Panopticism, by which he means that the watcher ceases to be external to the watched. The guard has left the tower only to take up residence in the prisoner’s mind.
from Shirin Neshat’s The Colony (2019)
The Colony workers wear identical white lab coats, examining documents and photographs at desks in serried ranks extending to such length that we can barely see where they end. These workstations evince the madness of infinite replication, like the insanity of a single sentence typed a thousand times. In Kubrick’s movie The Shining, Jack Nicholson types “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” onto hundreds of sheets of paper, pretending to his wife that he is writing a novel. Her discovery of his “manuscript” is the movie’s true climax, a horror more disturbing than the visions of blood flooding the hotel corridors; or the murderous snowmobile chase through a frozen maze. Jack’s nonsensical document opens the portal to Hell.
The Colony’s workers diligently refrain from eye contact or expression, yet they view one another with vigilance from the bunker’s wealth of angles and vistas. The very architecture of the Colony makes each worker his brothers’ keeper, in a penal rather than charitable capacity. Colleague watches colleague, as in the former East Germany, where neighbors betrayed neighbors to the Stasi, the regime’s secret police.
Simin, as in Foucault’s theory of Panopticism, but with quite different motivations, unwittingly becomes a watcher trapped in the mind — and dreams — of another, namely her perpetually sleeping subject. The theme connecting Neshat’s paired films is the comeuppance of a spy who takes her vocation of trespass too far. Simin, not content with watching, seeks to cross into the country of another’s mind, that of the sleeping invalid, with whom she feels an inchoate connection. Simin cannot resist investigating this inkling of kinship, and there are consequences.
During some sort of drill with a siren going off in the bunker, Simin sneaks into its enormous file room. Hurriedly she tears out pages in Farsi from an ancient book about dreams, hiding them in her dossier. The pages detail interpretations and meanings matching the dreams of the sleeping invalid, one of them about a chameleon on a wall. In the stolen pages Simin reads something more; a warning:
“When and if the dream catcher enters the dream of another, she suffers a loss of identity. No punishment is necessary. The dream catcher will go mad.”
Because we never witness the sleeper recounting her dreams to Simin, we are led to speculate that Simin is both perpetrator and victim of an ethereal transmigration of her soul—or mingling?—into that of the sleeper. (When I double-checked the definition of “transmigration” as distinct from reincarnation, I was amused to learn that the word also refers to “departure from one’s homeland to live in another country.” An artist never strays too far from her work.)
An old Iranian official at the Colony, his demeanor and appearance that of a sage rather than a bureaucrat, confronts Simin with her theft of the pages. It is not the torn book which angers him, but the likelihood that his spy has impermissibly crossed a barrier:
“The dream catcher may never enter the dreamer’s dream. Do you understand? Leave.”
The metal door in the rock face opens, and Simin exits. At last, for a moment, the invalid opens her eyes. Simin drives away. The invalid goes back to sleep. Much has happened, but nothing has changed.
Land of Dreams charts the wane of America’s official fantasy of optimism through its devastating effect on individuals. Like refugees displaced yet stuck at home, Americans are sundered by losses of which they are barely conscious, except, perhaps, in dreams. Privacy, boundaries, and promises once honored are now routinely violated by government, corporations, and media; by mass voyeurism and surveillance; and last but not least, by individuals whose personal behavior apes that of institutional monstrosities. Consequently, we seek safety in watching life, instead of living it.
Unlike the true refugee, in shock from sudden coup or exile, our rights have seeped away too slowly for us to care. Revolutions arise from outrages; whereas institutional malevolence in America, carried out at a conniving, glacial pace, leads to resignation and eventual acceptance.
Shirin Neshat is an artist and an isthmus, connecting two opposing cultures, each with borders that appear impassable. To cross over takes an artist with vision and verve—and the emigre’s talent for trespass. Land of Dreams is a moving picture, in both senses of this oldest name for cinema.
Lisa Zeiger was born in 1957 in Los Angeles. She graduated from Barnard College, and Columbia Law School, and earned a B.Dip in 19th and 20th century decorative arts from the University of Glasgow. Since 1990 she has been widely published in British and American art magazines, as well as in books on the artist Rosemarie Trockel. Lisa is the former Decorative Arts Editor of NEST Magazine; her blog on art, design, and literature is bookandroom.com.