Installation view of SHIRIN NESHAT’s Illusions & Mirrors, 2013, black-and-white digital video with sound: 13 min 22 sec, at “Dreamers,” National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), Melbourne, 2019–20. Photo by Tom Ross. Courtesy NGV.

Subconscious Desires and fears in Shirin Neshat’s “Dreamers”

National Gallery of Victoria
Australia Iran USA

Shirin Neshat’s solo exhibition “Dreamers” at the National Gallery of Victoria delved into subconscious desires and fears that lurk beneath the surface of the waking world. Hidden upstairs, away from blockbuster exhibitions of male artists KAWS, Keith Haring, and Jean Michel Basquiat, “Dreamers” offered a quiet moment of contemplation on Neshat’s experiences as an Islamic woman in exile, speaking to universal sentiments of displacement. 

Caught between two worlds, the artist left Iran in 1975 as a teenager to study in the United States, where she still lives today. When visiting her homeland many years later, Neshat was struck by the dramatic political shifts and gender inequality following the 1979 Revolution. Compelled to create art in protest of this repression, she was subsequently banned from Iran. Continuing her distinct line of practice, Neshat exposes some of the poignant anxieties of this physical segregation through the black and white films that make up the “Dreamers” trilogy, with each featuring a female protagonist dressed in black traversing illusionary landscapes. The artist undermines the truth-quality of these different non-linear narratives through Surrealist techniques that play with slow-motion and obscured vision—including Man Ray’s use of a glass pane to distort the field of view. The video installations are shown in a series of darkened spaces accompanied by haunting soundtracks. Visual cues and symbolism are favored over dialogue to subtly convey meaning, blurring boundaries between fantasy and reality. 

SHIRIN NESHAT, Sarah, 2016, still from single-channel video installation: 12 min 55 sec. Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York / Brussels.

Visitors were first greeted by Sarah (2016), starring Iranian artist Sara Issakharian who inspired the title. Walking through an ethereal forest, Sarah encounters strange objects and occurrences, including locks of hair strewn across the ground, a brick fireplace, and a procession of armed soldiers in unidentifiable uniforms trailed by veiled women in black. She watches the figures pass from behind a tree, observing these gestures of violence and mourning from a distance—reminiscent of the changed Iran Neshat returned to post-Revolution. The film ends with Sarah peering into a lake at her submerged self slowly drowning, confronting underlying struggles associated with cultural displacement, and death itself.

SHIRIN NESHAT, Illusions & Mirrors, 2013, still from black-and-white digital video with sound: 13 min 22 sec. Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York / Brussels.

The second film, Illusions and Mirrors (2013), features actress Natalie Portman following a shadowy figure across a beach into a derelict mansion, beckoning her character to confront the recesses of her mind. While never catching up to the stranger, Portman instead meets her alter-ego inside the building. Sighting this nonsensical double of herself quickly turns the dream into a nightmare. She eventually escapes outside to the safety of the beach. The choice to cast Portman speaks to wider insecurities, lacking the cultural specificity of the other films.

The final film Roja (2016) stems from Neshat’s dreams grappling with her conflicted sense of cultural identity. Played by a young Iranian-American female writer Roja Heydarpour, the story begins with Roja sitting in a theatre—the odd one out among a predominately Caucasian audience—watching a man sing The Carnival is Over (1967) by The Seekers. The song’s lyrics were adapted from a traditional Russian folk song about a Cossack rebellion leader throwing his Persian princess lover into the sea. Neshat’s reference to this folklore subtly highlights the historical exoticization and oppression of Persian women across cultures. On stage, the singer pauses his performance to single out Roja, accusing her of being a liar. Fleeing outside, Roja runs through a rocky desert towards the seemingly safe embrace of an older robed Iranian woman. However, the motherly figure pushes Roja skywards as she approaches, disowning her. Not welcomed anywhere, in the air Roja is freed from the weighted realities of geographic borders. 

SHIRIN NESHAT, Roja, 2016, still from single-channel video installation: 17 min 15 sec. Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York / Brussels.

Collectively, Neshat’s dreams become not only a space of vulnerability and confrontation, but also a means of escape, offering a glimpse of the complex psychological instabilities of alienation, of being neither here nor there.

Shirin Neshat’s “Dreamers” was scheduled to be on view at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, until April, 19, 2020. Please check the exhibition web page for up-to-date information in light of Covid-19.

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