Swiss Institute - Contemporary Art
exhibitions news
NOVEMBER 13 - DEC 20, 2003

Shirana Shahbazi, ‘Large Jar’, New York, 2003, c-print, installation view

The current artist in residence at the Zurich Atelier in New York, Iranian born Shahbazi presents a photograph of tonal subtlety and grace. Taken in the Korean galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Shahbazi's print exploits the uninspiring hues of the New Era building's lobby. Shahbazi contrasts the multi-layered reflection of glass both real and represented with the regal opacity of the white Koran jar, the subject of the composition.

Shahbazi is currently featured in Flash Art:

Shirana Shahbazi
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Michele Robecchi

Born in tehran in 1974, Shirana Shahbazi moved to Germany when she was eleven. She studied photography in Dortmund before moving to Zurich where she attended the Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst. After producing two successful series, “Goftare Nik/Good Words” (1998-2003) and “The Garden” (2002), Shahbazi’s career took a further step forward in 2002 when she was shortlisted for the London Citibank Prize along with safer bets Thomas Ruff and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Shahbazi won the prize out of the blue, an unexpected event that suddenly exposed her work to major press coverage and led to her participation in the last Venice Biennale.
In Venice, Shahbazi showed The Annunciation, a massive wall painting depicting several faces of a young woman, possibly a Madonna. The work was seen as a departure for her, but in reality her involvement with painting goes back a long way. For a solo show at the Bonner Kunstverein last year Shahbazi did a wall painting, and wondered for a viewerwhat it would be like to be completely surrounded by such a work. When Francesco Bonami invited her to the Biennale, she thought it would be a good opportunity to try painting the whole room with the help of a team of Iranian painters she had been working with for four years.
Flash Art spoke with Shahbazi in New York, where she is living for six months as the recipient of Atelier Zurich grant.
Michele Robecchi: How did you come to the Zoroastrian creed of “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds” for the “Goftare Nik/Good Words” series?
Shirana Shahbazi: The title didn’t come before the work was made. Titles are always the very last thing I get to! But while making that work I was very much thinking about representing Iranian culture. I didn’t want to do a work that was of interest in Europe but not in Iran, but it was a difficult aspiration to realize because of the different circumstances — different things are of interest. When people in Iran see my ordinary pictures of Tehran they are not interested because they know them very well. So I was thinking of our visual heritage and what kind of representation we have in Iran, and it is mostly carpets, mosaics, miniatures, press and documentary photography, and propaganda paintings. I was trying to analyze these to find out what they have in common. Miniatures are about big themes such as love or war or about a king — it’s always about big, dramatic subjects. With the mosaics it’s about eternity and God and vast spaces. The political propaganda paintings mostly show martyrs. It’s very precisely done but at the same time it is a very fragile way of producing. I have found that we don’t represent things that are normal — just an ordinary portrait, a mountain, and so forth. If a mountain is depicted there then it has to be the highest, the most beautiful, important mountain. Then I went through oral culture, and it is the same. The Zoroastrian religion is part of ancient Iranian culture. “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds” is such a grand title! In its immodest attitude it went very well with what I had been looking at. So I tried to take on a little of this idea of things being big, nice, colorful, and yet ordinary at the same time — replacing the subjects.

MR: So you were updating this tradition in a way?
SS: Yes, I wanted to keep the attitudes but change the subjects and see what happens, to see whether people can find sense in looking at it.

MR: How was the work received in Iran?
SS: It was interesting to compare how it was received in Europe and in Iran. I was thinking of the most simple situation I could take a picture of, but the knowledge that something is made in Iran seems to be enough in many European circumstances to make it very special. A woman walking in a park can become a big thing! These big discussions about West and East came up, and I was like, “Come on, it’s somebody walking in a park — what do you expect when there are 12 million people living in the city?” But they were writing about this guy “wearing western clothes” — and they were just jeans! It had never crossed my mind that people would wear anything else in a city with so many people living there. So I was very much surprised how that was perceived. And it was interesting in Iran. At the beginning people didn’t know what it was. I had many arguments because people were saying that people in Europe like my work just because it’s of Iran, and that’s it. “You’re exoticizing our country and making your profits from it.” I was showing my work to a gallerist in Iran, and she liked it, but she said she couldn’t show it because it was of no commercial interest. But then having received the Citibank Prize and being part of the Biennale and things, there were reasons to have a show in Iran. The more attention I get, the more people think there must be something important about the work! [laughs]

MR: And yet you are not exploiting the fact that you are from Iran, as perhaps some other artists seem to do.
SS: I try not to, but I’m not sure you can get away from it. It’s very hard. Most of the people who have written about my work removed themselves from the work as viewers. It is certainly about how the viewer is confronted with a picture that seems familiar in a way and yet at the same time is different. But then you couldn’t point out those differences.
I’m not doing typical Iranian photography. It’s much more like German photography or European photography. But people still put me under this Iranian banner. We have strange discussions, and it’s crazy how you can’t escape from those terms. And when I do something else, such as in the Biennale, people are surprised to discover an Iranian woman dealing with a subject such as the Madonna. Presumably either the subject was meant to be that I’m Iranian or that I’m trying not to be, which seems ridiculous to me. I wasn’t trying to define my roots or my identity or whatever because I am very clear about it and I don’t need to find any explanations! I don’t have any problems living between borders and so on. I feel very comfortable. Then people come with their difficulties trying to define who you are, where your work comes from, or why they should pay attention to it — and they get into trouble because they can’t put you in very simple terms. East vs. West is very simplistic. The wider the framework (the context) gets, the more simple the slogans tend to become.

MR: Do these aspects concern you when making your work?
SS: They didn’t at the beginning, but they do now. I have become aware of this by observing how my work is received, interpreted, and spoken about. I was quite naïve when I started that work. I thought that by making such a work I could clean up the stupid discussions about my country. It seems it is not that easy! Again and again one picture of mine is mentioned in all of the articles — one with a woman sitting there smoking. It seems to strike people as a very touching or moving matter that a woman with a veil should be smoking. I wasn’t aware of how touching it could be for a Westerner to see that. To me it is completely normal.

MR: Do you think that the success of Shirin Neshat has brought advantages or has it mostly resulted in side effects such as the ones you have just been describing?
SS: What is funny is that many people who like my work came up with the argument that my work is the exact opposite of Shirin Neshat, “and that’s why we like it!”
I have been following her work and her career very closely. I have to. When the book Not Without My Daughter came out, I had to read it because everybody wanted to talk about it with me. I recently went to two Shirin Neshat lectures, and I don’t know if it came through her success or if her success was also enhanced by the fact that there was a big ‘Iran boom,’ but there are many exhibitions in which I am invited to partake such as “Iranian photographers in Spain” or “Iranian artists in Berlin.” I don’t take part in every single one because I am trying to stay outside this movement. This is also a significant factor in why I really changed my subjects. Iran is only one level of the work, and there are many other things about it that are much more about photography and how you put pictures together and how you can read pictures, the responsibility of the viewer, and so on. So I’m irritating people dealing with my work, but the reason is that I don’t want to get stuck in these terminologies. Shirin Neshat is a phenomenon, and I don’t think she does it on purpose, but what she is doing is not good for our country — in a way it’s very American and it goes very well with what you can see on CNN about Iran. We were trying to ask her questions to find out what she thinks about these things. She said that she has been misinterpreted and that people take out the personal aspects of her work (which is true) and that she is taken as some kind of ‘voice’ for Iran, which of course she is not. Iran is not a typical Islamic country, and I wouldn’t dare talk about Islamic society because it’s huge, complicated, and difficult. It’s easy to put 20 countries together and say, “This is about the Islamic woman.” And I think Shirin Neshat was definitely right when she said that if you take out the personal aspects of the work then it is meaningless. It certainly is, but people do actually do that, and she doesn’t react to it. That’s why I think her work is highly arguable — and I don’t see how she takes responsibility for it.

MR: Documentary photography has been a popular form judging by the big exhibitions of the last few years such as Documenta 11.
SS: I actually appreciated Documenta 11 itself. I was disappointed by the photography I saw there, though. The new photography I saw was like: “Here are the streets of Nigeria” and “These are black people on buses.” When I started doing my pictures I absolutely wanted to be a journalist, but then I changed my mind quite fast. Ten years later you see that kind of picture coming back and you say, “Okay, are people making the same mistake, or did I understand something wrong?” At the end of the ’90s it was clear that nobody was telling any kind of truth with photography, even if it looked like they were. But then it seems that the lack of that impression is too hard to take, so people come up again with those kinds of pictures. Truth is a difficult term anyway, and to talk about ‘the truth’ with a painting is difficult, just as it is with photography. Many aspects of a picture get forgotten or overlooked. In a picture you might see a woman with a veil, but you can also see many other things. How you read a picture is very complex, and that’s the challenge of photography.

MR: So how’s New York been treating you?
SS: [laughs] You’ve heard the story, I guess!

MR: I heard that you applied for a residency but that it was very difficult for you to get a visa to go there.
SS: Yes, I missed the first six months. And as soon as I leave I lose my visa, a visa that I have waited nine months to get. People were saying to me that if I wasn’t welcome there then maybe I wouldn’t want to go there. It’s very easy to say that so long as you have a Swiss or an Italian passport. If I want to wait until I am welcome in a country, I could be waiting for a long time. Two months ago I got a German passport, so I’m a German artist right now! [laughs] I came with very divided emotions. At the airport they took my fingerprint, and then I had to go back thirty days later to prove that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing here. That was very funny. How do you explain to people that you’re just going around looking at exhibitions? Anyway, I’m very much enjoying it. And I’m very far away from Europe and from all this tiring administration things I wasn’t expecting after Citibank and so on. I have had difficulty concentrating on my work, so I am having a very quiet, very inspiring time here. It could be anywhere, but in New York it’s very easy — you don’t really ever get bored because there are so many things happening and you can just walk around. London was, I think, the only city I have been to where it didn’t matter where I come from. I could live in Germany for a hundred years and people would continue to treat me as somebody who comes from somewhere else. Here it is different and it’s a good city to be in. But I am trying to be as arrogant with them as they were with me! It’s not love at first sight!

MR: Have you been influenced by the German photographers who have risen to prominence during the ’90s?
SS: Yes, of course! I was influenced by the people I studied with in Germany, and we were more or less influenced by the same artists. We were all following Andreas Gursky, Thomas Strüth, and other photographers. But I was also influenced by the American photographers of the ’70s, especially Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams. German photography from the late ’80s and ’90s and American photography from the ’70s were significant for me.

MR: Would you consider yourself to be a political artist?
SS: People have been asking me things such as, “What do you think about the position of women in Iran?” I tell them that this is taking it a bit too far, leading them to suggest that I don’t have a political opinion! But of course I have political opinions. There is one project, called Shahrzad that involves two friends of mine — a graphic designer and a writer — in which we bring out a little brochure that is very clearly politically influenced. I consider myself a political person, but I don’t know if I would consider myself a political artist — there are other people who deal with the subject more openly.

MR: Do you like the gesture of taking photographs?
SS: No! [laughs]

MR: Almost every photographer says they don’t. How come?
SS: I don’t know. There is this image of the cool photographer who never hesitates! You have to be the hero in every situation and can’t be afraid of anything — you have to be able to talk with everybody. You’re so dependent on other people’s help and presence and help and this needs a lot of energy and of organization. I would love to freeze everything and just go and take my pictures. You always have to explain what you’re doing and you expose yourself very much. I was recently at a lecture given by Rineke Dijkstra and she said the same — she was so afraid at the beginning when taking portraits of people that she would always take them from behind. This is exactly what I end up doing sometimes. Maybe you just get used to it, but I don’t like it at all.

Michele Robecchi is Managing Editor of Flash Art.