Shahbazi, ‘Large Jar’, New York, 2003, c-print,
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.
is currently featured in Flash Art:
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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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Documentary photography has been a popular form judging
by the big exhibitions of the last few years such as Documenta
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
So how’s New York been treating you?
SS: [laughs] You’ve heard the story, I guess!
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!
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.
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.
Do you like the gesture of taking photographs?
SS: No! [laughs]
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.
Robecchi is Managing Editor of Flash Art.