Focusing on the world’s history and mythology, as well as on current events, Shirin Neshat combines poetic visuals and text in artworks that bear witness to the capacity of human beings to simultaneously build and destroy. Individualism, gender, collective memory and politics are the urgent subjects that she explores in works whose scope, while rooted in her home country of Iran, extend well beyond its borders. Using photography, calligraphy, poetry and cinema, she speaks of liberties and civil rights as well as of loss and hidden stories in a world governed by taboos. Neshat’s work brings together contradictory subjects and approaches as a method for deciphering and understanding a mutating culture and for exposing hypocrisy.
Comprised of photographs showing the faces of the living and the labeled feet of the dead, the installation Our House Is on Fire began in Egypt after the 2011 revolution. This large photographic installation is comprised of monumental portraits of a society where love and violence are part of people’s aspirations. In order to complete this work, which was initially commissioned by the Rauschenberg Foundation, Neshat spent time with individuals who had lost family members during the 2011 revolution. Photographing her subjects while they recalled their personal tragedies, Neshat responded to the deception and loss of the so-called Arab Spring. The larger-than-life wrinkles and creases of those photographed merge with handwritten lines — including those from A Cry, by Iranian revolutionary poet Mehdi Akhavan-Sales — connecting local and international events to the photographed skin and personal stories of those on which these lines are inscribed. The gaze of the portraits thus inscribes the memory of personal stories lost in a larger human tragedy.