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CIRCA PRIZE: Erkan Affan interviews Shirin Neshat

Erkan Affan and Shirin Neshat discuss hope, her past collaboration with CIRCA and what she hopes to see for this year’s CIRCA PRIZE

For the III edition of the CIRCA PRIZE, in support of the next generation of creative talent globally, CIRCA has formed a special Curators’ Circle consisting of Erkan Affan, Nana Biamah-Ofosu, Vittoria de Franchis and Sooyoung Leam. The Circle will support the CIRCA PRIZE Jury by selecting a top 3 from the final shortlist of 30 artists, for the Jury to then decide an overall winner.

This year’s CIRCA PRIZE Jury consists of artists and collaborators including Sir Frank Bowling, Douglas Gordon, Anne Imhof, Michèle Lamy, Shirin Neshat, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Josef O’Connor, Olu Odukoya, Sir Norman Rosenthal and Nadya Tolokonnikova (Pussy Riot) who will collectively decide the winner of a £30,000 cash prize. Member of the Curators’ Circle, Erkan Affan, interviews Jury member Shirin Neshat on what hope means to her and what types of work she expects to see from this year’s submissions. 

[Erkan Affan]: Thank you for joining me Shirin, it’s an absolute pleasure to be having this conversation with you. Let’s first just start with, how are you, how are you doing today, I know you’re in New York at the moment so we’ve got a 5 hour difference between us.

[Shirin Neshat]: First of all, lovely talking to you and meeting you, very happy about that.

EA: So, you’re on the jury for this year’s CIRCA PRIZE alongside a number of other distinguished guests and artists and I have been given the pleasure of asking you a few questions that might just help some potential applicants with submitting works and give them an idea of the type of works that you’re hoping to see in the applications.

So I’ll start with this first question, it’s quite loaded, at least for me, which is a very interesting question: WHAT DOES MEAN HOPE TO YOU?

SN: First of all I had the great honour of working with CIRCA last year, it was just tremendous and I really support them and I think whatever they do is just fascinating and unique.

You know it’s funny because I always ask myself, because I make works that are extremely dark and often disturbing and violent but there is always this element of hope. So I think as a human being, my whole constitution is based on this duality between despair and hope and that somehow translates into my work because as we see difficult things happening in the world and to the environment, politically, you know, all kinds of issues and also on existential level, things that we face as human beings and are afraid of and you ask yourself then what is the meaning of this life and what is the purpose of existing and then yet you, you find a reason for continuing, a very positive outlook. And so, somehow in all my narratives, the stories I’m always telling, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. And I think, that’s the way to live, that’s the way I live, that I look for meaning and not hope on a superficial level but, find meaning even in struggles even questions and the state of despair, and there’s this aim for resolution in finding meaning and that’s hopeful.

EA: I agree with you totally, I think for hope to exist there has to be a state of hopelessness as well. There has to be a comparative point because in itself it’s a feeling therefore it’s subjective. I definitely see this resonating in your work and you know, the notions of despair and of grief, of exile, of distance, of transience, these are all points that one would tie to hopelessness but in order to even platform them and to give them the space in the first place to explore them, to show them, to engage with them is in itself a form of hope, because you’re not negating them, you’re acknowledging them, you’re accepting them and you’re sharing them with an audience.

SN: It’s so interesting that you say that because in times of crisis or grief or for example in Iran with WOMAN LIFE FREEDOM, in the really worst of crises, artists and culture and art become so important in terms of that spirit of hope. Because it seems even more necessary in the moments of grief and the moment of political crisis or whatnot.

EA: Yeah, I agree, definitely in terms of artists being the mediums of hope more so than anyone else can, they archive hope, they platform hope. The next question I’m going to ask you with a bit of a lighthearted intention behind it is WHAT WOULD YOU CREATE RIGHT NOW WITH £30,000? if this was awarded to you as a prize.

SN: Oh, that’s a lot of money actually. I think that any artist has ideas that really do depend on economy and that bit of money to make it reality. I mean, there are times when you have an idea, it’s just a matter of drawing, but there are ideas that really require, let’s say, a video or a project that is public, or you know, productions of some kind. If I had the £30,000 I would think about what kind of production I could do that normally I cannot do that really does require that funding. And I would personally go, make a video or something! Because I’m not a sculptor, but I would definitely use it towards a production that otherwise would not be possible to do as an artist.

EA: WHY DO YOU THINK PEOPLE SHOULD APPLY FOR THE CIRCA PRIZE THIS YEAR? Especially under the theme of hope. What do you think this can offer to the art world?

SN: I think the platform that CIRCA has established is so unique, it really crosses so many disciplines, it’s so much in the public domain. I think what Josef and his peers have established, it’s really one of a kind. And the theme of hope, I mean, I can’t think of any other more problematic period, I mean, there’s always issues around the world, but we are living in a very dark time, we are surrounded by tyranny, dictatorship, economic disasters, environmental disasters, war, disease, discrimination, racism and yet we’re emphasizing on culture and how the great role that culture plays in bringing hope to the citizens of the world and how through an artistic expression whether it’s music or theatre or a movie or a painting that you could inspire people, it could provoke people, it could mobilise people, it could energise people in thinking how artistic expression could play such a role in times of despair as we talked about earlier. So I think it’s a perfect theme, it’s a perfect title, for this round of applications and I’m very optimistic that they’re going to get some wonderful projects submitted.

EA: There’s something quite interesting about also having public displays of art under the theme of hope as well right? Because of course artworks will be screened across various different places around the world and to be able to publicly kind of get together and to see a piece that is resonating and centring on hope is something quite monumental in this reality that we live in at the moment as you said, we’re surrounded by so much tyranny, dictatorship, hardship and grief and despair so it almost feels like a albeit temporary but still a tonic of sort to help us mitigate that.

SN: And what’s great about this project and what CIRCA does is that it brings art to the street level and to the people. Although we come from very different cultures and ethnicities and religions but by showing work in Los Angeles, to London, South East Asia and people in the streets can experience it, it really touches on our humanity and the fact that look this is a project that you see for  a few minutes and you maybe don’t know much about art and it’s not something you can buy but it’s communicating something important and it touches you. That’s very profound and that’s very impactful. So the activist in me is in support of any project, any institution that brings art to the public domain in this degree.

EA: I totally agree with you and that’s also why I chose to be a part of the Curators’ Circle this year. I think that it allows us to move away from this elitist and you know, self-perpetuating cycle of echo chamber that the artworld can sometimes create. And I think, more than anything, sometimes we don’t need to criticize sometimes we just need to watch and listen.

SN: My collaboration with CIRCA was an image that I made back in 1994, that has been shown multiple times but the way it was presented at the Piccadilly Square and the way people experienced it, it was as if the image was just created for the first time and it was such a radically different experience even for me to see how the audience reacted to it and the way that the meaning was translated to the public on the street level in that scale, it was astonishing.


SN: I hope to see work that is less about telling us how things are, but really questioning. To create a work of art of any nature that really makes us think and question things for ourselves, that is open for interpretations. I don’t appreciate work too much that is very reductive and polemic or didactic. It’s a challenge, how to come up with concepts and ideas that can convey something very profound through a single image or a short video, whatever that can lead to this kind of open interpretation that I’m looking for but I don’t want someone to tell me how to think or to feel. But I want someone to provoke me, to think about something perhaps in a whole new way you know, and it could be something not political it could be something very personal, existential, emotional or it could be something political.I just want to have this possibility to think for myself, to have this level of mystery.

EA: There’s four minutes left so I’m going to wrap up and just say it’s been an absolute pleasure to have this short conversation.

SN: I thank CIRCA and Josef for this introduction and I really hope we stay in touch.

EA: Absolutely.