“I see my mother coming toward me in a desert landscape that obviously is Iran.”
Artist Shirin Neshat describes the dream depicted in her film Roja (2016), which is one of four collected works presented in her major exhibition “Land of Dreams” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto. “I’m always standing in the distance and trying to be reunited, and finally when I see her and I walk toward her, she pushes me away—I realize that it’s not my mother but the country that pushes me away.”
The Iranian–American artist masterfully captures the melancholy textures that arise as the result of exile, where the loss of a mother also means the loss of a motherland. But her major exhibition—which, alongside Roja, showcases Women of Allah (1993–97), Rapture (1999), and the eponymous Land of Dreams (2019)—moves beyond the liminal and seeks the universal. Composed entirely of black and white imagery, “Land of Dreams” is an exploration not only of the lands that shape reality but of that mysterious interior terrain.
Throughout the exhibition, Neshat constructs a visual language of opposing forces and elegantly undermines their positions. “There’s nothing that I’ve done, whether video or still photography, that is not based on some sort of opposition or duality.” Women of Allah provides an early example in a series of photos inspired by her first return to Iran since the Islamic Revolution, which make use of four visual elements (the gun, the veil, the text, and the gaze) to complicate their meanings. Sensuality and violence, power and fragility, reverence and scorn: the series explores the “paradoxical realities” of its subjects. Rapture invites us to reflect on how political realities produce gendered experiences of space by splitting the viewer’s attention between two concurrently playing videos.
Similarly, the exhibition further explores simultaneity in unfolding narratives shown on a two-channel video projection. The first video depicts an industrial factory Neshat describes as “oddly tucked in the side of a mountain—very Kafkaesque.” Inside, Iranian workers in white lab coats analyze and archive American dreams in “a kind of bizarre comedy about the obsession of the Iranian government with spying on American dreams.”
The second follows an Iranian woman who, disguised as an art student, travels through a dusty American town taking portraits of its inhabitants and asking them their dreams. “Those channel projections are also highlighting the notion of opposites,” says Neshat. Iran contrasts the U.S., dreams contrast reality, and “the viewer cannot escape the fact that, when they’re seated in front of these two channel projections, they’re faced with all forms of duality.”
Yet this duality is quietly eroded. Even the desert landscape of the American town quietly resembles Iran, and the woman increasingly identifies with the dreams she is told. In undermining this duality, this allegorical piece ultimately illuminates how a scrutinization of the other reveals a curious sameness.
“The more you talk to people of different backgrounds, the more you find that dreams cross borders—that, for most human beings, their dreams are a projection of their fears or anxieties,” says Neshat. “I was very interested, in this project, in what ultimately we have in common: a shared human experience.”
The work is accompanied by over 100 portraits taken by Neshat; despite their diversity, a continuity exists in the intimate solemnity of each portrait. “There’s such a strong sense of humanity in every single face, such a vulnerability,” says Neshat. “There’s something about this sense of fragility and vulnerability that I think is so powerful.” Ultimately, “Land of Dreams” brilliantly examines the impact of borders and those things that transcend them.