To be an exile is to see the world through a double perspective, to live with a sense of being in two places at the same time.1 Since 2009 the Iranian artist Gelare Khoshgozaran (b.1986) has made Los Angeles her home, having left her country the year that protests broke out in remonstration at the manipulation of election results by the authoritarian regime. Her experimental films and videos render this double perspective, aptly, in more ways than one: they are materially disjunctive filmic translations of displacement, imperial legacies and the violence enforced by national borders, while also inviting their audiences to see like an exile – an act that is crucial to embodied understandings of contemporary migrations.
The dislocating effects of exile feature strongly in such films as Medina Wasl: Connecting Town (2018) and Royal Debris (2022). The former counterposes footage of the Californian landscape FIG.1 – including the desert, mountains and the Fort Irwin National Training Center FIG.2, which includes a simulation of a typical Iraqi village for training purposes – with voiceover from American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The juxtaposition of their impressions of Middle Eastern desert landscapes – the heat, dirt and smells of rotting flesh as well as the beauty – with images of the mostly unpopulated training complex generates an unsettling eeriness that alludes to a type of dual existence. This is compounded towards the end of the film, when Khoshgozaran attempts to align two different topological views of Iran: a Google Maps view of Shatt-al-Arab, on the southern border of Iraq and Iran, and fantastical (at least to a Western eye) images of Arabic architecture, the superimposition of images speaking to the disruptive legacies of imperial cartographies.
Similarly, Royal Debris incorporates Google Earth imagery to locate the Iranian Embassy buildings in Washington FIG.3 FIG.4. The film is a series of short chapters, using text and images, which allude to another kind of uncanny architectural body. The embassy buildings, shuttered since 1979 due to United States sanctions following the Iran hostage crisis symbolise ‘an elsewhere’ that has to be taken care of on American soil, regardless of outsourced wars.2 Unable to be sold or destroyed, the buildings’ maintenance costs are derived from rental income that contributes to but does not cover the Department of State’s expenses. Royal Debris shows how these buildings, which are subject to extraordinary legal stricture, are partially assimilated while decaying like intransigent corpses at the heart of empire. Despite both films’ stringent critiques of imperial geopolitical violence and the governance of borders, they also include moments of reprieve: a dance routine performed by Iranian soldiers during mandatory military service in Medina Wasl and a chamber music concert in Royal Debris.
Such flashes of respite also feature in two of the three films that comprise Khoshgozaran’s first solo exhibition in Europe, To Be the Author of One’s Own Travels, at Delfina Foundation, London (23rd June–6th August). The exhibition draws its title from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), as does one of the exhibited films FIG.5: a two-minute loop of a hand-edited extract from a faded 1939 animation of the novel, which is projected through two glass cube prisms that cast shadowy replications around the gallery. Khoshgozaran’s edit has reversed the narrative order of the original animation, which is now tinged red through degradation; instead of the gigantic Gulliver as paternalistic hero of his overseas colonial adventures, he ends up drowning in the ocean. Given the film’s brevity, the expanded cinema presentation acquires more resonance, its dispersal and gradual dissolution of the image suggesting the utopian demise of colonial trespass, the implicit subject of Swift’s novel. However, To Keep the Mountain at Bay FIG.6 and The Retreat FIG.7 signal a shift in Khoshgozaran’s work from critique towards habitations of exile that combine ideas of dislocation with the therapeutic. They multiply the double perspective to explore transnational solidarities between past and present ‘kinfolk’ and propose forms of belonging that are fragile and temporary yet necessary to ‘survivance’.3 As Khoshgozaran writes: ‘To be alienated and out of place is my home. Remaining an immigrant is my assimilation. I will make more exiles of myself with this new passport and all the borders it opens up for me’.4
To Keep the Mountain at Bay, shot on Super 8 film and digitised to video, is an ode to Etel Adnan (1925–2021), the Lebanese poet and painter who migrated from Paris to California in the 1950s in much more hospitable circumstances than those facing Khoshgozaran – for whom travel back to Iran is not an option. Adnan’s poetry, which conveys her love for the Californian landscape, particularly Mount Tamalpais in the north, gave Khoshgozaran solace while awaiting permanent residence in the United States. The film opens silently on a blue ocean, the titles citing Adnan’s words: ‘And I fell in love / With the immense blue eyes of the Pacific’. Khoshgozaran stands in the ocean, a strange, peaked mask wrapped around her head and face FIG.8, as she almost inaudibly reads from a book of Adnan’s poetry beneath the voiceovers, which include Adnan herself as well as the poets June Jordan and Nima Yooshij and fellow exile, media artist and scholar Emilia Yang reciting extracts of their work.
The film obliquely recalls Khoshgozaran’s MEN OF MY DREAMS FIG.9, which the artist loosely considers to be a prequel. However, whereas the earlier work featured short performative dream sequences in which Khoshgozaran wears cut-out masks of male heroes – poets, film-makers and activists, including her father and Edward Said – To Keep the Mountain at Bay traces transnational affinities between women. The sharp economies of their poetry encapsulate both longing and desire, feelings underscored by occasional Spanish intertitles musing on the notion of destierro (exile), which are translated only into Persian, as though in acknowledgment of affinity across difference. Fractures also appear in the imagery. As Khoshgozaran reads, an inverse reflection of the scene slowly scrolls upwards to obliterate her figure in a watery midline that both separates and unites the Rorschach-like mirroring. Later, there are manipulated and mirrored images of the Caucasus, the mountain range that straddles the borders of Europe and Asia. Shifts between colour and monochrome add to the perceptual dislocations in the film, while sequences of mirrored hands and what resemble sea creatures intertwine and morph across the divided midline as if forming new interspecies connections FIG.10.
By contrast, The Retreat is filmed in a more documentary-like way, albeit without grounding the sites in a narrative or focalising the various voices that muse on exile and political asylum on the audio. The twenty-minute film arose from a callout for participants to join an online ‘exile retreat’ in early 2023. Subsequently, three of the original participants who could travel, as well as two other collaborators, were invited to gather at a house near Saint-Alban-sur-Limagnole in south-west France for five days to explore the potential of collective transnational solidarities between exilic subjects. The fragments of conversation that appear in the voiceover and captions gently probe the duplicity of ‘asylum’ as a place of refuge and as a mental health institution.
Khoshgozaran’s research for this film was inspired by the work of François Tosquelles, a Catalan psychiatrist who was the doctor at the hospital at Saint-Alban-sur-Limagnole during World War ll. His revolutionary ideas about mental health care included breaking down, although not dissolving, the boundaries between patient and doctor and integrating those under his care into the management of the community. During Tosquelles’s time there, the institution became a refuge for numerous international artists, writers and thinkers escaping political persecution, many of them Jewish or communist. While Tosquelles’s political ideas on anti-carceral therapy inform The Retreat, he is not named in the film: voiceovers obliquely refer to what ‘he’ did or what ‘this place’ means now, the emphasis being on fragmented extracts from group discussions rather than conveying a definitive position. Similarly, the retreat’s participants remain mostly off-screen; images focus instead on the middle of activities, the leftovers of shared meals, food cooking and art being made, hands appearing at the edges of the frame.
The deliberate refusal to show the faces of protagonists is one element of an ethics of film-making that also signals the precarity of asylum seekers or political refugees’ existences. When bodies appear on-screen, their identities are hidden in the costumes they make together; close-ups of a sewing machine and a film strip being cut evoke the different forms of labour required in the stitching together of hybridised identities. In a rare scene containing unmasked protagonists, two participants waving a hand-sewn flag FIG.11, which is also exhibited in the gallery space, run across the screen towards the hills in the background, recalling the iconography of revolutionary images of liberty. The optimism of this scene contrasts with the film’s opening titles, which feature rearranged text fragments from Adolfo Bioy Casares’s sci-fi novel The Invention of Morel (1940):
I intend to show that the world is an implacable hell for fugitives, that its efficient police forces, its documents, newspapers, radio broadcasts, and border patrols have made every error of justice irreparable.
From this damning beginning, the process-based film develops in the direction of another of Khoshgozaran’s touchstones: María Lugones’s notion of ‘world-travelling’. Lugones’s conceptual framework proposes a pluralistic feminist approach towards transnational solidarities in contrast to the separatist agendas of imperialism.5
Khoshgozaran’s film is not a representation but rather a proposition of how the conditions of exile might generate temporary modes of self-instituting asylum, in which care and hosting are paramount. This is underscored at the end of the elliptical film, when the five protagonists assemble on the horizon, one by one. They hold separate placards, which if put together would form the image of the sleeping lion from Sergei Eisenstein’s silent film Battleship Potemkin (1925). In a recent interview, Khoshgozaran posed the question: ‘if the roaring lion of our collective consciousness is sleeping, what is the lion dreaming of?’.6 Based on Khoshgozaran’s films, an answer might be the coming together of the double perspectives of exile to generate, as Adnan espouses, ‘knowledge, love and peace’.
This is the second in a series of profiles of contemporary Iranian female artists.