Statelessness as Practice

Sohrab Shahid-Saless and the work of exile

“Statelessness as Practice” is based on a fundamental question: would Sohrab Shahid-Saless see his work succeed or fail in the cultural landscape of media, galleries and commentary today? By exploring ways in which contemporary practitioners have situated themselves in and against the lived reality and ideas of statelessness and displacement, and how the reception of such constructions by the art world and cultural society has developed since Shahid-Saless’ time, this paper offers a new perspective for contemporary debate of archive, moving image and curatorial practice. Considering the cultural gap between the audiences that Shahid-Saless found in Germany and his own heritage, this essay suggests possible motifs in some of the major trends in curatorial practice over the last decade that have led to the foregrounding of statelessness in public displays such as screenings/exhibitions. Bringing these ideas together, this paper concludes by considering how curatorial strategies play out against the creative production considering a constant need for ‘new’, or the ongoing activity of national or regional promoters. The text looks at some developments in distribution channels such as galleries and digital platforms that were not available to Shahid-Saless.

In the early 1970s, Sohrab Shahid-Saless was internationally recognised as a pioneer of a new wave of Iranian cinema. However, as filmmaker joined the ranks of the European filmmaking avant-garde, he turned his attention to German society, producing films that focussed on the lives of outsiders and outcasts. The 1976 Reifezeit, the story of a boy coming of age next to his prostitute mother, marks a turning point in the young director’s ascendant career.

A desire for mainstream success would hardly mark Shahid-Saless out were he a German-born filmmaker. By the early 1980s, even a number of the signatories of the radical 1962 Oberhausen Manifesto were beginning to enjoy international recognition, with the likes of Wolker Schlöndorff and Wim Wenders eventually establishing Hollywood practices. In a sense perhaps best symbolised by the phrase Film ist Kultur – which could well have attracted a capital K even without German orthographic rules – the German cinematic avant-garde became the mainstream.

With time, Shahid-Shalees’ personal mythology came out of alignment with his filmic interests. Recognised initially for work that brought images of Iran or Turkey onto the European screen, his later oeuvre divorced itself from nationality and assumed an insider’s view on German society. Deciding to be a filmmaker and not an Iranian filmmaker in exile meant that Shahid-Salees had to forego the reputation and support he had enjoyed as an Auslander.

The tensions in the film career of Sohrab Shahid-Saless have some parallels in the more recent histories of visual artists since the early 2000s, including those whose practices involve moving image. The increased currency of contemporary art within mainstream western culture (here culture with both a lowercase and capital c) has rendered space and created intellectual demand for work that approaches issues of displacement, statelessness and exile. Not only has a desire for news from elsewhere made it possible for artists to develop transnational careers in a mode analogous to Shahid-Saless’ early experience, but the proliferation of art institutions and the unstoppable expansion of the art markets have made some of these practices commercially viable and integral to the mainstream.

At its inception, contemporary art’s regard of ‘foreign’ art practices was market-driven. In the 1980s and ‘90s, European auction houses tried to develop demand for Russian art, and soon after shifted their import focus to South Asia. These attempts were met with limited success, as domestic European and American artistic production was still only freshly fulfilling the expectation of the shock of the new. Conceptual practices like those of Young British Artists did not need to look far past the local or personal to secure a place in newspaper headlines or to break sales records. 

After the end of the Cold War, Western democracies indulged in narratives of a unipolar international stage: conflicts and changes sweeping through parts of the Middle East didn’t palpably mix with domestic news agendas preoccupied by evolution of neoliberal capitalism. In a dramatic rift, the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York played themselves out as though specifically for the media, and the advent of rolling news and internet communication focussed the attention of Western audiences on the international. These tools allowed society to observe and critique the effects and complexities of globalisation in real time – and contemporary art practice followed suit.

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This text was originally published in ReFocus: The Films of Sohrab Shahid Saless, Ed. Azdeh Fatehrad, Edinburgh University Press, 2020.

Citation: d’Alancaisez, P. (2020). Statelessness as Practice: Sohrab Shahid Saless and the Work of Exile. In Fatehrad A. (Ed.), ReFocus: The Films of Sohrab Shahid-Saless: Exile, Displacement and the Stateless Moving Image (pp. 141-150). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. doi:10.3366/j.ctv10kmd73.17