On Saturday, Ms. Neshat's new work, "OverRuled," will conclude its two-day run at Performa 11, the West Chelsea visual-art performance space. It marks the artist's first foray into live performance, but its theme—confrontation between "people of imagination" and oppressive governments—is a staple of Ms. Neshat's creative stock.
Inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings, Ms. Neshat refreshed the concept. This March, while in Cairo conducting research for her next film, about Egyptian singer Oum Kolthum, she attended protests in Tahrir Square and said she was moved by how people worked together.
"It was a peaceful revolution that should have been the model for everything else that followed," she said.
"OverRuled," a mock court that's taken over peaceably by poets, artists and musicians, seeks to be that model. Though performed by Iranians, the artist says the piece transcends that country's boundaries. "The play we're doing can be just as much about Wall Street as it is about the government of Iran," she said.
That cross-cultural dialogue is but one reason she'll be honored next week, said Catherine Morris, curator at Brooklyn Museum's Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.
"Her ability to hone those very broad things makes her work remarkable," Ms. Morris said.
Ms. Neshat, 54 years old, is best known for her 1997 work "Women of Allah," a series of black-and-white photographs of women masked not by veils, but by Farsi calligraphy. She will return to that theme early next year with an installation at the Gladstone Gallery of large-scale images of young revolutionaries, men included, from around the Middle East, overlaid with handwritten poems and peaceful messages.
Throughout her career, Ms. Neshat, who has lived in the U.S. since she was 17 and makes her home in SoHo, has migrated from photography to video installation to film.
"She has evolved because she's constantly concerned with contemporary issues," said cultural critic Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University.
Last week, between rehearsals for "OverRuled," Ms. Neshat invited The Wall Street Journal into her Greene Street studio.
What does the award mean to you?
It's a form of acknowledgment that I appreciate coming from a major American museum. Because my work has more been international, I never had a big museum behind me in America. So, for a museum to give recognition to an artist who is not purely devoted to arts within a gallery or a museum, it says something about them—that they're also opening the parameters of the art practice.
What do you think is the artist's particular responsibility during times of revolution?
I think it's a personal choice. I don't see that generically all artists should be revolutionaries or activists. I just think there's a notion of urgency that comes when, for example, if you're an artist living in Cairo. I was there and I can't imagine as a young artist you're in this environment and could make work that doesn't even remotely relate to that. It's not really a responsibility—it's the way an artist responds to the life that they're living, to their situation.
I cherish so much being an Iranian and being someone who has agreed to be in the middle of the social, political discourse through my work. I think that, especially today in this kind of moment of political crisis, people of imagination actually play a great role. And I'm not just talking about me, but a number of other artists who have put their lives at risk like [Chinese artist] Ai Weiwei. We're able to go under the skin of people, both the people looking at the subject and the narrative, and also under the skin of the people who are really experiencing it.
If you didn't choose to document these events, what's the missed opportunity?
I don't do it because I'm an Iranian artist and therefore I must make work that reflects on the time. In fact, I find it very problematic because it's so easy for me to make something that is didactic—"These are the bad guys and these are the good guys." I refuse to fall into that reductive place, so it makes me think about the responsibility we want, to make great works of art that have a resonance above and beyond time and place, that we want to make work that really affects people in the more profound way—not only on a time-based [situation].
Where were the women during the uprisings?
When I was in Tahrir Square, there were a million people and I was among equal amounts of women and men. I really think that one of the things that is consistent about this pattern of the revolution and uprising that is spreading, the Arab Spring, is that a) there is no leadership and b) there is all youth organizing it and, c) that is not about gender differences.
There is a very fascinating phenomena that women are very active, and this why I'm making [the new revolutionary photographs] where the men and women are represented equally in these images. The women today are highly intelligent, highly educated and they're not oppressed. It's really amazing how education is such a huge part of this new form of feminism that is not just unique to Iran but all over the Middle East and the Internet.
Is your work an easy gateway into Middle Eastern art and culture?
I'm very Iranian in many ways even though I've lived outside for longer than I lived in my own culture. All my people who work with me are Iranian, and yet my career is very much based in the West; my career is very much Western. I work with galleries and museums, and the majority of my audience is Western, so I'm having to navigate between a way of communication to the world that doesn't really know the level of the Iranian or Middle East, but I have a responsibility not to wash it out, to really make sure I don't compromise the authenticity just to make it easy for people to understand.