John Coplans was born in London in 1920. He moved to San Francisco in 1960 and has lived in the USA ever since. He has had a multi-faceted career as a teacher, painter, exhibition curator, museum director, art critic and writer. In 1962 he helped to found the magazine Artforum, and became its editor in chief in 1971.
In 1979 John Coplans decided to devote himself entirely to photography. His photographs were first exhibited in 1981, but it was only after experimenting for a number of years that he found his own personal style in the mid-1980's. Since 1984 he has concentrated on photographing his own body in a series of self portraits. He then enlarges the black and white photographs to gigantic sizes, sometimes having a height of three to four metres, which further increases their weighty impression and impact.
These colossal photographs, often divided into sections, show a man's aging, hairy body, always displayed against a neutral white background. Even if it is John Coplans' own body that we see in these monumental black and white photographs, they are not self portraits in the traditional sense, not least because the head is consistently excluded. Instead, the pictures appear to be without gender and with a universal applicability. Sometimes they are more reminiscent of animals or a landscape than of a human body. Despite the fact that Coplans poses in the nude, the pictures cannot be described as erotic in any conventional sense of the word; his body meets the observer as it actually is, with nothing corrected or beautified. Every crack, every discolouration and unevenness in the nails, every birthmark, every fold and flabbiness in the skin are included. The resulting impression is one of profound humanity. It is these "flaws" which Coplans plays with to produce unexpected shapes and associations in his pictures. In this way, his chest and stomach become a face in which the nipples are the eyes, the navel is the mouth, and a loose fold of skin forms the nose. In another picture, two fingers placed between Coplans' thighs become a woman's genital area just underneath his own.
Coplans' photographs are in the widest sense both universal and classical; they emit both strength and vulnerability, austere symmetrical composition and playfulness, and they awaken the viewer's fantasy in a way all their own. They make one think of Michelangelo and Ruben, but Coplans' pictures also find their counterparts in classical and baroque sculpture, and, perhaps above all, in Auguste Rodin's modelling of the monument to Balzac, his most magnificent and daring creation.
From her years in New York, Shirin Neshat looks back with great insight to a land filled with contradictions, a land to which she is still strongly tied. Central to her work is the figure of the Iranian woman. With the aid of still photographs and video films she conveys powerful, telling portraits of eastern feminism. Her pictures describe the fate, social roles and complex conditions which govern the lives of women in fundamentalist Iran. At the heart of this society, which is a melting-pot of ancient traditions and cultures, a society where nothing is what it appears to be, she shows us an entirely different and personal women's world. This is where her strength lies, in the ability to make visible these women's hidden struggle and tears. Through this self-critical dialogue about Islamic society and culture, she embodies in her photographs themes of feminism and violence, martyrdom and terrorism, submission and pride.
Shirin Neshat often adds texts to her photographs. The texts reveal the negative, stereotypical picture of Iranian women and the discrimination they suffer. Many of the texts are excerpts of poetry by Iranian poets, whilst others are of a religious nature. The final portraits of the women are made stronger by the texts and are very different from those we see in the news media.
This winter the Malmö Konsthall will be showing the video "Turbulent". Two television monitors are placed facing each other at opposite ends of a room. Black and white films are shown on the screens. On one screen, the Iranian-Kurdish singer Shahram Nazeri presents with her warm voice an interpretation of a thirteenth-century verse written by Jalal ed-Din Rumi. The public consists entirely of men, who applaud for a long time. On the opposite screen is a woman alone. We hear her singing a wordless song in a voice filled with passion and pain. The fact that women in Iran are forbidden to sing in public shows us one more dimension of women's isolated solitude.
Shirin Neshat's films show us a world full of metaphors, a world where everything can suddenly turn into its opposite. She achieves a spellbinding effect by placing each monitor in its own part of the room. In this way the viewers and their sympathies are torn between one side and the other.