If one would try to summarize the core of artist Sanja Iveković’s oeuvre in short—if such a thing were at all possible, considering that the artist’s work spans a multitude of subjects, a great number of media, a handful of dramatically changing topographies, and some four decades—one would, I think, have to address her distinctive artistic practice as a way of linking issues of social and political urgency to women’s place in society; the latter an urgent matter in its own right. This twopart exhibition is an attempt to create a space in which such a link can be made visible as it unfolds through a selection of key pieces from Iveković’s body of work from the 1970s to today, as well as through a number of new projects realized for this occasion. While showing a vista of exceptionally rich and multilayered artistic production, the exhibition also tries to offer routes, however provisional, to an understanding of the artist’s work by way of connecting her feminist voice to the social, political, and historical developments in Croatia, her country of residence: a place that in the course of her life has undergone massive changes, from once being part of the non-aligned Yugoslav Federation, to enduring a bitter war-scarred fight for independence, to the ever (to be) tested promise of democracy today.
The year 1989 marked the end of real socialism in the Eastern bloc (and, though not properly recognized in the so-called West, also the end of a particular understanding of social democracy); it helps us to chart a shift, however subtle, inside Iveković’s work. This shift, which also gives the two parts of this exhibition their own character, in fact marks different ways in which the notion of the political is established through Iveković’s practice.
Within the so-called “New Art Practice” in Iveković’s Yugoslav experience, which dates back to the 1970s and the 1980s, the artist’s criticality was aimed mainly at the structures and functions of the system—the art system in particular—and not necessarily, as popularly understood when it comes to art from the “former East,” against the communist ideal itself. Indeed, at once demythologizing the status of dissident artists and thus shedding some light onto the often cited term “alternative culture” related to artistic practice under communism,1 the artist says that herself and “those who were active on the counter-cultural scene at the time took the socialist project far more seriously than the cynical governing political elite.”2 “Revolutionary art for a revolutionary society”3 was the request of the day. Pointing to the art system and mainly its institutions—essentially structures dominated by men, detached from the society at large—Iveković turned her attention to gender issues, reflecting mainly on “the politics of representation of femininity in the mass media.”4 Testing the limits of the dictum the personal is political, Iveković realized numerous collage-based works, creating a breathtaking series juxtaposing photographs of herself from her private albums with popular imagery, mostly advertisements taken from magazines and newspapers (Double Life, 1975;Tragedy of aVenus, 1975; Bitter Life, 1975–1976; Sweet Life, 1975–1976) for example. Or, she inflicted upon her body the scrutinizing analysis of femininity and its rituals, where the camera is employed either as a mirror (Instructions, 1977; Make Up – Make Down, 1976) or as a witness to self defacement, merging real and structural violence (S. Eiblmayer) in an act of bringing the invisible into visibility (Personal Cuts, 1982).
Triangle, a 1979 four-part photographic installation accompanied by a text, can perhaps serve as an example to help us understand the constant move the artist undertakes in her work from art to politics to feminist discourse (and back) to art. The motif of a woman on a balcony is a classic in the history of art as much as in feminist discourse, where balconies can represent liminal spaces—as “zones traditionally reserved for the woman, allowing her to look to the outside while remaining bound to the inside; to the home, a place in which she was considered to be most ‘with herself’,” as sites “from which women may observe the world from a distance, participating in it only through their gaze.”5 With these complexities in mind, Iveković sits on her balcony while below on the street level a motorcade carrying the Yugoslav leader Marshall Tito is greeted by a well orchestrated crowd, who cheer under the watchful eyes of armed policemen scattered on the tops of the buildings surrounding the presidential route. Long before the heyday of participatory art (as Iveković has playfully commented), the policemen who represent political power intervene with the artist’s actions to thereby produce the work of art: they order that “persons and objects be removed from the balcony,” discreetly avoiding any hint of what was apparently underway there. For the artist was not just simply enjoying a sunny afternoon, sipping whisky in this space that marks the public from the private (and vice versa), but by imitating masturbation she provoked the watchful eye of the rooftop guards equipped with binoculars who, when catching sight of the scene, felt it was their duty to watch over public order.
Iveković’s work also includes performances that allude to other exercises of political power, less benign and more carefully concealed perhaps than the public-decency maintaining surveillance we see activated in Triangle. The videoPractice Makes a Master, 1982, for example, captures and reproduces a performance in which Iveković, in a black dress and with her head covered with a white plastic bag, practices how to fall down and stand up all over again and again. The work “merges classroom, rehearsal stage, interrogation cell, and torture chamber,”6 and with its powerful image of a faceless, defaced, if not decapitated human being, it in fact effortlessly corresponds with the very contemporary imagery that the mass media trained us to receive as our new “normal” (most explicitly, perhaps, with images of hooded prisoners at Abu Ghraib). This sort of media imagery subtly instruct us to internalize the governing political calculations and teaches us to distinguish political beings (citizens) from “just” bodies, bare lives if you will, subject to complete political control. While the 1982 video is shown at the Van Abbemuseum with the works discussed above, along with other pieces (mainly from the 1970s and 1980s), for the part of the exhibition at BAK, Iveković re-enacts7 this performance anew, taking into account its most contemporary connotations and meanings. The act of re-enactment does not only bridge the two parts of the show; the content of the work and its insistence on the repeated alternation between failing and recovery also indicates a direction in which Iveković’s art is further radicalized when she enters the terrain of producing new political meanings post-1989. For the shift Iveković’s work undertakes “also includes all the uncertainties and shifting positions of the attempt to pose the questions whose answers cannot be announced in advance but can only develop through a series of failures,”8 outlining “the transformation of traditional political art into political practices of art.”9
For Iveković the 1989 momentum introduced a new possibility of art, although in general with the fall of the Berlin Wall the genuinely politicized alternative cultural movements of the previous decades in former Yugoslavia paradoxically lost their vitality and to some extent their raison d’etre. Iveković recalled of her own work, “issues such as women’s rights, sexism, homophobia, poverty, chauvinism, nationalism, privatization, etc. appeared only later, in the 1990s, in democracy, when new channels for the production and distribution of critical practice opened up.”10 With the victory of vicious early market capitalism, a fellow arrive of democracy, Iveković’s work absorbed new activist and collaborative tactics into the inborn criticality in her art, rephrasing her practice to “not just illustrate the political thesis, thus making it clear to those who already know it, but to include art into the political praxis, form new ideas and spread them into society.”11
Building upon her decades-long study of the mass media, Iveković continues her practice of appropriating its language to rebel against original meanings and address new urgencies. One such urgency—the collective amnesia about critical moments from recent history—has grounded a number of the artist’s key works. In Gen XX, 1997–2001, for example, a series of advertisements published in various magazines and as posters, Iveković equipped the photos of professional models with the names and brief stories of women who were celebrated under socialism as “national heroines,” who are today erased from the public consciousness. The space of common knowledge or familiarity from the socialist past was evacuated in favor of popular mass culture and commercial icons. Iveković utilizes these vehicles of everyday contemporary popular literacy and invests in them content with (generally absent, and to contemporary standards unattractive) historical knowledge.
Issues of social neglect are in focus in another key work by the artist, Women’s House, in progress since 1998. Conceived as a collaboration with various shelters for abused women throughout the world, the work consists of workshops in which collectively an installation is produced in the form of a series of plaster casts of the residents’ faces. These are exhibited on plinths as precious sculptures and accompanied with brief texts outlining individual accounts of the brutalities endured by these women. Press conferences, texts, postcards, posters, and a video are also part of this process-based effort aimed at unmasking the violence that goes on behind the facades of the (on the surface) well-off and well-adjusted capitalist societies. In Utrecht, Iveković realizes another stage of this project in close collaboration with shelters for abused women.
Lady Rosa of Luxembourg, 2001, a major public project that Iveković realized in Luxembourg also reflects on questions of remembering and collective consciousness, and connects concerns about the position of women in western societies to the ways that social and political negotiations are played out in established, “grownup” democracies. Simply put the work reproduces” the Luxembourg national monument Gelle Fra (Golden Lady), dating back to 1920. Sited not far from its model, Iveković’s sculpture, perched atop a plinth some 18 meters high is a pregnant woman, and the golden lady of the original monument is renamed after the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. Iveković also altered the texts enveloping the obelisk from listings commemorating fallen soldiers in wars that Luxembourg participated in into listings of words in French, German, and English addressing the ideals as much as shortcomings of culture and politics. Under close inspection, in fact, this intervention addresses the network of meanings in the space where the languages of gender politics intersect with the virtues of the nation-state and identity building. The project caused unprecedented, even violent reactions and engendered polemics from street demonstrations to the mass media to parliamentary debates, with press clippings of the project amounting to thousands of pages.
Although realized post-1989, a key orientation point to help us understand certain crucial developments in art for this exhibition, this “temporary monument” is shown in the museum—and not at BAK with its “contemporaries.” This is not only to test the ideal of this particular museum to be a space of a genuinely public nature. It also forms a backbone of sorts (in the competitive, overtly ambitious architecture of the Van Abbemuseum’s tower) around which the introspective gaze into the artist’s work can be cast. But also, in the end it proves that no simplistic formal divisions in the oeuvre of the artist can actually be made.
The Lady Rosa of Luxembourg’s modest counterpart, it could be said, is a new public project (to be) realized in Utrecht, in which a street (or a square or a bridge) in the city will be named after an Unknown Heroine. As a monument to the quiet, forgotten, and overlooked everyday heroism of women around us, who do not seek the limelight, publicity, or fame but who each and every day work hard to look after their children and families and who encounter big failures and small triumphs along the way, the work tests the ability of both art and democracy to bring this invisible power of ordinary women some public recognition. Through a realization of the proposal—and whether that will translate into the project’s realization is yet to be seen—perhaps this exhibition can humbly suggest the possibility that through a work of art society can at least try to imagine, even for a moment, its better self.