The Sweet Violence of Sanja Iveković
In Articles | Installation Art | Photography | Video2 April 2012
challenging retrospective of works by Croatian artist Sanja Ivekovic, spanning the mid-1970s to last year, was recently on view at The Museum of Modern Art. As a woman artist who came of age in socialist Yugoslavia, Iveković experienced firsthand many of the contradictions and limitations of an autocratic socialist society. Contemporary art became her vehicle for exploring feminism and the role of women in society. Iveković also experienced and responded to the brutal civil war in the former Yugoslavia with particular focus on its consequences for women.
Sweet Violence, work from which the title of this exhibition is derived, is a body of video works that Iveković produced in the 1970s. Television wielded tremendous power in Yugoslavia during this decade though only two state-sponsored channels were available to the public. Iveković superimposed bars on a television and taped programming through them, distancing viewers from the content and emphasizing the oppressive construct of censorship. Prevalent images caught behind bars include publicity for Coca Cola and makeup advertising. This work like many to follow, subverts the seductive power of mass media to reveal new meanings. Iveković strips away the alluring veneer of mass entertainment to reveal political agendas.
Instructions No. 1 is a video work of 1976 in which the artist marks her face with a grease pencil, tracing arrows copied from the instructions for applying skin care products. Iveković’s drawing ritual is then annulled when she smudges the arrows, darkening her face in such a way as to resemble a camouflaged soldier more than a glamorous woman. Make Up – Make Down is a color video of 1978 that documents Iveković’s explorations of phallic lipstick canisters and grease pencils, twisting them in her fingers as they project and recede, suggesting masculine origins for this construct of feminine beauty.
Double Life of 1975 – 1976 pairs images of women from international glamour mags like Amica, Duga, Elle, Marie Claire, and Svijet with photographs of the artist. The poses appear to be very similar, as though Iveković were mimicking the models. Captions reveal, however, that photographs of the artist predate images culled from advertisements. Iveković’s juxtapositions speak to the complex interplay between media depictions of women and their everyday reality. Acculturated from a young age to dress and behave in a certain way, women emulate the style and movements of actress celebrities and models, sacrificing personal sensibility for societal norm.
Un jour violente, Iveković’s 1976 performance work for Galleria del Cavallino in Bologna, takes direction from a cosmetic advertisement in Marie Claire:
“One day, violent: today you are dazzling, you don’t yourself know why, you feel an irresistible joy, you want sparkling drinks, intensive light, unusual hairstyles, provoking dresses.”
Not wishing to disappoint, the artist assembled props she needed to produce this tableau vivant, including flowers, bubbly, clothing, makeup, etc. A voice broadcast directions from the advertisement over a loudspeaker as the artist obligingly interpreted them as best she could, calling into humorous relief the absurd nature of cosmetic marketinSg to women.
Diary, a work of 1975 – 1976, also explores the construct of feminine identity. With seven works in vitrine, Iveković juxtaposes images of heavily made-up models with cotton balls, swabs and handkerchiefs used to remove the same cosmetics, stained with the same colors. Once again through the agent of humor and by pairing consumer visions of beauty with their accompanying detritus, Iveković calls attention to the surreal notion of the entire endeavor. Indeed the cotton is a real, tangible object in the world as opposed to moiré fantasy images of idealized womanhood.
Structure is a fascinating work Iveković developed from 1975 through 2011 that explores the discipline of social psychology through contemporary art. Ten newspaper images of women from diverse backgrounds are exhibited on a grid with their corresponding captions (such as, “Sought consolation in horse racing and nightlife,” “Expecting her master’s return” or “Executed in Bubanj in 1944″). The images are repeated to create a 10 x 10 grid but, after the first linear sequence, the captions are newly attributed to different images, priming the viewer to make new assumptions and draw new conclusions about the women in question. It also implies a Saussurean disconnect between signifier and referent.
Eight Tears, which evolved from 1979 through 1986, repeats serial imagery of a Helena Rubinstein advertisement that depicts a smiling woman with a single tear running down her left cheek. Copy that ran with the original ad reads, “Helena Rubinstein presents Courant: The perfume that expresses all that a woman can feel.” On the lower right hand register of each photograph, Iveković superimposes a smaller image of a woman, again culled from the realm of print advertising. To each of the collages is attributed a caption in the series such as “Love,” “Work,” “Marriage,” “Household,” “Motherhood,” “Old Age,” and “Ego.” In so doing, she explores the disjuncture, irony and humor of superficial commercial photography and complex issues that make up the feminine and, in some cases, broader, human psyche.
Iveković’s Paper Women is a series of 1976-77 that consists of physically manipulated print advertisements from women’s magazines. One particularly interesting work depicts a woman holding blotting paper. Her long nails and parted lips are matching scarlet but it would appear she has removed a bit too much makeup, having torn a physical hole in the advertisement. As a result, the model is missing part of her mouth and cheek, breaking the illusion of three-dimensional space. For another work, the tightly framed image of a woman’s face from a German beauty magazine is scratched with an implement through the printing ink to white paper, simulating wrinkles around the eyes and mouth. Where a statuesque model holds her temples in a symmetrical pose, Iveković tears out a swath of paper between her eyes, creating a blindfold. One of the most memorable works depicts a model caressing her neck. Iveković creates a trail of scratch marks from each of her fingernails through ink to white paper, as though the model had done terrible violence to herself.
Triangle is a 1979 work that explores totalitarianism through the vehicle of dark humor. On the day of former Yugoslavian President Tito’s visit to Zagreb, Iveković donned an American t-shirt and walked onto her balcony, which overlooked the presidential parade. She sat in a chair, sipped Ballantine whiskey and smoked cigarettes, surrounded by foreign books, one of which she proceeded to read. Iveković was being observed by a member of the Uprava državne bezbednosti or Yugoslavian secret police and she observed the officer as he spoke through a walkie-talkie. Eighteen minutes into the performance, a policeman knocked on Iveković’s apartment door and stated, “the persons and objects are to be removed from the balcony.”
With the fall Tito came a dreadful Balkan bloodletting, culminating in ethnic wars in Kosovo, Croatia and Bosnia. In response to this tragedy, Iveković made a number of works, including General Alert (Soap Opera). This video piece of 1995 explores the surreal nature of life during wartime. A popular Spanish soap opera plays onscreen with Croatian subtitles. Originally broadcast while the city of Zagreb was under heavy missile attack, the caption “General Alert Zagreb” reads on the upper register throughout the transmission. Somehow horror and violence enveloping Zagreb seems to impinge on the narrative and melodramatic turns of the plot becoming intermingled with the destruction outside.
Rohrbach Living Memorial is a very powerful work culled from the legacy of the Holocaust. In collaboration with the Austrian women’s organization Frauentreffpunkt, Iveković invited townspeople of Rohrbach to create a living memorial to the victims of Shoah in the absence of any permanent monument. The work is based on a photograph of Roma and Sinti Gypsies seated behind barbed wire, awaiting deportation to a death camp in the East. Fathers and sons regard the camera with a terrible sense of forboding. This moving photograph calls to mind Roman Polanski’s observation that one of the most disturbing parts of viewing holocaust documentary footage is that there was a person behind the camera, filming the suffering, often with gusto. From the early hours of the morning until noon, Participants in the performance were asked to wear a black triangle and number as they sat or stood silently in the Rohrbach town square. By internalizing and personalizing the experience, Iveković fosters deeper introspection and dialogue than most conventional monuments.
By subverting a conventional monument, Iveković creates one of her most meaningful and strangely controversial works: Lady Rosa of Luxembourg. Invited to participate in Manifest 2 in 1998 in Luxembourg, she proposed an urban intervention that involved moving an existing monument to the fallen of World War II. The Gëlle Fra [Golden Lady) statue was built as a war memorial to the fallen Luxembourgians of World War One and depicts the goddess Nike, perched high atop an obelisk, holding out a laurel wreath of victory. Iveković’s original intent was to remove the statue from its soaring base and resituate it at a shelter for abused women. The proposal was deemed too provocative and the artist followed another direction.
In 2003, Iveković was invited to rethink her original proposal for the new exhibition Luxembourg, Luxembourgians: Concensus and Bridled Passions. This time Iveković created a replica of the Gëlle Fra but in the late stages of pregnancy. She titled it Lady Rosa of Luxembourg after Rosa Luxemburg, the communist theorist who was murdered for her political convictions in Berlin in 1919. The plaque beneath the original Gëlle Fra reads, “La Résistance, La Justice, L’Indépendence,” but Iveković inscribed her plaque with “Kitsch, Kulture, Kapital, Kunst” and “Whore, Bitch, Madonna, Virgin.” Lady Rosa of Luxembourg was then installed within walking distance of the original Gëlle Fra. The work alludes to rape and other abuse that women traditionally suffer in wartime and questions the convention of depicting women as allegorical figures while denying them influence in the political process. The work raised great controversy not over the issue of pregnancy, but rather the degrading epithets used for women. Calls were even made for the resignation of Erna Hennicot-Schoepges, Luxembourg’s minister of culture. Like much of Iveković’s oeuvre, Lady Rosa of Luxembourg unveils false values and conventions through a lightly altered appropriation. By artfully decentering images from popular and political culture, Sanja Iveković effectively challenges prejudices and assumptions and transforms our perception of the everyday.
Sanja Iveković: Sweet Violence was on view at The Museum of Modern Art from December 18, 2011 through March 26, 2012, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, New York, Tel. 212-708-9400
Writing Credits: Daniel Rothbart is an artist and writer. A former Fulbright Scholar, Rothbart is the author of Jewish Metaphysics As Generative Principle in American Art (Ulisse e Calipso) and The Phoenix (Ulisse e Calipso). His work can be found in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Orsini Foundation in Milan and numerous public and private collections.
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