BY Vivian Sky Rehberg in Reviews | 01 SEP 09
Featured in
Issue 125

Sanja Iveković

BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht, and Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands

BY Vivian Sky Rehberg in Reviews | 01 SEP 09

Sanja Ivekovic, Ženska kuća (Women’s House), 1998/2009 (ongoing). Installation view, BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht, 2009.

Curated by Maria Hlavajova, ‘Urgent Matters’, a retrospective of works by Croatian artist Sanja Iveković, took place in two venues in two Dutch cities and was divided historically into works pre- and post-1989. In keeping with the mandates of the respective institutions to represent the present and the past, Iveković's more recent production was shown at the art centre BAK, while the Van Abbemuseum exhibited works dating back to her early career as a pioneer of the conceptually influenced ‘New Art Practice’ in the Yugoslav Federation during the 1970s and 1980s. Despite the chronological division and the geographical distance between the two sites, a remarkably coherent picture of Iveković's practice over time – as deeply politically committed and historically relevant then as now – emerged from this presentation of her photography, photomontage and collage, sculpture, performance and video.

Gender has been an enduring theme of Iveković's work. She has addressed the representation of women in filmed or photographic self-portraits (Make Up-Make Down, 1978), through her interference in stock representations of femininity conveyed in women’s magazines (Paper Women, 1976–7) and on television (General Alert [Soap Opera], 1995). A distinct engagement with the private rituals of identity formation comes through in her early photographic series ‘Double Life’ (1975), which pairs 66 snapshots of her own life from her private archive with similar images found in consumer magazines. Her forceful collage series ‘Figure & Ground’ (2005–6) works on a similar principle: female models dressed as armed terrorists slathered with fake blood cavort in stylized balaclavas and military-inspired gear made by top designers. Iveković appropriated these images from an ill-timed fashion spread in the September 2001 issue of The Face and juxtaposed them with documentary photographs of terrorists taken from news magazines after the 9/11 attacks in New York. Whereas ‘Double Life’ collapses distinctions between real-life and marketing in a subtly devastating way – our life experiences are shown to be as stereotypical as media advertisements – ‘Figure and Ground’ unmasks a distasteful complicity between commercial consumption and politics with the force of a punch in the gut. It is a salutary visual wake-up call for even greater vigilance in the production and analysis of media imagery.

Iveković's formidable understanding of the manipulative power of images dates back to one of her best known performances, Triangle (1979). In an act of civil disobedience against the ban on sitting on balconies in Zagreb during a visit by President Tito, Iveković installed herself on the balcony of her Zagreb apartment with a book and a glass of whisky and simulated masturbation. This triggered the expected outcome – a person surveying the buildings from an adjacent rooftop notified a policeman, who then rang the artist’s doorbell and asked her to return inside. The performance is documented in four photographs, which show the parade, crowds below, the figure on the rooftop and the artist sitting and reading, book in one hand, the other on her knee.

Major public projects anchored the exhibitions in both venues. On a plywood obelisk that soared to the heights of the Van Abbemuseum’s tower space, Iveković placed a reconstruction of her gilt monument Lady Rosa of Luxembourg (2001/9). Originally created for the city of Luxembourg, Iveković's sculpture reproduced the figure that tops the country’s national war memorial, Gëlle Frau (Golden Lady, 1920). Initially installed some 100 metres from the original, Iveković's temporary version, visibly pregnant through her thin draped garment and renamed after revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, resituated this anonymous female both historically and corporeally. To say this gesture rankled is an understatement, as demonstrated by the Van Abbemuseum’s display of the documentation of public reactions to her installation.

At BAK, the main gallery was occupied by Iveković's plaster casts of the faces of women living in shelters for the abused. Set on pedestals arranged in a semicircle, these busts are works from her ongoing project ‘Women’s House’ (since 1998), which commemorates the efforts of ordinary heroines trying to gain control of their lives. A related proposal by Ivekovic´ to name a site after ‘The Unknown Heroine’ is currently under consideration by the city of Utrecht. Finally, commemoration is also at issue in her video Rohrbach Living Memorial (2005), which shows citizens of the Austrian town of Rohrbach re-enacting, over the course of four hours, the poses from a found photograph of gypsies waiting to be deported to a concentration camp.

There is a constant erosion of the boundaries between private and public, the individual and the collective in Iveković's work. As concerned with history as it is with the present, this significant and convincing exhibition reveals that the enduring strength of Iveković's oeuvre lies in her ability to judiciously navigate the increasingly indistinguishable mass of symbolic and real representations without falling prey to a sentimentality or stridency that would undermine its ethical and political potency.

Vivian Sky Rehberg is a course director of the Master of Fine Art at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. She lives in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.