When Sanja Iveković was first invited to Luxembourg for the second Manifesta in 1998, she conceived of moving the city’s iconic Gëlle Fra (Golden Lady) – a monument to the (male) volunteers who helped the Allied forces in World War I – from its towering plinth to a local women’s refuge. That project was never realized, but three years later Iveković exhibited a duplicate monument outside the Casino Luxembourg, under the title Lady Rosa of Luxembourg (2001), in tribute to the activist Rosa Luxemburg. A duplicate, that is, except that Iveković’s version was heavily pregnant, while the writing around its base was replaced with a new text: in French, La Résistance, La Justice, La Liberté, L’Indépendence; in German, Kultur, Kapital, Kunst, Kitsch; and in English, Bitch, Madonna, Virgin, Whore. Iveković had hoped the work would stir up a debate about the way society tends to commemorate women as symbols, rather than as real people. The gesture prompted public protests and even calls for the minister of culture to resign. Meanwhile, the original Gëlle Fra, in part due to the debate around her pregnant double, has become a beloved national monument.
Iveković’s Lady Rosa of Luxembourg took centre stage in the artist’s survey show at MUDAM, greeted warmly now by the very same newspapers that led the charge against her a decade earlier. The fates of these two golden ladies have become inextricably linked; as well as with that of the artist whose biography they, in a sense, reflect.
Doubles and duplicates have figured prominently in Iveković’s work ever since she emerged as part of the Nova Umjetnicka Praksa (New Art Practice) in Yugoslavia in the mid-1970s. Several sets of photomontages in the exhibition from this period juxtapose self-portraits with pictures from advertising and glossy magazines that seem to mirror Iveković’s gestures, indicating the gap between the promise of glamour and its quotidian reflection. These works also suggest the way our most intimate gestures can be caught up in circuits of symbolic exchange.
A series of seven simple pencil sketches from 1982, each one of the same girl staring intently at a frog, lent the exhibition its title: ‘Waiting for the Revolution’. The frog changes colour, but it never turns into a handsome prince. Iveković created the series at a point when the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had seen a succession of four presidents in the two years since the death of Marshal Tito. The frog changed colour, the socialist Utopia remained always just around the corner.
This same satirical bent appears in the earliest work in the exhibition, the video Sweet Violence (1974), in which the artist places parallel vertical lines of tape across her television and films the screen, effectively imprisoning the clichéd images of traditional Slavic dancing, happy families camping, adverts for Coke and Maggi powdered soup. The gesture animates what will prove to be one of the central problems of Iveković’s work: how can an image itself express the gap between the image and its reality?
If anything, with the collapse of Communism, Iveković’s work became more stridently critical. Gen XX, originally presented as simulated advertisements in the ‘politicki pop magazin’ Arkzin between 1997 and 2001, concerns the erasure of former national heroines behind the louche commercialism of fashion models. Images of the new female emblems of capitalism are subtitled with condensed biographies of women such as Ljubica Gerovac, who committed suicide at 22 to avoid capture by the Nazis, or Dragica Koncar, tortured and executed in Zagreb in 1942. These women were once celebrated figures, with streets named after them. But today their memories have been erased from history and the streets renamed in the East’s relentless drive to distance itself from its Communist past.
One of the most recent works in the exhibition began as a commission for Elle magazine. The Right One (Pearls of Revolution) (2010) sees Ivekovic´ assuming the very codes and techniques of glossy magazine photography, which had for so long been the object of her critique. Across ten large colour prints, activist and sociologist Jana Šarinic´, in full glamour make-up, rehearses a salute common to Tito’s wartime partisans. From her clenched fist she dangles a pearl necklace; covering her left eye is an archive photo of two female partisans making the same gesture (presumably taken some time during World War II). The model is literally blind to/blinded by these ghosts for whom the salute was not a pose but a crucial part of daily experience. Iveković has said that what interested her most about this salute was that it was used already in anti-fascist struggles in Spain, before being re-appropriated, quoted even, by Yugoslavian socialists. It is as if she would place over the eyes of her two archival partisans another photo (and then, perhaps, another) in an endless mise-en-abyme. The ‘original’ authentic revolutionary gesture thus becomes perpetually deferred. Meanwhile, each image of Šarinić becomes a potentially self-accusatory portrait of Iveković herself, now the privileged face of official dissent; one last displaced doppelgänger for a multifaceted artist.