Eindhoven and Utrecht, The Netherlands

Sanja Iveković, Übung macht den Meister (Practice Makes a Master), 1982/2009. Performance view, Basis voor Actuele Kunst, Utrecht, the Netherlands, 2009.

Sanja Iveković, Übung macht den Meister (Practice Makes a Master), 1982/2009. Performance view, Basis voor Actuele Kunst, Utrecht, the Netherlands, 2009.

Sanja Iveković

Van Abbemuseum/BAK, basis voor actuele kunst

Sanja Iveković, Übung macht den Meister (Practice Makes a Master), 1982/2009. Performance view, Basis voor Actuele Kunst, Utrecht, the Netherlands, 2009.

A PHOTO SHOWS a young woman in jeans pulling on a pair of boots. A photo beside it shows Marilyn Monroe curled up on a sofa, gazing toward the camera. The caption below her reads: A LONG WAY TO GLORY AND POPULARITY. The image of Monroe comes from a November 1975 special edition of the Yugoslavian magazine Duga, titled Tragedija jedne Venere (Tragedy of a Venus), and the juxtaposition of the two shots is taken from a series of twenty collages by Sanja Iveković bearing the same name. Each collage combines a captioned image of Monroe from Duga with a personal photograph of the artist from different times in her life. Sometimes a pose or the constellation of figures is strikingly similar in the two photos, but sometimes the deviations between the paired portraits make for a humorous irony.

When Iveković created Tragedy of a Venus in 1975, the twenty-six-year-old artist really was a long way from glory and popularity. Born in Croatia, which still belonged to the nonaligned Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito, the artist had to wait many years to achieve recognition in the West. A first step came with Iveković’s appearance, alongside Valie Export, Isa Genzken, and Cindy Sherman, in “Kunst mit Eigen-Sinn” (Art with Attitude) at the Museum Moderner Kunst in Vienna in 1985. Greater renown followed with Iveković’s participation in the second Manifesta in Luxembourg in 1998 and in Documenta 11 in Kassel in 2002—where she showed, among other works, her powerful video Osobni rezovi (Personal Cuts), 1982. Since 2000, Iveković has been featured in solo museum shows in Cologne and Barcelona as well as in Innsbruck, Austria, and Göteborg, Sweden, and this summer BAK and the Van Abbemuseum collaboratively took on the task of comprehensively presenting her work to counteract her relative obscurity in the Netherlands. In so doing, the two institutions underlined Iveković’s importance to European art over the past forty years.

Nineteen eighty-nine—the year the Berlin Wall came down, marking the end of real socialism in Eastern Europe and the beginning of extensive transformations throughout Europe as a whole—served as a structural element in the two-venue show, appropriately titled “Urgent Matters.” While BAK exhibited more recent projects, the Van Abbemuseum focused primarily on works produced before 1989—that is, works created in the Yugoslavia of the so-called Third Way, that idiosyncratic mix of socialism and free-market economics propagated by Tito. The 1974 video Slatko nasilje (Sweet Violence) bears witness to this era: Iveković superimposes black bars over advertisements that were shown at the time on Zagreb television, separating the viewer from the “sweet violence” of the media’s seduction.

Sweet Violence and Tragedy of a Venus are linked by Iveković’s central theme: a reflection on how strongly everyday routines and the (self-)perception of women, in particular, are predetermined by media stereotypes, celebrity cults, advertising, and fashion, and on how social conventions inscribe themselves in the creation of both private and public images. In juxtaposing magazine pictures with the artist’s private photos, the series “Dvostruki život” (Double Life), 1975, and “Slatki život” (Sweet Life), 1975–76, pursue a strategy similar to that of Tragedy of a Venus, while the videos Instrukcije br. 1 (Instructions No. 1), 1976, and Make Up—Make Down, 1976, present exaggerated female beauty rituals.

In the late 1970s, Iveković’s work began to make clearer references to Tito’s political system. At the same time, the artist’s person remained a critical instrument in her work. In her photographically documented performance Trokut (Triangle), 1979, for example, Iveković challenged the strategies of control used to police one of Tito’s parades. During the festivities, the artist noticed a sharpshooter with a walkie-talkie atop a high-rise across from her apartment and a policeman with a similar device on the street below. She went out onto her balcony, where she could be seen only from above, and began drinking whiskey. In one hand, she held Tom Bottomore’s book Elites and Society, while with the other she simulated masturbation (could there have been a more ostentatious way to challenge the masculine cult of the leader?). The titular “triangle” completed itself when the policeman rang Iveković’s doorbell and asked her to leave the balcony.

After 1989, Iveković’s own presence in her work declined. Still devoted to exploring the role and position of women in society, she has simultaneously expanded and intensified this theme, ever conscious that the meanings of certain topoi and images are constantly shifting in a changed sociopolitical context. Take, for example, the white plastic bag over the head of the performer in Übung macht den Meister (Practice Makes a Master), a 1982 performance that when reenacted today immediately calls to mind images from Abu Ghraib. As part of her presentation at BAK, Iveković collaborated with a local shelter for abused women to create an installment of Ženska kuća (Women’s House). For this ongoing project, begun in 1998, Iveković interviews battered women across Europe and uses their stories in extensive installations that draw attention to violence against women. In a related series of posters, Iveković juxtaposes these narratives with advertisements for designer sunglasses, contrasting the world of glamour with the decidedly unglamorous experiences of ordinary women. The collage series Gen XX, 1997–2001, on the other hand, memorializes several forgotten “heroines” of socialist Yugoslavia. Here ads for famous fashion labels are combined with the stories of female resistance fighters during World War II. These collages have a pointed double meaning, functioning as both an homage to these women and a critique of the many gaps in our collective memory, which prefers pretty pictures to the complexities and “urgent matters” of real life.

Astrid Wege is a curator and critic based in Cologne.

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.