New York

Sanja Iveković, Sweet Violence, 1974, still from a black-and- white video, 5 minutes 56 seconds.

Sanja Iveković, Sweet Violence, 1974, still from a black-and- white video, 5 minutes 56 seconds.

Sanja Iveković

Sanja Iveković, Sweet Violence, 1974, still from a black-and- white video, 5 minutes 56 seconds.

Croatian artist Sanja Iveković’s works, which range from private gestures documented on video to public interventions broadcast on television or erected in a city square, were never intended for museum display. Yet for “Sweet Violence,” the artist’s first retrospective in the United States, curator Roxana Marcoci overcame the challenge of presenting such formally diverse works in an institutional context. At once the starting point and the centerpiece of this exhibition, the large-scale Lady Rosa of Luxembourg, 2001, emblematized this success—it actually seemed made to fit MoMA’s atrium. Conceived as an outdoor public monument and dedicated to Rosa Luxemburg, the work responds to a prominent war memorial in the center of the titular city. The gilt effigy of a heavily pregnant goddess Nike is poised atop a soaring pedestal—Iveković’s answer to the slender, idealized, allegorical figure of victory in the original. In addition, Iveković substituted a plaque commemorating male war heroes with one bearing such words as KITSCH, BITCH, and WHORE. When the work was first unveiled in Luxembourg, these epithets triggered heated debates in the media, as evidenced by the abundant newspaper articles and television clips displayed alongside the installation at MoMA.

Born of the specific sociopolitical context of socialist Yugoslavia under Josip Broz Tito’s Third Way, an economically liberal regime, Iveković’s militantly feminist art practice makes tactical use of controversy, which is an efficient way to put a message across. Indeed, throughout her career, Iveković has scrutinized the machinations of the media and has often turned them back upon themselves. For Paper Women, 1976–77, she tore at, scratched, and bent representations of women in the pages of glamour magazines. Similarly, in Sweet Violence, 1974 (the piece from which the exhibition takes its name), black vertical bars obscure footage including advertisements and snippets of daily life culled from official state-sponsored broadcasts. If the title “Sweet Violence” refers to the seductions of mass media, Iveković, by means of this deceptively simple device, perpetrates her own violence against the image. Breaking the screen into slivers, she robs it of coherence, abstracts it, and points to its insidious sensuality.

Iveković seems drawn to a figure who might be seen as a living embodiment of this seductiveness, or whose image, to be more precise, was used as such: Marilyn Monroe, a haunting presence in her work. In Practice Makes a Master, 1982/2009—restaged live as part of the MoMA exhibition—a black-clad woman wearing a white hood repeatedly falls to the ground while a recording of Monroe singing “That Old Black Magic” from the 1956 film Bus Stop plays on the sound track. The artist captures the star’s beguiling mixture of sensuality and innocence in “The Tragedy of a Venus,” 1975–76, for which she paired photographs of herself with matching tabloid snapshots of the actress. One of the whimsical captions accompanying the images reads WITH WIDE-OPEN EYES LIKE ALICE—Alice in Wonderland being another figure with whom the artist identifies. In the seven drawings that make up Waiting for the Revolution (Alice), 1982, a girl gazes at a frog that keeps changing colors but fails to turn into a prince. This succinct illustration of passive spectatorship serves to remind us that complacency is the sweetest violence we can do to ourselves.

Agnieszka Gratza