Sanja Iveković's Uncomfortably Sweet Violence

01/04/2012 7:00 AM |

You're forgiven for never having heard of Sanja Iveković. The Zagreb-born and -based conceptual artist may be a regular on the European circuit, but she remains rarely exhibited in the United States—most recently, a 50-minute video of hers was included in the New Museum's regional survey of art from Eastern Europe and former Soviet states Ostalgia. That all changes now with MoMA's Iveković retrospective, Sweet Violence (through March 26). The nearly 100 works brought together by curator Roxanna Marcoci reveal a career spanning many media—performance, photography, video, installation, collage, sculpture, design—but committed to a few very sustained thematic investigations such as the use of mass media to manipulate citizens with propaganda and women with advertising, and the effects of history on individuals.

One formal gesture unites all these thematic strands and disparate media: the blackout, cutaway, or interruption. Such acts of concealment are not only violent, disrupting the continuity of an image or video, but they also sweeten whatever violence may be depicted, tantalizing us with the idea of what we aren't permitted to see. Iveković clearly deplores obfuscation perpetrated by a government or company, but her most powerful work employs related tactics to transform the meaning of an event or appropriated image.

The 1974 video that gives the exhibition its title is one of the purest examples of this concealing gesture. Iveković taped bars to her television screen and then filmed a series of advertisements on the Yugoslav state-sponsored economic propaganda channel. The prison cell-evoking pattern renders even more suspect the strange ads, products of a hybrid political period known as the Third Way when capitalist markets and socialism co-existed. Far from masking the ads, Iveković's bars make us consider them in a different, more critical light. The same is true of many of the pieces that follow "Sweet Violence," which greets visitors at the entrance to the exhibition's main gallery.

The 20-minute performance "Practice Makes a Master"—seen in the gallery in a video of its original 1982 performance by Iveković, and reproduced at MoMA in December by the dancer Sonja Pregrad—features the exhibition's most jarring use of blackouts. The performer stands on a bare stage in black dress and heels, with a plastic bag over her head and falls violently repeatedly while the only light source goes on and off at random intervals; the only sound other than the performer's breathing, falling body and the clicking of the light is a recording of Marilyn Monroe singing "That Old Black Magic" in Bus Stop that plays continuously at increasingly slow speeds. Accompanying this half-blacked out performance of injury and death lyrics like, "I should stay away/but what can I do?" become intensely sinister. The suspense of wondering what thudding fall the performer has taken in the dark is similarly harrowing.

Many of the photo and collage series that make up the bulk of the exhibition evoke appropriations, imitations and recontextualizations of mass media images of women by American artists like Cindy Sherman, Lorna Simpson or Barbara Kruger. Series by Iveković such as "Diary" (1975-76), "Eight Tears" (1976), "My Scar. My Signature (Girls)" (1976) and "Gen XX" (1997-2001) underline and interrogate the machinations of beauty product advertising and pop culture images of women. Among these, the series "Paper Women" (1976-77) most overtly takes up the motif of cutting and interrupting. Iveković punctured, scratched or tore 12 magazine ads (ten of which are on view here), often in ways that make a kind of visual pun on the image in question—an image of red-painted fingernails sliding down a woman's neck has been violently scratched as if by the prized nails.

Such satirical but no less pointed acts of violent obscuring and reconfiguration culminate in the disturbing "Practice Makes a Master" and monumental act of feminist defiance "Lady Rosa of Luxembourg" (2001), this exhibition's centerpiece. Installed in the MoMA atrium and surrounded by documentation of Iveković's original proposal, rejection and re-calibration for a public square in the center of Luxembourg, it features an extremely pregnant golden statue of Nike atop a plinth whose base is marked with words in English, German and French including "Kapital," "Kitsch," "Whore," "Bitch" and "Virgin." The work's title refers to Rosa Luxembourg, a little-known activist and Marxist theorist who was executed for her ideas in 1919. While the statue—which originally stood within view of a monument to World War I fighters—was spared actual physical violence (though it was relentlessly derided), its base was a popular target for vandals.

As Marcoci writes in the exhibition catalogue, with "Lady Rosa of Luxembourg" Iveković "renegotiates the memorial's purpose by questioning the conventions of social remembrance and insisting on justice for women." Characteristically, she does so by simultaneously exposing and concealing violence of the personal, physical sort, but also of the culture-wide, habitual and often-unnoticed variety. In Iveković's work, the sweetest violence is that which we all tolerate and, sometimes through darkness, is brought to light.

(Images courtesy the artist and the Museum of Modern Art)