Revealing the Unknown

The radical work of Croatian artist Sanja Ivekovic opens in London this winter,
exploring ideas of identity, political unrest and the heroines overlooked by time.

Nearly a century after women were granted the right to vote in the UK, they continue to strive for equality in access to top jobs and pay packets. Since the global recession and subsequent austerity measures, women’s issues have once more come to the forefront of politics, with many arguing that they are hit disproportionately by the slow down and cuts. This situation, not only in the UK but across the world, taps into an ongoing trend among female artists towards confronting issues of feminine identity and the role of women today.

Sanja Iveković is one of Croatia’s foremost artists. Since the 1970s, she has cultivated a body of work addressing not just feminist issues, but also ideas around consumerism, politics, the role of the media and historical amnesia. Working across film, collage, performance and installation, Iveković has pioneered experiments across media in Croatia and former Yugoslavia. The subject of retrospectives at Mudam Luxembourg and MoMA, New York, Iveković’s first UK retrospective will open on 14 December; the result of a collaboration between South London Gallery and Calvert 22. Unknown Heroine is displayed across the two gallery spaces in South East and East London, and houses oeuvre from the mid-1970s to ongoing projects today. Curated by Calvert 22’s Lina Džuverović, Unknown Heroine presents a major Eastern European artist who has already built a substantial reputation in the UK. Džuverović acknowledges that Iveković’s work “has been included in the Tate collection for some time now, and she is a huge inspiration for many younger artists [and so] the exhibition across Calvert 22 and South London Gallery feels not just timely but long overdue, as it is a way to bring the work of this unique artist to much wider audiences.”

Remedying the delay in bringing an Iveković retrospective to the UK is part of Calvert 22’s raison d’être – dedication to the UK presentation of contemporary art and culture from the former Soviet Union – and Džuverović believes that UK galleries remain difficult to penetrate by these artists. On the fact that Iveković has enjoyed retrospectives in Western Europe and the USA, Džuverović says: “Iveković has been prominent beyond Eastern Europe for decades. The fact that she had not had an opportunity for a substantial exhibition in the UK until now is indicative of the unfortunate lack of communication between the UK and many parts of the world. Often the UK feels like a black hole when it comes to artists who have international careers everywhere else.”

Unknown Heroine, the exhibition’s title, is ostensibly referencing Iveković’s ongoing artwork whereby she petitions for the renaming of streets to honour politically ignored and overlooked contributors to her home country. However, through the growing recognition of the significance of Iveković’s work in the UK, the title could also suggest Iveković casting off the shackles of underrepresented artists at cultural institutions. The Unknown Heroine work is symptomatic of the interests that have dominated Iveković’s career: “Iveković has a longstanding engagement with the visibility of women in the public sphere, with the political potential of daily activities, and with remembrance and memory, and the title alludes to these core concerns in the work.”

Holding Unknown Heroine across two sites represents an opportunity for visitors to get a better sense of the artist’s work in different spaces, but also a challenge in creating two discrete shows that will work together as a coherent whole. Džuverović describes the exhibition’s creation as “gradual and nuanced, going through different combinations of work until we arrived at what felt like the right solution.” Inevitably the largest challenge is posed by the simple concern that many visitors will see only one or the other site, rather than visiting both in tandem: “The challenge is in knowing that no matter how hard we try to communicate that this is one exhibition across two venues, there will be many people who will only see one half of it due to the geography of London,” and so each space should work both together and separately. The variation and polarities (the South London Gallery is a grand red brick museum harking back to the days of Victorian enlightenment and bringing art to all, while Calvert 22 is in an old East London warehouse) in the spaces made it “quite complicated to create a coherent exhibition across two radically different venues.” Džuverović’s strategy was to share Iveković’s polemical works evenly and then continue the momentum across a wider range of events: “There are works of key importance in both venues and the ambition is to inspire people to visit both. There are also a number of contextual events including an ambitious conference around Iveković’s work as a trigger for discussing urgent feminist issues. This will be at the Royal College of Art, extending the reach of the exhibition even further.”

Ultimately, the two venue scenario has allowed Džuverović to move away from more traditional thematic, chronological or medium-based curatorial approaches. The selection was made “with a view to selecting the best works to fit the parameters of both spaces and tell a coherent story,” while the artist herself had an extensive input: “Iveković is a very prolific artist and is wonderfully engaged, not only in the work itself but in thinking around modes of presentation and audience experience. We collaborated closely on the selection of the works in the show.” Aside from creating a coherent show in each separate location, the atmosphere of the space affected Džuverović’s work significantly because her usual curatorial strategy is “to always start from the space, wanting to ensure that the exhibition works spatially, as an experience, whilst also constantly thinking about a range of visitors who may be approaching it from different points of knowledge or non-knowledge of the work. The rhythm of the show was very important because it is crucial that people find a ‘breathing moment’ to reflect as the work is so complex.” These breathing spaces were created by a full-length screening of Iveković’s documentary on memories of life under socialism, Pines and Fir Trees (2002), at Calvert 22 and at South London Gallery by one of the artist’s own initiatives, which is being kept under wraps. The intermissions are intended “to disrupt the rhythm of the show, slow the experience right down – I would like this to be the point where people take their time, stop to reflect, slow down, before perhaps (hopefully) going around the exhibition again and looking at the work in more detail.”

The eclectic combination of film, collage, performance and installation that forms Iveković’s oeuvre poses further challenges to the curator’s task of collecting all the works together, but Džuverović sees the artist’s influences as being broadly cinematic: “Her most direct influences come from film, both black wave film in Yugoslavia during her formative years and film today.” Džuverović adds that “it is important to realise that her early works often function as film stills, in series of ‘events’ which, although independent, can also be thought of in that more temporary dimension,” and while the connections of different works are clear, there is also a palpable tension between the glamour that Iveković alludes to on the one hand, and the hard-hitting realities of many of the roles of women and the political turmoil of her native country. Iveković’s best-known early work, Double Life, takes on a glamorous guise in assuming the form of the unattainable photoshoots of glossy, high fashion. Here, Iveković contrasts her own existence with those of anonymous glamour girls by juxtaposing images of her at various stages of life with photography cut out from contemporary magazines. In mirroring elements of the photograph, such as the setting and the pose of the situation, Iveković highlights the absurd unreality of the media with which women are consistently bombarded. Džuverović argues that these pieces are far from glamorous because of the scepticism that they throw onto the use of glossy imagery: “There is definitely a critical look at what the façade of glamour may be concealing, but beyond the initial look around the room, it soon becomes obvious that the glossy fashion imagery is used systematically as a tool for critical analysis.”

In spite of its provenance in the 1970s, this work continues to resonate today because of the huge emphasis and importance that continues to be placed on women and their looks well into the 21st century. With the number of anorexia sufferers continuing to grow and the sexualisation of girls from increasingly younger ages, the role and place of women in society is continually under threat and further undermined by the airbrushed ideal that passes for the norm on our screens and in our magazines. While Double Life (1975) interrogated the media’s infiltration into our own lives and studied the dominance of the fashion industry’s idea of perfection, Tragedy of A Venus (1975) explores the iconography of women once they move into the public eye, pitting Iveković’s own image against that of Marilyn Monroe, and highlighting the confusion between public and private which had its beginnings in Monroe’s era. It’s a fascination that is becoming increasingly prevalent in the work of female artists and raises awareness that the progression of women’s rights is hampered by the media’s representation of them. Džuverović acknowledges that “female identity is so bound up with the anxiety produced by media constructs that it continues to be a pressing issue – one that continues to shift shapes but does not show any signs of becoming less present.” She identifies issues of “the violent intrusion into women’s lives of the constructed visibility created by media” and the “violence of silencing [such as] concealed domestic abuse, erasure of women’s achievements and obscuring their concerns” as a significant impetus for the artist’s work: “I think that for Iveković these issues are essentially the building blocks in thinking about the formation of subjectivity.”

The unknown heroine of the exhibition’s title marries these feminist concerns with the other central facet of Iveković’s work – the dogged political unrest of her native country throughout the later 20th century. Although ostensibly a time of peace, factional tensions remain high in Croatia because the atrocities of civil war are still fresh in the minds of its citizens. Works such as Gen XX (1997-2001) combine these two issues by disguising the names of partisan heroines in glamorous magazine adverts, and replacing copy usually devoted to rampant commercialism with a roll call of facts on these women’s political careers and their execution dates (which in turn represent their obliteration from official history). Meanwhile, Pine Trees and Fir Trees seems to romanticise socialism but in fact, Džuverović argues, could represent an “ambiguous engagement” that caters largely for the western market where the “art establishment’s hunger for artists from the ‘former East’ fetishising socialism is insatiable.” Džuverović goes on to defend the work: “I would say that the documentary itself is not nostalgic at all. If anything it jolts you throughout with various women’s radically different perspectives,” but the fact remains that the background of political unrest has affected Iveković’s work undeniably. For Džuverović, however, this is simply a backdrop to the artist’s international activism: “Former Yugoslavia and today’s Croatia are the particular contexts, with their daily occurrences and events which form the basis of the work, but the photomontages, videos, performances and installations all deal with universal issues, be they female subjectivity, private/public sphere, violence against women or historical amnesia and the transition across radical socio-political changes – all issues that reach far beyond Croatia.”

This far-reaching nature of Iveković’s art is utilised best in one of the exhibition’s most remarkable works, Women’s House (Sunglasses) (2002-2009), where the accessory’s traditionally aspirational image is subverted in its use as disguise by domestic abuse victims. The work highlights Iveković’s crossover from art into activism through its current display in women’s centres across Europe. In “inheriting the role that philosophy used to play in the public imagination”, Iveković illustrates the relevance of art to the everyday and the growing utility of art as a tool to raise awareness and provoke debate.

Unknown Heroine opened at Calvert 22, London, on 14 December 2012 and ran until 24 February 2013. Organised in partnership with the South London Gallery; please see the website for further details

Ruby Beesley