Sanja Iveković - Biography and Legacy
Croatian Sculptor, Performance, Collage, Video, and Conceptual Artist
Biography of Sanja Iveković
Sanja Iveković was born in 1949 in what is now the Croatian capital, Zagreb. Her mother, Nera Šafarič, was a survivor of Auschwitz; she had been a fighter in the People's Liberation War, arrested and sent to the prison camp in 1942; she was released in 1945. In 1949, when Iveković was born, Croatia was part of the former Yugoslavia and was ruled under the dictatorship of Marshal Josip Broz Tito. Tito's authoritarian rule routinely suppressed basic human rights, including gender equality and freedom of speech. Croatia did not achieve independence until 1991 and thus a large part of Iveković's life was spent resisting repression. There remains much to be done in the research of Iveković work and life, but interestingly, one of her artworks, Reconstructions (1952-76), pieces together scenes from her childhood through the use of moving image. She was brought up in an intellectual household and remembers being interested in drawing from a very early age, saying in an interview that art always came out very easily.
Iveković graduated from the Zagreb Academy of Fine Arts in 1971, where she had studied graphic design; already at this stage she had made a stand and established herself in the realms of a new and alternative media. She made challenging works from the outset of her career and began to lay the foundations for video art in Croatia. Under the dictatorship of Marshal Tito, Modernist abstraction (rather than Socialist Realism) was the officially recognized artistic style, and thus a style resisted by rebellious artists. People could travel freely and had some exposure to the work of Western artists, as result Iveković became well versed in the history of art at this time. She has said that by deciding to stay in the East, it was "exciting to break the rules". In 1973, she had her first solo show at a state-supported exhibition space, the Student Center Gallery in Zagreb.
She became a member of the New Art Practice (NAP), an organization that attempted to remove tradition from galleries and promoted new technologies, mainly photography and graphic design. Both Iveković, and her partner in the early stages of her career, Dalibor Martinis, worked as graphic designers to support and maintain their art practice and everyday life. Iveković regularly traveled to Western Europe and North America to study art and to glean inspiration from other interesting artists. She always remained adamant however that she would remain in Yugoslavia, declaring that the Western world was no more enticing or compelling than her homeland.
Iveković consistently made work to dissolve boundaries and challenge traditional views of what it means to be a woman. She typically acted as the protagonist in many of her pieces. In Tragedy of a Venus (1975-76) the artist creates a sequence of photomontages, combining images from mass media with those of herself. She collected pictures from magazine advertisements, fashion photography, and tabloids; images of Marilyn Monroe are displayed next to formulated images of Iveković's own body in order to create a visual narrative that highlights the fictitious and misleading view of Hollywood celebrities. The work explores the impact of consumer culture upon women, and then contrasts the Eastern European artist, who is dealing more with big political issues and everyday life rather than with glamour and an expected ideal appearance.
Both her own individual practice and collaborative work made with the film director, and former partner Dalibor Martinis, developed steadily and organically. Instructions (1976), Meeting Point (1978), Maya (1986), and Put Ljubavi (1990) are a selection of her solo works, whilst collaborative works made alongside Martinis include, Made In Prison (1979) and The Bride, The Bachelors - Even (1992). By the early 1990s, Iveković had had many solo exhibitions and staged performances all around the world. Her work had been shown beyond Zagreb, in Toronto, Köln, and Novigrad, with performances in Beograd, Montreal, New York, and Berlin. Despite relatively high visibility, Iveković remained little known to international critics and art historians. In 1995, Iveković extended her interest in activism and founded Electra - The Women's Art Center in Zagreb.
In 2001, Iveković created a newly envisioned monument to Lady Rosa of Luxembourg (2001), which many consider to be her most famous work. The artist alters existing depictions of the heroic Polish philosopher to controversially show her as pregnant. This is, of course, a normal and natural state for women to be in, but it is almost erased from visual history and as such makes clear that female identity is not by any means fully understood. In 2011 Iveković's large-scale retrospective exhibition, Sweet Violence, opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She simultaneously had her first exhibition in London, fittingly titled, Sanja Iveković: Unknown Heroine. These exhibitions were well received but it is also worth noting that much of Iveković's work, aside from performance, video, and sculpture, takes the form of billboards, posters, public television broadcasts, and publications, and therefore any form of traditional exhibition can be difficult to navigate. As was already the intention in her early work, Iveković still today intends to make artwork that directly intervenes in the surrounding world, thus meaning that aesthetic choices must always operate in tandem with the political message. In November 2017, Iveković took part in a discussion at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) in London called Decolonising the Mind, Provincialising the West.
The Legacy of Sanja Iveković
Iveković is a role model for artists working within the constraints and restrictions of an oppressive regime. She made the important comment in 2012 when interviewed for Flash Magazine, that "The important advantage of living and working in socialism is that you learn very early on that nothing is independent from ideology... I have repeatedly asked myself what is my position in the social system, my relationship with the system of power, domination and exploitation, and how can I respond and act meaningfully as an artist ... I want to be deliberately active rather than a passive 'object' of the ideological system." Furthermore, as the first Croatian artist to address issues of female identity and readily identify herself as 'feminist' she is an invaluable and much needed example for all creative individuals living in former Yugoslavia.
Iveković is part of a group of now mature artists who have been examining questions of gender equality for more than four decades. The longevity of such a career, shared by the German artist, Annegret Soltau, makes for interesting discussion. This comparison is particularly apt because of the uncanny resemblance between Iveković's work, Instructions No.1, and Soltau's series, Self, made the following year in 1975. Both of these artists have examined themselves through a cutting and pasting of their own image on paper. Both artists also have re-visited early works at later stages in their careers. For example, Iveković recently restaged Instructions No.1 (1976). This durational quality of a career and thus the chance to go forwards and backwards again, shows younger artists, and also the world at large, that for all that changes and progresses there is also much that remains the same. There will not be a point that identity is a finished topic and that all people exist as equal. Iveković visually explains that this is an ongoing negotiation and just as history must always re-asses itself so as not to repeat past wrongs, so must the individual. Iveković, like fellow Yugoslavian, Marina Abramović, importantly reveals to a new generation that no discussion is ever over, no dialogue should stop, and no identity is ever fixed.
Indeed, a whole swathe of younger artists have taken up the themes of Iveković's oeuvre and continue to fight for the process of equality that is by no means complete. The use of make-up as materials traditionally used to beautify women is subverted and the motif expanded upon. The capacity of these products to hide as opposed to reveal identity - as a precedent set by Iveković - is also well reflected upon by Janine Antoni and Jessica Langunas.