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Tension, Conflict and a Righteous Rage

Mike Newton Mar 15, 2012

"Sanja Iveković: Sweet Violence"
Museum of Modern Art
December 18, 2011–March 26, 2012

One day in 1995, Sanja Iveković turned on her VCR and, presumably, hit "record." Her home city of Zagreb was under attack (the Croatian War of Independence was raging), and the syrup-y soap opera being shown on TV wasn't interrupted; instead, a simple warning was slapped on top of the action, the words "OPC ́ A OPASNOST ZAGREB" ("GENERAL ALERT ZAGREB") hovering above two women in bright clothes yelling at each other, until the rockets had stopped.

The artwork that Iveković made from this recording–"General Alert/Soap Opera" (1995/2000)–is not the strongest piece in "Sweet Violence", her current retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art but, in its way, it's a microcosmic vision of the concerns that have informed Iveković's work for almost four decades. Iveković (b. 1949) came of age in the idealistic throes of late-sixties radicalism, as well as the (sometimes grim) political and social realities of Yugoslavia. After World War II, Yugoslavia adopted economic ideas from Soviet communism and American-style capitalism alike, with internecine ethnic and national rivalries sometimes erupting into violent conflict. In other words, while the women of the area were contending with war, economic austerity and blaring state propaganda, they were also being exposed to the sorts of glossy fashion-ad hallucinations and televised reveries that shape Western consumer culture. So, in Iveković's 1978 video "Make Up Make Down", we see blurry footage of a woman applying make-up, the camera trained tightly on her hands as they drop below her head. We don't see the made-up look: we see the physical process and material resources, the arduousness; we see, in other words, the labor. In "Make Up Make Down", as with the women of "General Alert/Soap Opera", the questions of life in a communist state–questions of work, control and freedom–clash with a Westernized vision of feminine normalcy: continuous, ensnaring demands of beauty and status. Reductive conceptions of female beauty and behavior have been the subject of many an artwork, but artists (among others) often treat these things as isolated issues: petty concerns bubbled-off from the rest of the world. In Iveković's work, the problems of idealized feminine sexuality and the problems of liberty and politics-writ-large are the same problems.

Taken in small doses, Iveković's work has a frustrating lack of craftsmanship or aesthetic refinement; looked at en masse, though, there's a deliberately blunt sensibility at work. The yellowing magazine pages and copy-of-a-copy VHS videos suggest a brutal confrontation with the media: media deliberately stripped of its fanciful trappings. In the video installation "Lighthouse" (1987-2001), Iveković juxtaposes personal footage (of herself or her home life) with harsh chunks of TV: the captured broadcasts take on an intimate cast. In "Double Life" (1975-76), Iveković pastes fashion-magazine ads alongside snapshots of herself, many of which were taken years earlier: the poses within each pairing take on a sinister resonance. "Double Life" is of a kind with another artwork created around the same time (and also currently on view at MoMA): Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills. In those pictures, Sherman skillfully photographed herself inhabiting various cinematic archetypes. While both Sherman and Iveković present an overview of glamorous media tropes, Iveković's work feels darker: Sherman seems to be having fun, embodying all these ideas of mystery and melodrama, but Iveković's project suggests that these fantasies have been rendered tragically real. "Double-Life" shows that the language of advertising is also the language of the personal snapshot and the family photo album, and that the representational forms of consumer capitalism have manifested in our own bodies, our own actions and histories–across generations, advertising sets the standard. We can only imitate.

Iveković's work has caused some controversy over the years. When it was first exhibited, Lady Rosa of Luxembourg (1998)–the exhibit's largest and most visible work–became something of a media sensation. But, even without that level of public engagement/disturbance, Iveković's work has tension, conflict and, often, a righteous rage simmering beneath the surface. Like with those soap opera ladies, it feels that Iveković has had no choice but to become entangled in conflict–just like, really, the rest of us. Between ideology and reality, communism and consumerism, peace and violence, something's gotta give.

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