Sweet Violence

Sanja Iveković, Make Up—Make Down, 1978, stills from a color video, 5 minutes 14 seconds.
Sanja Iveković, Make Up—Make Down, 1978, stills from a color video, 5 minutes 14 seconds.

WHEN A RETROSPECTIVE as significant as Croatian artist Sanja Iveković’s “Sweet Violence” doesn’t travel at all, a comprehensive catalogue becomes all the more important. Fortunately, this eponymous summary of the show—which New York’s MoMA featured this past winter—delivers the crucial political and cultural background behind Iveković’s work. The lead essay, by the show’s curator, Roxana Marcoci, details Iveković’s native art scene before, during, and after Croatia’s post-Communist transition, providing context for the ideas and stories that inform the past four decades of the artist’s groundbreaking feminist output.

And what stories there are. Some may seem familiar, echoing iconic performances by Carolee Schneemann and Hannah Wilke: For 1979’s Trokut (Triangle), Iveković adorned herself with props that suggested Western society to her and pretended to masturbate on her apartment’s balcony, knowing full well that security officers on an adjacent roof would be watching, as an official parade marched on the street below. (She was quickly ordered off the terrace and back into her apartment.)

Iveković staged much of her work within the confines of her home. In the caustic 1978 video Make Up—Make Down, Iveković enacts the ritual of applying cosmetics at a snail’s pace; we see her fetishistically grope each object, but we never see her face. She could be any woman or every woman, and in much of her work that is the point. Iveković depicts political, economic, and gendered power relations as equally entwined. Her ongoing series “Women’s House (Sunglasses),” for instance, couples advertisements for popular shades with short, poignant texts about battered women. This work has been shown worldwide, with every exhibition emphasizing the inequities specific to its locale.

In his wide-ranging catalogue essay, theorist Terry Eagleton touches on the connection between art and violence only a few times, but each statement reverberates across all of Iveković’s work: “It is of the nature of art that it will speak out . . . bearing witness to a more peaceable world not simply in what it says or shows but in the kind of rare phenomenon that it is.”

Lauren O’Neill-Butler