Women Are Obliterated, yet Endure

In Athens, Sanja Iveković offers a critical view of the historical struggle against fascism in Greece and Yugoslavia.

Sanja Iveković, Personal Cuts, 1982.

Despite differences between twenty-first century capitalism and the corrupt state socialism in Eastern Europe during the second half of the twentieth century, there are similarities when it comes to the homogenisation of mass media narratives. The Croatian performance and video pioneer Sanja Iveković (b. 1949), whose retrospective Red Star Fear Not is currently on view at the non-profit institution State of Concept in Athens, has lived through both systems. This is Iveković’s first exhibition in Greece, a country in which sixty-nine people with ties to the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn are currently on trial in what constitutes the largest legal process involving racist violence since the Nuremberg trials. The historical struggle against fascism in Greece and Yugoslavia is also a central component in Red Star Fear Not, which takes places in the mutable frontier between the poetics of intimate testimony and the generalising narrative of advertising and news media. By examining this from all angles, Iveković places the viewer in immediate relation to the surrounding world.

Like many artists of the same generation, Iveković uses photography, film, and printed materials to accentuate the gaps created by dominant narratives, from lack of representation to the objectification of oppressed bodies. But Iveković takes it further and also questions her own use of lens-based media. In the video Sweet Violence (1974), the negatives from a collection of Yugoslavian commercials are striped with tape, so that the viewer sees them through a visual grid, situating the images in the grim transition between socialist dictatorship and market liberalism. A central figure in this interface is the liberated woman, whose fashionable figure embodies both democracy and surplus value. The problem is that she rarely embodies empowerment.

This is where Iveković takes her aesthetic upset of mass media further than artists like Martha Rosler and the recently deceased Carolee Schneemann. While they were able to rely on democratic rights and freedom of expression, Iveković ties the commercial objectification of women to political media images in both East and West. With the working class woman, in particular the woman of the labour movement, she creates a dissonant image-world that never fails her female protagonist. Iveković’s mother was a Communist partisan who was sent to a concentration camp for political reasons, and was later liberated by the Russians on the same grounds. Here, the paradoxical political shifts experienced by the mother appear to be the engine of Iveković’s practice.

Sanja Iveković, GENXX, 1998.

Given this, the video Searching for my Mother’s Number (2002), can be described as the key to the exhibition. The piece comprises two films, where Iveković silently cuts between legal documents from the mother’s recurring struggle for a disability pension as a war veteran. In the other channel, we encounter the opposite of the law: the mother’s diary from the same period. In close-up, we see Iveković’s finger tracing letters on the pages, as she slowly speaks each word. The screen gradually turns black and an English translation appears. By emphasising the translation, the artist reminds viewers that the root “traduire” originally referred to betraying the message, twisting the language – and, perhaps, achieving medial autonomy. In Personal Cuts (1982), we see Iveković cut holes in a black nylon stocking that she’s pulled over her head. For each cut, a short sequence from then-current news events in Croatia is played, after which the camera returns to the artist’s face, which gradually emerges through the disintegrating sock. By adhering to the body as a medium for the passage of time, Iveković lays claim to the lived experiences that official histories rarely incorporate.

In the same way as Iveković corrupts commercials and news elements from television, she also tackles lifestyle magazines that centre on the female body. Women’s House (Sunglasses), a project that has been ongoing since 1988, collects seemingly ordinary advertising photos for sunglasses, with the difference that the models are accompanied by their name and a brief account of the violence they have been exposed to in a close relationship. Iveković has added local Greek examples to the exhibition. Repositioning material seems to be just as important to her as editing it. In another new work, a selection of lines are read from the Greek director Alinda Dimitrious’s documentary Birds in the Mire (2008). In the film, women from the Greek liberation front are interviewed about their memories of the Nazi occupation (1940–44), testimonies reminiscent of the mother’s diary. The ghost of the partisan woman paces the exhibition; though she still awaits her place in the writing of history.

Sanja Iveković, Greek History Lesson, 2018.

Dimitrious’s documentary material was activated in a performance during the opening night, which appears as video, still images, and manuscripts in the exhibition. Five women, who do not differ significantly from other guests at the opening, read a text which, towards the end, articulates the question that is also the title of the work: “Whether we were brave?” The question is answered: “It depends on your definition of brave. According to my understanding, bravery is endurance. Did we endure everything? Actually, we did.” The words echo Yvonne Rainer’s “My body remains the enduring reality,” from the introductory text to the performance The Mind is a Muscle (1968). But, as always with Iveković, it is not a question of the artwork’s duration, but the woman’s. This becomes especially clear in the video work Invisible Women of Erste Campus (2006) shown in the cinema downstairs. Now, the words borrowed are from the Croatian poet Aida Bagić. They are read by women who work with cleaning and restoration, whose work is shown in clinical scenes filmed before sunrise. Between cuts, the women glance into the camera one by one and read Bagić’s stanzas as if they were their own: “Fall down, get up / Fall down again // Get up / Fall down // Falling comes easy if you practice every day.”

This is followed by the video work Pines and Fir Trees – Women’s Memories of Socialism (2002), in which the history of the twentieth century is told through the experience of Yugoslavian women, while in the upstairs gallery burnt out portraits of historically erased women from the solidarity movement in Poland hang silently. Opposite, the wall is covered by what at first glance look like fashion portraits or celebrity posters, but which are in fact young partisan women who were murdered during the German occupation. The women are obliterated, yet endure. Iveković has identified as a feminist since the 1960s, but instead of being hindered by the heteronormative first-wave movement, she uses her retrospective to broaden the perspective to include the low-paid worker, the mother, and the migrant. Subjects that dominant media narratives still tend to omit. In the exhibition, their broken stories are interwoven – twisted and betrayed – in order to be better understood. Thus, in Red Star Fear Not, this vital practice is linked to our present day.

Installation view from Red Star Fear not at State of Concept in Athens, Greece.