The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Rijeka, Croatia 
November 26, 2021 – February 2, 2022

Make Up Make Down is a comprehensive retrospective of video works created between 1974-2016 by Sanja Iveković (1949 Zagreb), Croatia’s eminent female artist. The selection is Iveković’s first retrospective exhibition in Croatia and is a major look at her video production over 40 years of practice. It should be noted that, in addition to creating video works, Iveković’s artistic practice has included performance, photography, collage, public artworks and sculpture. She has shown in group and one-person exhibitions around the world at major arts institutions, and has created community-based performance works, often with women outside the art establishment. She is internationally celebrated for her site-specific works. Although a seasoned traveler, she has always made Zagreb her home. Eleven of the works being shown (from a total of 25 video pieces) are from the collection of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MoMCA). Other works were loaned by museums and institutions in Central Europe. The MoMCA is an active arts institution, leaning towards contemporary practice and embracing media art in all its varieties. Iveković’s exhibition is part of the museum’s 2020 Capital Culture of Europe program, postponed and reduced in scope from its original plan, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Sanja Iveković’s work with video has a legacy that parallels the history of video art. Her beginning explorations with video began in the early 1970s and followed her emergence as an artist after completing studies at the Zagreb Academy of Fine Arts. She graduated in 1971 from the department of graphics and she was considered part of the New Art Practice (NAP) philosophy, a conceptual position dominated by Croatian artists who eschewed the recognized art institutions of the time in preference for alternative and open public spaces. NAP also recognized the artist as a researcher and no longer celebrated the ‘artiste’ category of creative genius that artists had previously used as the excuse for celebrity. In 1973, Iveković had her first solo show, at a state-supported exhibition space, the somewhat alternative Student Center Gallery in Zagreb. In 1978 she co-founded the Podroom (Basement) Gallery in Zagreb with fellow artist Dalibor Martinis, and it was an important central hub for artists of her generation. Iveković is recognized for being the first artist in Yugoslavia to actively bring topics about gender differences into the art context. 

Always aware of the manipulative power of television, having studied advertising techniques, Iveković understood that TV was being used as a political bullhorn by the one-party Socialist Yugoslav government, and she was also conscious of its power as a consumer provocateur. At that time, access to video equipment was rare in Yugoslavia, and portable equipment was often brought in by visiting artists. But because travel was allowed from and to the country (unlike other socialist countries at the time) Yugoslav artists found ways to work with cameras and monitors abroad, and at educational institutions, even if editing was not possible. The resulting works, like the video art works made by their peers in Italy, Slovenia, Austria, The Netherlands, and Germany were black and white, created on reel-to-reel portapaks, and crudely composited whenever inserts were assembled. Generally, artworks from this era were performative, and enacted live for the camera. Artists explored their personal identity while gaining the experience of recording and watching themselves immediately (without waiting for film to be developed). In the 1980s, artists including Iveković began to form strong relationships with television producers and were offered access to editing and production tools (and this also provided cultural TV program content). Dunja Blazević’s TV Gallery, is an example of an artists’ program that was broadcast nationally on Yugoslavia’s second channel.

From the beginning, in artists’ hands, video had an urgency as a political statement, and because of its significance as a performance art medium became an important personal tool. By the late 1970s, the recording of performance art began to take place in gallery settings, often with a live audience, as shown in the work Meeting Points. Artists could also decide to perform in a more private studio setting, which resulted in more intimate and introspective encounters with the camera. Iveković’s video retrospective at MoMCA reveals many of these powerful options, all contributions by this determined and focused female who, over the years, became the leading Croatian artist using the medium. Video demonstrated her strength as a performer, but also as a social analyst, feminist, activist, and community organizer. The breadth of her video work reveals the power of this ‘old technology.’ That it was once so difficult to access is very hard to imagine today, as we carry around our personal video studios embedded in our phones. It should be noted that, besides working with video, early in her career Iveković created significant collage works and photo montages that combined images of women from popular magazines, bringing those unrealistic images into art discourse. She often was subjected to audiences who were not inclined to support feminist theory or practice, but that did not stop her. Her community work also frequently involved women and groups that were not associated with artistic activity. The results were celebrated public art installations that the communities they were constructed with honored. 

The MoMCA, housed since 2017 in a former sugar refinery complex within the growing cultural quarter in the port city of Rijeka, has several floors, and one ascends to the first floor for the exhibition of Sanja Iveković. Upon entering the space, it is immediately clear that the installation and imagery on view are different from what audiences today are accustomed to seeing, even in media exhibitions. The space is vast and every gallery is utilized to indicate Iveković’s critical interests. The exhibition is structured into four sections that reflect the eras of practice and activities that Iveković engaged with over the years. These sections are titled: Meeting Points; Media Research; International Artists’ Meetings; Networks; and Mass Media, Identity, and Private Performance for the Camera (which is the category in which the video Make Up Made Down is included). They are identified on transparent plastic foils with descriptive texts which delineate the topics. The individual works are presented in the main gallery on monitors that rest on transparent Plexiglas pedestals, creating a view through the gallery. In the slightly darkened (but not totally dark) space, one senses the continuity between images that face in different directions, creating eerie walks between the early works that often show Iveković’s face or body. The transparent pedestals and panels create the feeling of floating memories that overlap, punctuated with reality hits of video on the now-historic TV monitors they support. The newer works (from the 1990s and 2000s) are presented on flat screens on the walls. The issue of integrity was carefully recognized by the museum, and the decision to use monitors for the early works required some searching abroad to obtain them. The program also includes projections in the gallery, specifically of Personal Cuts, an installation Lighthouse (1987-2015) with video and scaffolding; and two photo-collages, The Sentence (1979) and TV Programme (1979). Additionally, a 3:15 hour screening of nine works, some longer in length, ranging from the mid-1980s until 2016, is presented in the Museum’s nursery hall.  Shown twice daily, it begins at 12 noon and 3:30 pm. 

The first work encountered in the exhibition is Make Up Make Down, the title of the exhibition, a work dated 1978 It stands at the entrance to the gallery as metaphor for the invisibility of the female presence, even with attempts to make oneself ‘better’ and ‘more attractive.’ It is also a response to the unrelenting pressure from a growing advertising industry that encouraged women to become something other than what their natural state might reveal. This work was produced by the Galleria del Cavallino in Venice, which had also produced an earlier black and white version of the work in 1976. This 1978 version was originally filmed on an open reel portable video recorder and was later transferred onto a digital Betacam tape. It is one of her first video works in color. The artist is facing forward in front of the camera wearing a camisole, and is a fixed shot of her bodice, without her face showing. Slowly, her gestures reveal everyday movements, as she picks up various cosmetic items, one by one, and applies selected makeup (offscreen) to her face. This continues with very deliberate moves, as the artist chooses a selection of recognizable items, from foundation and powder, to eye shadow, mascara, eyeliner, and finally lipstick. We never see the result of the application, or even whether the makeup was actually ever applied. This question is a mirror of the unremarkable, inconspicuous presence of most women, in general.

A significant pair of works in the exhibition, Instructions No. 1 (1976) and Instructions No. 2 (2015) bring Iveković’s past and present into focus. In the early work, she marks her face with bold, dark lines, indicating the areas of aging, of facial massage, of the focus on the features that define female identity. In the early work, she is 27 years old, a youthful artist in the first phase of her career.  In Instructions No. 2, she is 66 years old, a senior artist who has an international reputation, and she proudly shows the signs that her life and its traumas have left on her face. It is a remarkable remake and revisit of the exercise of self-examination, central to feminist theory. We are amazed at the focus and concentration that appears so similar in both works. After a 40-year hiatus, many political transformations took place: the breakup of the Republic of Yugoslavian and the formation of the Republic of Croatia, an independent EU country. The artist also lived through changes in personal relationships, motherhood and becoming a teacher and mentor to the younger generation of women in the Croatian art community. Finally, in the end, in both works, the artist smears the markings, leaving only smudges, the symbolic residue of experience. Instruction No. 2 was commissioned by the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (N.B.K.) and Nordstern Video Art Center Gelsenkirchen (Germany) and can be accessed at https://www.d-est.com/instructions-no-2/. It is produced in a digital method, widescreen and in color, while the original was in the traditional 4:3 format, black and white, analog video. You can access a clip of the early version at MoMCA’s Facebook page.

The work Personal Cuts (1982) is a significant work that has a lasting impression. The work, which is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art New York, aired on Yugoslav national television in the year it was made. It is a performance that reflects on the propaganda of the time and the artists’ struggles to unravel the national ‘message’ of Socialism. Iveković is facing a fixed camera, with a sheer black nylon stocking pulled tight over her head and face. Slowly, she pinches parts of the stocking and cuts the tip off, revealing circles of her face in the cutouts, which becomes a kind of balaclava that reflects a militant attitude. Surprisingly, whenever she makes a cut, excerpts of historic television newsreel footage appear, edited into the video. The juxtaposition of the artists’ quiet performance with snippets that show the then President Tito, mass public rallies (in black and white), loud and hectic flag-waving crowds, images of factory production, working women, ethnic minorities and so forth give a snapshot into the 1980s reality. The work can be seen at this link.

The overall impression of works shown; they are slower paced, black and white, and they have a deep intensity that is reminiscent of the darker days of the communist/socialist era. Iveković’s work is serious and dense, but not without irony. She utilized off-air recordings of Yugoslav TV news, soap operas, and advertising to bring a reality to her performing image that always stood in quiet opposition to the mass media images. Iveković is widely recognized as being the first ‘feminist’ artist in Croatia. Very early she proclaimed herself a feminist, but she is quick to recognize that in the ‘east’ in the time of Communism, feminism was always ‘we’ and never the individual voice. She also recognized the concept that, “the political was personal.” For Iveković, feminism was not only about women, but also about injustice, especially for those who were persecuted at the time, like the Roma, and the closeted queer community who in those years risked prosecution for their lifestyles. Her practice embraced collaboration, and several of her early works were created in partnership with her then partner Dalibor Martinis. I first saw their works in the late 1980s, and eventually got to know Sanja’s individual work better after the 1990s. Today, Iveković remains focused on violence against women, the invisibility of women, women’s identity (personal, not theory related), and the influence of media and advertising on women.   

The opportunity to gain understanding about the importance of this medium as both a political and personal statement that began in the 1970s—in the early days of video art—is an experience that can be gained from spending time in the installation of this exhibition. The TV sets and the imagery from off-air television broadcasts peppered throughout the various works, were used by Iveković as an opposition to the main source of political communication. But this also reflects the personal/political dichotomy that Iveković recognizes well. She attributes this understanding to Slavenka Drakulić, the feminist journalist and author (and Iveković’s peer) who described lives of women at home and in social encounters during Socialist times with incredible accuracy in her book of essays, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (1991). Another big influence on video art of the time was the main mass media of the time:  television! Unlike commercial TV in the West, television was a government agency and the main source of information and cultural influence, from its early days in the 1960s (in Yugoslavia) into the 90s. 

Croatia gained independence in 1991, after a bloody war with Serbia until the end of 1995. In 1994, Iveković helped establish the Center for Women’s Studies in Zagreb, after so many women suffered violence during the war, and it was the first NGO for women. In 1995, she extended her interest in activism and founded Electra – The Women’s Art Center, in Zagreb, which today is known as Electra Video Center. In the late 1990s, Iveković took a strong political stand and refused to work with nationalistic arts institutions. Sanja Iveković is known by every artist in Croatia, and is respected as a hero among women artists, recognized widely for her enduring activist projects that relate to women, and her persistent attention to women’s position in society. 

Sanja Iveković: Make Up Make Down, A Video Retrospective is a must-see exhibition, and a great reason to visit Rijeka!  A catalog of the exhibition will be available in 2022.

For further information see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanja_Ivekovi%C4%87


https://mmsu.hr/