In the video “No End”, a woman viewed from the neck down tries on high-heeled shoes compulsively. Finally, in a stew of confusion, she ends up with a white and a black stiletto on the same foot. The neurotic jerks as she attempts to stuff one shoe into the other are chilling symptoms of women’s failure to live up to the standards of beauty demanded by films and magazines, “Sometimes I think there would be no pain if there was no image, no word,” declares the disembodied voice of the video’s maker, Croatian artist Sanja Ivekovic.
Images are Ivekovic’s business. She makes them and she breaks them; and in doing so she reveals the way in which they do the same to us – particularly, although not exclusively, if we are women.
Born in 1949 in Zagreb, Croatia, Ivekovic is only now becoming well known. The two-part show, which unfolds in both Calvert 22 in Shoreditch and the South London gallery in Peckham, is her first solo exhibition in the UK. It follows on from her appearance at Frieze Masters (in the curated section entitled Spotlight that aimed to illuminate neglected modernist talent), inclusion in the last biennials at Gwangu and Istanbul, and, in 2009, a small but acclaimed retrospective at MoMA in New York. At the moment Ivekovic’s work can also be seen in Tate Modern’s show A Bigger Splash, which traces the influence of feminist performance artists on contemporary painting.
Behind her neglect lie various factors. For all that it was arguably the most open of the Eastern Bloc countries, and home to a stimulating conceptual art scene, postwar Yugoslavia hardly offered an international vitrine for its avant-garde. Equally, Ivekovic’s feminism did her few favours in a society where women were still primarily expected to be home-makers.
Today, political barriers are down and the art world is hungry for new talent. Alongside the likes of Valie Export, Hannah Wilkie and Suzanne Lacy, Ivekovic was one of a generation of 1970s feminist artists who embraced photography, film and installation as a way of liberating themselves from the patriarchal mediums of painting and sculpture.
Raised on the hysterical over-production of digital technology, many of Ivekovic’s heirs naturally regard image-making as a playful, slippery process. To be taken seriously in the art world – as anyone who has seen this year’s Turner Prize winner can attest – multiple viewpoints and elusive meanings are the fashionable lexicon.
It was less complicated in Ivekovic’s day. She grew up in a world that was being thrillingly rewritten by feminism, when mass imagery was coming to be seen as a major culprit in the neglect, abuse and exploitation of women. Her favourite technique is a very simple one of juxtaposition. In “Double Life” (1975) she contrasts magazine advertisements with private photographs of herself in similar poses to the models. When she piles her hair up and pouts at an imaginary camera, you see how the young woman unconsciously mimics the fantasy; yet when she leans her chin on her hand like a Helena Rubinstein model next to her, the cigarette between Ivekovic’s fingertips and her baleful expression make her look angry, vital and true while the air-brushed beauty is reduced to a coy cipher. In “Black File” she places newspaper clippings of teenage girls who have gone missing next to cut-out spreads of soft-porn models; in “Women’s House (Sunglasses)” (2002/2012) she pastes the stories of women who have been the victims of domestic violence over pages featuring models advertising sunglasses.
Trained as a graphic designer, Ivekovic has an unerring eye for a telling shot and a good story. Yet this exhibition never feels like a chronicle of victimhood. The tales of women who fought as anti-fascist partisans during the second world war run through the galleries like a backbone of courage and resilience. We hear them first-hand in “Pines and Fir Trees – Women’s Memories of Socialism” (2002), when a group of women in their sixties and seventies recount staggering experiences. More poetic is Ivekovic’s treatment of her own mother’s story. Beautifully elucidated on a triptych of video screens, it recites lines from her mother’s diary – we see an elderly finger pointing to hand-written words on a page – as she resists the Nazis and is interned in Auschwitz. After her release in 1945, her life turns into a struggle for a disability pension that Ivekovic recounts through sterile official documents.
A bleak, Eastern Bloc lucidity informs Ivekovic’s aesthetic. For all its exchange with the west, Yugoslavia was never saturated with popular culture. Thus while American Pop artists were often themselves manipulated by the imagery they aimed to control, Ivekovic maintains a rigorous grip on her material.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the two-part work “Triangle”. Featuring two sequences of photographs taken from the same apartment 16 years apart, one documents the visit of President Tito to Zagreb in 1979, while the other chronicles the Croatian Summit in 2005. In the first sequence, Ivekovic defies the orders to remain inside and sits on her balcony, reading a book, drinking whisky and pretending to masturbate until a policeman comes to remonstrate. In 2005, she sits in her kitchen holding up newspaper headlines at the camera, having failed to get hold of the authorities to tell them she is staging a performance.
The subject matter – freedom of information and movement, state authority, the rebellious female – is worthy. But it is the forensic purity of the images that compels. The lone policeman silhouetted on the roof of the brutalist hotel; the grids made by the motorcade and the pelican crossings; the fierce diagonals of her concrete balcony. Such spare compositions look back to the illuminating, Constructivist angles of the photographer Alexander Rodchenko, who used his austere, unpredictable viewpoints to reveal truths about space and form. Ivekovic performs a similar operation to separate fantasy from reality, and expose the systems of power that wish to blur those boundaries.