Opening on December 18, Sanja Iveković: Sweet Violence is the first museum retrospective in the United States of the groundbreaking feminist, activist, video, and performance pioneer Sanja Iveković (b. 1949, Zagreb), who came of age in the former Yugoslavia in the post-1968 period, as part of the generation known as the New Art Practice, a generation that laid the grounds for a form of praxis antipodal to official art. Her engagement with conceptual photomontage, video, social sculpture, and performance has been critical to the discourse on the relationship between women’s rights, political activism, and collaborative strategies in art.
Among the projects that represent Iveković’s feminist position, Lady Rosa of Luxembourg is her most public statement. When the artist was invited to participate in Manifesta 2, in 1998, in Luxembourg, she imagined a project about the history of the capital city. She proposed a civic intervention that would be titled Pregnant Memory and would involve removing the gilded, larger-than-life neoclassical Nike (the allegorical female figure of victory) from the war memorial known as Gëlle Fra (Golden lady)—the figure would have been taken from the top of its 69-foot-tall obelisk in Constitution Square, in the center of the city, and installed on the premises of a shelter for abused women. Gëlle Fra was designed in 1923 by the Luxembourgian sculptor Claus Cito, in memory of the volunteers who fought with the Allies in World War I. In 1940, during the Nazi occupation, the sculpture was dismantled and placed in storage, and it was not until 1985 that it was re-erected with a plaque including the names of the fallen soldiers of World War II. Iveković’s proposal was deemed controversial and remained unrealized. Instead, in collaboration with women at a shelter for victims of domestic violence, she produced Women’s House, an installation of plaster casts of the women’s faces with short biographical texts.
Three years later Iveković was invited back to rethink her initial proposal as part of an exhibition organized by Casino Luxembourg and the Musée d’Histoire de la Ville de Luxembourg. It was then that she created Lady Rosa of Luxembourg, a same-size replica of the Gëlle Fra with three critical interventions: the new monument was dedicated to the Marxist philosopher and activist Rosa Luxemburg, who was executed for her radical political ideas in 1919; Nike was turned into a visibly pregnant woman; and the original commemorative plaque honoring male heroism was replaced with texts in French, German, and English, reading, “LA RÉSISTANCE, LA JUSTICE, LA LIBERTÉ, L’INDÉPENDENCE” (Resistance, justice, liberty, independence); “KITSCH, KULTUR, KAPITAL, KUNST” (Kitsch, culture, capital, art); and “WHORE, BITCH, MADONNA, VIRGIN.”
Installed within walking distance from the Gëlle Fra, Lady Rosa of Luxembourg unmasks the ways in which women are forced to occupy only a symbolic order that denies them historical agency. Women played a significant role in Luxembourg’s resistance movement during World War II, but their fight has been kept out of official history; instead they are represented simply as symbolic bearers of national history, as idealized, allegorical figures such as Nike. By making Nike pregnant and renaming her after a real woman, Iveković restores the female figure to its rightful historical position.
Lady Rosa of Luxembourg provoked a fierce debate that played out in newspaper headlines, on television shows, and in hundreds of articles and Internet discussions. The most violent opposition focused not on the pregnant figure but on the plaque; the displacement of ideals of male bravery by abusive terms regularly used to describe women evidently touched a nerve. Iveković had flouted memorial conventions, tying everyday feminine dissidence to past resistance. The most memorable of Iveković’s public art projects, Lady Rosa of Luxembourg renegotiates the memorial’s purpose by questioning the conventions of social remembrance and insisting on justice for women’s position in society.
For the duration of Iveković’s retrospective exhibition at MoMA, this project is presented with documentation of its original reception and controversy, which has become part of the monument’s own memory. Lady Rosa of Luxembourg constitutes a case study in the tradition of countermonuments—monuments that at once use the conventions of heroic form and reverse public expectations of it.
Sanja Iveković: Sweet Violence is on view at MoMA from December 18, 2011, through March 26, 2012. On the evening of December 12, Roxana Marcoci moderates a panel discussion among scholars, curators, and artists engaging in a critical analysis of this influential artist’s practice. The panel will be followed by Iveković’s performance Practice Makes a Master with Sonja Pregrad.