Exploring counter-culture in the arts, politics, sexuality and sport

RSS

On "Triangle" by Sanja Iveković

Juliet Jacques considers the changing meaning of a seminal work of performance art.

New Statesman
"Triangle," 1979. Image: The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The action takes place on the day of the President Tito’s visit to the city, and it develops as intercommunication between three persons:

  1. A person on the roof of a tall building across the street of my apartment;
  2. Myself, on the balcony;
  3. A policeman in the street in front of the house.

Due to the cement construction of the balcony, only the person on the roof can actually see me and follow the action. My assumption is that this person has binoculars and a walkie-talkie apparatus. I notice that the policeman in the street also has a walkie-talkie. The action begins when I walk out on the balcony and sit on a chair. I sip whiskey, read a book and make gestures as if I perform masturbation. After a period of time the policeman rings my doorbell and orders that ‘the persons and objects are to be removed from the balcony’.

*

So runs the final English-language text that accompanies Sanja Iveković’s Triangle, first performed on 10 May 1979 when President Tito’s parade passed the artist’s apartment in Zagreb, and then turned into an installation consisting of four photographs and this explanatory note. It is considered in detail by Ruth Noack, Head of Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art, in Triangle, the latest entry in Afterall Books’ One Work series.

Noack places Triangle within the political and artistic context of 1970s Yugoslavia, assessing the changing relationship between its form and content, and asking how its ‘canonisation’ turned it from a private act into public art. Well known in Croatia for the explorations of identity and ideology in her performances, videos and photomontages, Anglo-American audiences and critics are slowly discovering Iveković: her first UK solo exhibition, Unknown Heroine, took place at Calvert 22 and the South London Gallery just last year. Aware of potential dehistoricisation if Triangle is read primarily on aesthetic terms, Noack avoids efforts to integrate Iveković’s local avant-garde into the 21st century art world, instead trying to understand Triangle’s statement through analysis of its structure.

Noack had a personal role in Triangle’s transition from performance art piece to gallery installation. Co-curating at Documenta 12 in 2007, Noack dispersed the four photographs – of Iveković on her balcony, the apartment block, Tito’s parade and the people on the street, beneath the Yugoslav flag – across a display board. The next day, Iveković asked that it be re-hung, with the image of her on the right and the others on the left, with the text, framed, next to them. Noack is particularly interesting on the instability of Triangle’s documentation, and Iveković’s need to fix it as a work in its own right. On its first display in December 1980 in Zagreb, the image of the late Tito was missing: sure that the gallery director removed it, Iveković told Noack that ‘Self-censorship was the most powerful institution in our socialism’.

The directness of Triangle’s symbolism, exposing how thoroughly the state sought to maintain ‘visual order’ at mass spectacles even in private spaces, sprang from her concern that the artistic language of the late 1960s was too difficult and too detached to successfully democratise Yugoslav art. Although not a formal movement, several individuals and groups who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s were critically united under the New Art Practice banner. Dušan Makavejev’s short film Parade (1962) concentrated on the preparations for the Mayday event in Belgrade and the crowd’s irreverent disinterest, and was soon censored; in 1968, just before the student protests in the capital, an artist-activist group in Split painted their own red square in Split, attempting to take control of socialist iconography back from the government.

Aware that these bold, simple gestures had a profound effect on Iveković, who was studying in Zagreb at the time, Noack opens with a quote from the artist, who said that ‘those who were active on the counter-cultural scene at the time took the socialist project far more seriously than the cynical ruling elite’. Iveković’s grasp of power structures, and of the gap between the state’s rhetoric and its implementation, were fundamental to her art. Feminist criticism didn’t exist in Yugoslavia, partly because officially, women were central to its socialism: not taking its ideological lead from Moscow, the country had advanced abortion policies, social security, childcare and paid maternity leave. However, concerns about unpaid reproductive labour, domestic violence and the sexism of the growing advertising industry were seldom discussed, as the workplace took priority over the home, and the gender balance of these spaces remained relatively unchanged.

Developing Iveković’s concern with the place of women in Tito’s Yugoslavia, Triangle explored various power dynamics simultaneously, contrasting the public male politician with the private female artist, the former demanding the adulation of his citizens, the latter alone, nonchalantly reading T. B. Bottomore’s Elites and Society.  It was this ability to explore a number of ‘social relations and subject formations’ at once, suggests Noack, which makes Iveković’s work stand above that of her contemporaries, with Triangle’s strength lying in the clarity of the question it asked: Would you rather watch the old leader for the umpteenth time or a young artist masturbating?

Iveković’s concern with who was watching was vital. The whole point was that the original performance could only have had a very small audience, possibly just one, and that this viewer was sufficiently affronted to report her behaviour to the authorities – although Noack says that nothing in the presented evidence conclusively proves that the chain of events actually happened. Noack refuses to get too mired in this possibility, however, aware that it is more interesting to ask how Iveković simultaneously removed herself from and inserted herself into the spectacle, and how the size and type of her audience changed over time.

Perhaps strangely, Noack makes no mention of Iveković’s repeat on 15 October 2005, for the visit of George W. Bush, attempting unsuccessfully to inform the Croatian President, Parliament and Ministry of Foreign Affairs before she did so, and apparently producing the same outcome despite the shift in official ideology. Nonetheless, Noack makes a convincing case for the original performance and installation of Triangle as a landmark post-war work: it may not have been the foundation of a movement, but it was an intelligent, utterly original piece that continued to ask searching questions about the relationship between politics and art long after it was first performed and recorded.