On "Triangle" by Sanja Iveković

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

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.

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

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit