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Film still from 'Instructions No. 1', (1976), black-and-white video

Q&A: Sanja Ivekovic

The Croatian artist on her first UK exhibition, socialism and why she never felt the need to move west

Sanja Ivekovic is an artist who has never exhibited in the UK before, and now a retrospective of her work, spanning four decades, is being held across two venues in London. A true testament to the strength and relevance of Ivekovic's work, both the South London Gallery and Calvert 22 are displaying works for her new exhibition Unknown Heroine. Earlier in the year, Sanja held a solo show at the MOMA in New York and now it seems, thanks to the insistence of Lina Džuverović, South London is following in the footsteps of the American institution by giving Sanja's work noteable exposure in the UK. For the artist who has lived and worked in Croatia, the former Yugoslavia, all her life, the fact that her work is finally being given a considerable platform in America and Britain signals the recognition of her work and its importance in a "West" she has visited, but never made home.

Sanja is a critical artist, whose work stretches across the fields of collage, film, performance and installation - and is known for tackling issues such as female identity, consumerism and how identity is shaped by both political ideology and the media. We spoke to the artist about the development of her work and why, although criticising the Socialist former Yoguslavia in which she was born, she never left…

Dazed Digital: This is your first solo exhibition in the UK. How did the retrospective come about?
Sanja Ivekovic: The initiative came from Lina Džuverović, the artistic director of Calvert 22 whom I met about a year ago. She was very persistent and enthusiastic about organising my retrospective in London and I couldn’t but say “yes”.

DD: You have lived and worked in the former Yugoslavia, and now Croatia all your life. How did this inform your work?
Sanja Ivekovic: The important advantage of living and working within socialism is that you learn very early on that nothing is free from ideology, everything we do has a political charge and the division between politics and aesthetics is entirely erroneous. I think my work reflects that.

DD: Did you ever think of leaving Yugoslavia?
Sanja Ivekovic: No, Yugoslavia was a good place to live. When I was a student I would regularly travel every year to Europe and North America and would always be happy to be back. The “West” did not seem to be a better place to me.

DD: What do you see as the biggest changes within your work?
Sanja Ivekovic: The biggest changes happened after 1989. My practice became politically more direct and I felt that new modes of operation were necessary...For me the challenge was to think about art that could remain critical but also be participatory, instead of being limited by merely illustrating the political context. When I started to develop larger public art projects in the 90s, I turned to collaborations with NGOs (women’s groups, activists), which opened up a whole new horizon to me.

DD: You pioneered new art practices such as video art in Yugoslavia, are you comfortable performing on film for your installations?
Sanja Ivekovic: I didn’t have a problem being a protagonist in my performances because I was involved in the dance scene from an early age - so I was used to performing in front of an audience. In recent years I have not been so  eager to be “on stage”, because I don’t want my persona to “cloud” the communication of the work.

DD: How do you think your practice has evolved?
Sanja Ivekovic: Since the beginning of my career I have been interested in reflecting my own position as a woman, as an artist and as a citizen in a certain socio-political context and that has never changed. Naturally, the early works were more modest in terms of scale. Today I am able to develop more complex works and I am much more interested in public projects.

DD: Some of your earlier works look at the relationship between female identity and the media. How do you think this relationship has changed since you first started working on it? 
Sanja Ivekovic: I think it has changed in a sense that the power of the media in constructing our reality has become much, much stronger. When I started to work with this topic anorexia and bulimia were unknown medical terms.

DD: What is the earliest work in the retrospective, and what inspired it?
Sanja Ivekovic: It’s the short video Sweet Violence which I made  in 1974. I recorded a  daily economic propaganda program which used to be broadcast on national television. This is a good illustration of how the Yugoslav system was a mixture of socialism and free-market capitalism. My intervention consists of placing vertical black bars onto the screen. With this simple gesture I wanted to make visible the distance between the sender of the message and its recipients. 

Sanja Iveković: Unknown Heroine runs from 14 December 2012 - 24 February 2013, at The South London Gallery & Calvert 22, Admission Free