Censorship & Art

B. Censorship


Comparison of Marina Abramovic’s Performance at the Venice Biennale, and Sanja Ivekovic’s Performance Miss Croatia and Miss Brazil Read Zizek and Chomsky at the Sao Paolo Biennale


                      a. The Representative of Yugoslavia in Venice during the War

Marina Abramovic’s performance Balkan Baroque at the 47th Venice Biennale “Future Past Present” in 1997 was almost censored because of pressure from the Montenegrin government.  However, because of a tactful decision of the curator, she was able to perform at the Venice Biennale.

Because of the unstable and complicated situation, the name of the Yugoslavian pavilion in Venice had not been changed, even though the old form of Yugoslavia itself no longer existed.  Peter Cukovic, the director of the museum in Montenegro, was selected as the Yugoslav Commissioner under an agreement between the Federal and Montenegrin Ministries of Culture.  He invited Abramovic, who was born in Belgrade and lived in Amsterdam, to show her work in the Yugoslavian pavilion.  The choice was controversial, and both positive and negative interpretations appeared daily in Montenegrin and Serbian newspapers.

b. Marina Abramovic, the Biggest Name in Europe, and Protection by the Curator

Goran Rakocevic, the Montenegrin government’s Minister of Culture, was displeased since he felt that Abramovic, as an emigré famous in Western Europe, could not reflect “authentic art from Montenegro, free of any complex of inferiority.”[1]  Rakocevic stated in a newspaper that “Montenegro is not a cultural margin and it should not be just a homeland colony for megalomaniac performances.  In my opinion, we should be represented in the world by painters marked by Montenegro and its poetics, since we have the luck and honor to have brilliant artists living among us.”[2]  Soon, Abramovic sent an official statement to the press saying she “terminated all communication with all Heimat-institutions responsible for the Biennale.”  Soon after, Vojo Stanic, a landscape painter, was announced as her replacement.  However, Germano Celant, the chief curator of the Venice Biennale, intervened and invited Abramovic to participate in his central exhibition in the Italian pavilion, offering her the whole lower level to use for her installation.  As a result, she won one of the major prizes, the “International Venice Biennale Award.”[3]

Marina Abramovic’s performance Balkan Baroque at Venetia Biennale, 1997

Left: Artist Body  Right: Marina Abramovic: Venice Biennale 1997

Contrary to Rakocevic’s opinion, Abramovic’s installation undoubtedly reflected the profundity of her cultural background.  Based on her family background, she should have been the ideal selection politically as well as artistically.  She was the child of a mixed marriage of a Serbian and a Montenegrin, and both of her parents were leaders of the intelligentsia.  Her mother Danica was a general of army from poor family, and her father was a national hero, having been an important figure in the Partisans during World War II who came from a rich family.[4]  Her grandfather was the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, and was murdered with his brothers by the King in 1938.  He was later embalmed and buried as a saint. Furthermore, her grandmother was a fanatic of religion.[5]

Abramovic’s installation “Balkan Baroque”, which she calls a play, is made up of a triptych of video screens which is similar to church icons.  Two screens, one on the left and the other on the right side, show images of her parents.  A central screen shows the artist dressed as a scientist, explaining the story of the creation of the Balkan “Wolf Rats,” creatures who destroy each other when they are placed in unbearable conditions.  Alternately, the screen switches to Abramovic adopting the outrageous persona of a typical Balkan pub singer who entertains her audience by dancing to folk music from her childhood.  The large room containing the installation holds three copper vessels filled with water and a massive pile of animal bones.  For four days, in sessions of six hours each, the artist sits singing in the middle of these animal bones while scrubbing them with disinfectant, clearing away scraps of meat attached to the bones.[6]  This dramatic act of purification is an act of grief and reflects the devastating war in the Balkans.  Abramovic’s approach is both tragic and wildly ironic.[7]

When she originally accepted the invitation to represent Yugoslavia, Abramovic thought hard about her homeland’s responsibility for the war.  She was also aware that she was the first woman to represent her homeland in Venice, so she kept in mind that women, both Muslim and Christian, were the major victims of the violence in the war.

Abramovic says, “I’m only interested in an art which can change the ideology of society…  Art which is only committed to aesthetic values is incomplete…  I don’t defend anyone, neither the Serbs nor the Bosnians nor the Croats…  I’m trying to deal with my own emotions, for example with this tremendous feeling of shame which I have about this war.  As an artist, you can only deal with what there is inside you.  I’m making this play because it is the only way to react emotionally to the war.”[8]

Marina Abramovic in a Soho Apartment (photo by Shinya Watanabe)

To the question “Do you have any positive idea for the independence of the countries from Yugoslavia?” she answered:  “I was completely against the disruption of Yugoslavia.  I found [it] a huge mistake…  In my time when I was 29, I experienced only positive element, and after the spreading, only the negative thing.  So I do not convince it was good, at all. I really think that it was such a huge mistake.  Also the pressure of the west was totally big…”[9]

c. Protection by the Curator in Venice Biennale

In this case, the decision of Celant, the Biennale curator, to give her a special place at Italian pavilion, in spite of the pressure of Rakocevic, the minister of Culture of the Montenegrin government, was admirable.  If this kind of courageous curator disappeared, censorship would spread very easily.

d. The Case of Sanja Ivekovic – An Artist from Croatia Who Lives and Works in Zagreb

Sanja Ivekovic (b.1949) is a media and performance artist in Zagreb who sets her works in public areas.  She questions the structures of communism and commercialism in socio-political context and the functions and supporting mechanisms of these structures.  By the early 1970s, she had become one of the most prominent new feminist artists in Eastern Europe.[10] The juxtaposition of public and private images illuminates the long-term goal of Ivekovic’s subversive tactics, to clarify the relationship of authority and the individual within differing contexts of power, such as communism or American unilateralism.

Sanja Ivekovic’s works always try to clarify the relation between individuals and society, and because of this, the response to her works had often become a delicate issue for the authorities.  Actually, under the regime of communism, several of her art projects, such as the television art project that dealt with the issue of domestic violence toward woman, was banned.

e. Sanja Ivekovic’s Critical Viewpoint

Sanja has a more critical point of view than Abramovic.  For example, these two artists’ positions toward Tito are different.  Since Abramovic left Yugoslavia when she was 29, and did not directly experience the negative effects of communism and the corruption of Yugoslavia in the 1980s and 1990s, Abramovic has been more on the side of Tito because of the idealism associated with communism.  On the other hand, Sanja Ivekovic has mixed emotions toward Tito, evident from her performance Triangle (1979).


Sanja Ivekovic Triangle (1979)

In this work, Ivekovic questions the image of women under Socialism, and tries to counter it as an artist.  These photographs show Ivekovic on the balcony of a housing block as Tito’s state limousine pulls by on the occasion of a parade; at some point, to provoke the secret servicemen posted on a nearby rooftop, Ivekovic made hand motions as if she were masturbating.  A policeman on the building reacted quickly.  In no time at all, one of his colleagues was at her door with the order, “Persons and objects are to be removed from the balcony.”[11]  In this work, she tries to clarify the lack of border separating the private from the public realm under the communist regime.

f. Invitation to the Sao Paolo Biennale

In 2002, Sanja Ivekovic became the representative of Croatia in the Sao Paulo Biennale.  She was first selected by the Croatian curator Leonida Kovac, but then afterwards rejected by the same curator because of the content of her work.  This rejection of Sanja Ivekovic by the original curator attracted international attention.

Ivekovic’s case is not simply a matter of everyday politics, but also concerns the internal and international policies and strategies of the governmental art institution in the public sphere.  In the beginning, Kovac stated, “Ivekovic was selected because of her international reputation and importance.”[12]  However, Kovac changed her mind after she realized what Ivekovic’s work actually showed: Miss Croatia reading a text by Noam Chomsky, and Miss Brazil reading a text by Slavoj Zizek.

In this artwork, Ivekovic compares the function of national representation in the Sao Paolo Bienniale and the Miss World selection. Furthermore, the independence of Croatia itself was a product of nationalism, which was led by Franjo Tudjman and enabled by the flow of capital from Western Europe.  In this work, she tries to be cynical about nationalism and commercialism both in Croatia and in the world by using “Miss Nation,” the product of show business, which represents the structure of the nation.

Furthermore, because of the September 11th terrorist attacks, the United States and other countries became nationalistic, and became sensitive about the topic of peacekeeping. Ivekovic choose Zizek and Chomsky, because they immediately published a brilliant analysis of the causes and possible consequences of the 9/11 attacks just after they happened.  For the artist who comes from a former communist country which was corrupted during an upsurge of nationalism, Miss Croatia and Miss Brazil Read Zizek and Chomsky is a sophisticated form of criticism directed against consumer society, nationalism, gender problems, and the global power structure.

Rajna Raguz, Miss Croatia, and Sandisleia Guiterrez, Miss Brazil, had both accepted the proposal.  Also Chomsky accepted this proposal soon after he received Ivekovic’s invitation via e-mail.[13]  First, the project has been enthusiastically supported by Alfons Hug, the chief curator of Sao Paolo Bienniale, but Hug did not protect Ivekovic when Kovac decided to fire her.

g. Response from the Curator and Art Critique in Croatia

Zvonko Makovic, art historian and critic from Zagreb, wrote an article in the Croat monthly Feral Tribuneoften, and supported the position of Leonida Kovac.  In his pronouncement, he cites the money Ivekovic “stole” from poor Croatian taxpayers.  Zvonko Makovic wrote, “You see who is stealing money from you? You poor taxpayers.”[14]

The Ministry of Culture, who were providing the money for the presentation, silently avoided the case. Meanwhile, the mass media had taken this as a new way to raise income.  The Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, the producer of the project, did not release any statement.

The delay in the production process happened because Sanja Ivekovic rejected signing a producer’s contract, and an honorarium to Sanja Ivekovic was not paid.  Ivekovic refused to sign this contract because it implied that Ivekovic must give one copy of the work to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, the producer of the whole project.  The Museum of Contemporary Art’s contract to get a free copy of the artwork for the collection of the Museum was also problematic.

Sanja Ivekovic was supposed to receive a sum of 32.000 HRK (around $4,000) as an honorarium.  Strangely enough, the same amount of money was given to Leonida Kovac, the curator.  However, Ivekovic’s work in developing the idea and realizing it was far more demanding.[15]

h. The Importance of Sanja Ivekovic’s case

In the case of Marina Abramovic, the chief curator Germano Celant protected the position of the artist.  However, Sanja Ivekovic was not protected by the Alfons Hug, the chief curator of the Sao Paulo Biennale.

Also Ivekovic’s case casts the question of how contemporary art institutions and the state are functioning in post-communist former Yugoslavian countries.  These institutions still have the inclination to obtain art works for next to nothing from artists.  Moreover, there is a question about how the ideology of power inflicts a cruel judgment on artists while supporting the new foolish methodology of the curator, allowing the critic to turn the nationalistic organization into the culturalized enforcer.

C. Who should interpret it?


a. International Recognition and the Image of the “Balkans” – the Stereotypical Image from Europe and Political Correctness


Both Marina Abramovic and Sanja Ivekovic were not really supported by the government because of their styles, which were avant-garde in their early careers.  However, there is a difference in that Marina Abramovic has had a long career as a performing artist in Western Europe, and Sanja Ivekovic has had a long career as an active artist in Zagreb, which is inside the former Yugoslavia.  Marina’s Balkan Baroque as a representative Yugoslavian work of art can be politically correct for Western European authorities including those of Venice, Italy.  In Italy and other parts of Europe, the Balkans were “Europe’s tinderbox” for a long time.

However, to read the texts of Zizek and Chomsky cannot be politically correct for Brazilian and Croatian national organizations just after September 11th.  These small details of background influenced to what degree Ivekovic was not protected by both curators.  However, this censorship that was due to political correctness was defined by the balance of power among nations.  Ivekovic was the victim of this power structure.

b. The Dilemma of Liberalism and Pareto Efficiency in Democracy That is Created by a Nationalistic Government

Liberalism and the freedom of expression cannot co-exist with current democracy and law decided by a majority vote, especially under a nationalistic government.  In the bookRational Fools, Amartya Sen talks about the impossibility of the co-existence of liberalism and Pareto Efficiency.[16]   If democratic national organization is pretty nationalistic after the September 11th attacks, Pareto Efficiency of the nation is far from the liberalism of the artist.  If the Brazilian curator Hug protects Ivekovic, he will be in danger of disciplinary action by the national organization, since to show Ivekovic’s work is not to Brazil’s national profit.  On the other hand, the independence of Croatia itself is the product of nationalism which was led by Franjo Tudjman’s nationalistic party.  The law itself was made to protect the authority, not to protect the freedom of expression.  If Ivekovic had sued Croatia’s national organization, as long as this case was judged under Croatian law, there would have been an extremely high possibility that Ivekovic would not have won the case.  However, the reason why Kovac choose Ivekovic is her international fame, not her national fame.  In conclusion, Kovac’s choice of Ivekovic as a Croatian national representative was a mistake.  As long as the nation-state exists, some avant-garde artists will always be scapegoats of the authority.

Go Next: IV. Conflicting Agendas

Go Back to the Outline Page

[1] Marina Abramovic: Venice Biennale 1997

[2] Newspaper Podgorica March 19, 1997

[3] Marina Abramovic: Venice Biennale 1997

[4] Pajic, Bojana. Primary Document –A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art Since the 1960s p330

[5] Alicia Chillida and Steve Cannon Interview Marina Abramovic

[6] Abramovic, Marina. Artist Body p364

[7] Marina Abramovic: Venice Biennale 1997

[8] Marina Abramovic: Venice Biennale 1997

[9] Interview of Marina Abramovic with Shinya Watanabe, Dec 20, 2003

[10] Hoptman, Pospiszyl. Primary Document –A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art Since the 1960s. p203

[11] Fricke, Harald. “Sanja Ivekovic: Neue Gesellschaft Fur Bildende Kunst. (Reviews: Berlin)”Art Forum. Feb, 2003

[12] Grzinic, Marina: Sanja Ivekovic: A Fight For the Artist’s Integrity

[13] Interview of Sanja Ivekovic by Shinya Watanabe, January 6, 2004

[14] Grzinic, Marina: Sanja Ivekovic: A Fight For the Artist’s Integrity

[15] Grzinic, Marina: Sanja Ivekovic: A Fight For the Artist’s Integrity

[16] Sen, Amartya. Rational Fools. p1-14

(C) Copyright Shinya Watanabe

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