Art and Science / Performance Art

Lipstick, Lenin and Liberalism

Lipstick, Leninism and Liberalism

Riding the wave of the feminist and civil rights movements that erupted in Western Europe and North America in the 1960s, feminist art emerged in the 1970s to challenge the male-dominated art world and carve a space of recognition for female artists. Although not exclusively, many women artists seized upon the genre of performance art to make politically motivated work that confronted not only the art system, but also gender inequality. There are various reasons that performance appealed to feminist artists: for one thing, some saw it as a new genre that was full of potential. While sculpture and painting were traditional categories of art making, dominated primarily by male artists, performance seemed to offer a new platform from which to speak.[1] Furthermore, insofar as performance art involves live action, often where the artist uses his or her own body (as opposed to working in paint or marble) to express ideas, the artist has an undeniable presence in the work. In this way, performance art enabled female artists, whose bodies were more often visible as the subject of artworks than the authors of them, to become visible, to act instead of being passively viewed.

In socialist and communist Central, Eastern and Southern Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, artists also began working within the genre of performance art, however feminist art in the region was less common than in the West. The reason for this was simple: in an egalitarian society, there was no need for feminism. The state guaranteed equality to men and women in theory, however the reality of this situation was much different. While men and women were both obliged to work, as a duty to build socialism, traditional gender roles were, for the most part, retained in the home. One might think that this would create an even greater need for an active women’s movement and even feminist art, however in places where the state exercised control over much of everyday life, the common enemy for all was the regime, which remained the focus for both men and women in the counterculture.[2] Still, there are some striking examples of work by both male and female artists from the East that deal with gender issues in this time period.

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Sanja Iveković, Diary, photomontage (excerpt), 1975-1976, Courtesy of the artist.

Yugoslavia occupied a unique place in the socialist sphere. As a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, distanced from the USSR, it appeared “Western” to those in the East, yet it was also not completely Eastern to those who came to visit from the West. Yugoslavs experienced really existing socialism together with consumerism that was absent from much of the Eastern Bloc. Consequently, while Soviet women lived through what Vida Tomić called “a gray bureaucratic socialism,”[3] Yugoslav women were well dressed. While women throughout Eastern Europe benefited from equal opportunity employment and child-care, in Yugoslavia, they also enjoyed an influx of the accouterments of femininity—make-up, clothing, and Western fashion magazines. As Bojana Pejić has written, “Luckily, no Yugoslav party officials, let alone Tito, were ever known for criticizing the beautifying desires of Yugoslav comradesses.”[4] Furthermore, Izabela Kowalczyk has argued that “beauty was a subversive category in the East”[5] insofar as it was the corpulent, modestly dressed mother who was best placed to help “build socialism,” rather than the slim, fashionable swinging single gal. In Yugoslavia, which straddled this border between East and West, I think these two contrasting sentiments perfectly illustrate the liminal position Yugoslav women found themselves in during the socialist period.

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Sanja Iveković, Make-Up, Make-Down, video performance (film still), 1976, courtesy of the artist.

In the 1970s, Croatian (Yugoslav) artist Sanja Iveković created a number of works that focused on cosmetics and their application, in relation to the process of female beautification. In her 1976 video performance, for example, entitled Make-Up, Make-Down, the application of make-up is fetishized, by being shown as a sensual act. The camera focuses on the female subject’s cleavage and hands (her face is not visible), which slowly manipulate and caress various objects containing make-up: tubes of lipstick and mascara, a bottle of lotion, etc. In this piece, Iveković turns the daily and often unconsciously undertaken task of applying make-up into a ritual that arouses the desire that the cosmetics, when fully and completely applied, are supposed to produce. In Instructions No. 1, a video performance also from 1976, she then turns that ritual into a primitive, tribal affair—one that destroys, instead of constructs, beauty. Instead of simply giving herself a facial massage, the artist draws arrows, using a make-up pencil, which indicate the direction and manner that the face is to be massaged, according to the instructions. She then proceeds to give herself this treatment, ultimately destroying the lines by smudging them, leaving her face to appear as if a battle has taken place on it. Instead of beauty, we see blurs. Prior to the massage, her face appears to be decorated with war paint, yet the aftermath reveals only destruction.

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Sanja Iveković, Instructions No. 1, video performance (film still), 1976, courtesy of the artist.

In the photomontage Diary, created between 1975-1976, Iveković juxtaposed the make-up removal pads and cotton balls that she used over the course of a week with glossy images from a women’s magazine depicting a woman fully made-up. She followed this piece with the performance Un Jour Violente, where she applied make-up and dressed according to an advertisement in Marie Claire, which told women how live glamorous lives through their style: “One day, violent: today you are dazzling, you don’t yourself know why, you feel irresistible joy, you want sparkling drinks, intensive light, unusual hairstyles, provoking dresses,” the article proclaimed. In the course of the performance, in three different spaces, she applied three different “looks” provided by the magazine: tender, violent and secret. Here, Iveković draws attention to the battleground that is the female body, playing on the rallying cry of the magazine that pairs violence with glamor, beauty and desire.

Iveković’s work from this period resonates with a wide audience, as these constructed notions of beauty and mass media images of women, not to mention the market for cosmetic and beauty products, were quite notably manufactured by the West, yet consumed both in Western Europe and North America as in socialist Yugoslavia, where citizens experienced, as Pejić has called it, “consumerism-cum-communism.” But even more poignantly, Iveković’s work still resonates nowadays; while the precise look of the jour violente may have changed slightly since the 1970s, the pressure on women to look good and conform to standards presented in the media remain in place to this day.

In the 1980s and 1990s, state socialism was gradually replaced by nationalisms, and Yugoslavia essentially broke into smaller countries following a series of wars. In the violence that erupted, the veneer of egalitarianism that the Yugoslav government endorsed quickly crumbled, leaving behind the patriarchal society that had always been lurking beneath. As Pejić has stated, “On this morning after, our post-comradesses do not show much interest in political causes, feminism included,”[6] and suggests that in some ways the aversion to feminism even in the post-socialist period relates to a desire to forget the shared past of Yugoslavia following the bitter wars of the 1990s. But across Eastern Europe, all women found themselves in a similar predicament: suddenly arriving in a post-feminist world without ever having experienced feminism or a sexual revolution.

Contemporary artists in the region responded to this phenomenon with work that examines the female subject in society in the present day. Whereas in the socialist period examples of feminist art were rare, nowadays one can note a number of artists across Eastern Europe who deal with gender—exploring both male and female roles—in their work. And it should come as no surprise that some themes from the past recur, since the message bears repeating, as gender inequality is one thing that the socialist and neo-liberal systems have in common. Furthermore, the generational divide between artists of the 1970s and that of the present day is wide, mainly owing to a lack of institutional support and recognition of artists such as Iveković, who were operating largely outside of institutions and were self-organizing. For that reason, the experimental art of the 1960s and 1970s is rarely taught in art academies nowadays, and younger artists come to find out about this work in more haphazard ways.

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Borjana Mrdja, Enthroning, video performance (film still), 2009, courtesy of the artist.

Thus when Borjana Mrdja, an artist from Banja Luka, Bosnia, created a series of self-portraits using the imprints of her face on the cosmetic sheets she used to remove her make-up at the end of the day, in a video performance entitled Enthroning (2009), she did so without overt knowledge of Iveković’s Diary. The same goes for another video performance, Almost Perfect Work (2009), in which the artist applied lipstick using a specially constructed glove, the tips of which contained tubes of lipstick. In this piece, the artist’s face became the work surface, and the sounds of a construction site, heard in the background, confirm the activity as such. Here, Mrdja has turned Iveković’s sensual act of manipulating phallic tubes of makeup into an awkward one, as the glove is difficult to use gracefully as a lipstick applicator. Instead of cleavage and gentle movement, the viewer sees the hard work and toil that it takes to beautify oneself. In some ways, this performance is Mrdja’s jour violente.

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Borjana Mrdja, Almost Perfect Work, video performance (film still), 2009, courtesy of the artist.

In Enthroning, the artist’s self-portrait is constructed through a series of masks that the artist applies and removes every day—the same mask that many women do, as they put on lipstick and eyeshadow to highlight their features, and concealer and foundation to cover imperfections. Just like Iveković’s three “looks,” Mrdja’s portraits are different from day to day. A thicker coat of make-up perhaps signifies a “night out” or “job interview,” whereas a lighter impression may have signaled a day at the lake or other casual event.

The artist explained that the title of the piece refers to the action of firming one’s position, through the solidification of identity. For the artist, this “enthronement” ritual took place over the course of one hundred days, resulting in 100 of these “self-portraits.” Here, Mrdja creates something anew out of an act of destruction—in destroying the make-up on her face, she creates a memory of that day, and a reification of her experience thereof.

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Vlasta Žanić, The Three of Us, video performance (film still), courtesy of the artist.

A contemporary Croatian artist, Vlasta Žanić, has also turned her attention to the ritual aspect of applying makeup, in her video performance, made with her two daughters, entitled The Three of Us. Together, they all appear in front of a mirror, applying make-up to their faces individually. When each one finishes applying her lipstick, eye shadow and mascara, and decides that she is fully “made-up,” she removes the make-up and starts this ritualistic process all over again, from the start. The act of beautification can never be completed, because the ideal beauty proclaimed by the fashion magazines is impossible to achieve. This sentiment is also emphasized in an earlier video performance, entitled Baring (2002), where the artist plucks her eyebrows before the camera. Instead of stopping when she achieves the desired shape, however, she continues the painful process until her eyebrows are completely gone.

Just as Žanić shares this ritual with her daughters, the critique and examination of female beauty in relation to gender roles in society is shared across generations of artists in the former Yugoslavia, from Iveković to Mrdja and Žanić. While the work of the previous generation still resonates today, the fact that current artists still engage with these issues supports Kowalczyk’s notion of beauty as subversive. Whether under the banner of Leninism or liberalism, for these artists, lipstick is just one of the many weapons used to challenge the status quo.

*For a thorough discussion of feminist and gender-based work in performance art across Central, Eastern and Southern Europe since 1960, see chapter 2 of my forthcoming monograph, Performance Art in Eastern Europe Since 1960 (2016).

[1] It should be noted that this conventionally held view has been contested, see Jayne Wark, Radical Gestures: Feminism and Performance Art in North America (Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006), 29-32.

[2] Martina Pachmanová, “In? Out? In Between?,” in Bojana Pejic, ed., Gender Check: a Reader (Cologne: Buchhandlung Walter König, 2010): 39.

[3] As qtd. in Bojana Pejić, “The Morning After: Plavi Radion, Abstract Art and Bananas,” in Pejić, ed. Gender Check: a Reader (2010): 97.

[4] Pejić, “The Morning After,” in Pejić, ed. Gender Check: a Reader (2010): 105.

[5] Izabela Kowalczyk, “The Ambivalent Beauty,” in Bojana Pejić, ed., Gender Check: Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe (Cologne: Buchhandlung Walther König, 2010): 39.

[6] Pejić, “The Morning After,” in Pejić, ed. Gender Check: a Reader (2010): 109.

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