You Are Not My Brother, Brother: Transitory Masculinity in the Art of Ivana Ivković
(EIKON Magazine No. 107, pp. 24-29)
Much like in the West, Serbian culture was built on patriarchal foundations that were encouraged rather than deterred during the 1990s. In the age of Freedom for a world with George Michael in its midst, there was an age of war on the outskirts of Europe—and we had our local pop stars as well. Popular media and music served as a mirror for the way people lived—but more than just a mirror, they became a tool. Channeling the desperation of young and lost generations, the music industry found a pattern to sustain the melodrama long after the critical years of Yugoslavia’s collapse. While men were soldiers and inevitably missed, their sons became troubled underdogs and alfas with toy guns, and their daughters searched elsewhere for father figures. Popular music and its lyrics circulated throughout this infinitely fruitful social context that spoke to the majority of the working class. In such a setting, male gender identity is placed under a strange spotlight and into a stereotyped narrative: The more and further they go away, the more longing their lovers experience. As a consequence, men often take on the role of bad boys who never truly commit and run away, alone or with other women, successfully playing their part in the tacit Balkan tragedy that exists through national music and films, rooted in and inspired by real life. This behavior is followed by their respective partners’ initial damnation or sadness, quickly replaced by forgiveness and adoration in spite of all obstacles. The image of love prevails and the cycle repeats ad infinitum.
Investigating everyday life in the Balkans, Ivana Ivković presents this unique perception of men that has developed over the course of the last thirty years. Her exploration is visual and observant, without actual scientific data, but developed with empathy and an inquisitive eye. While being praised and adored by their anxious avoidant offspring and lonely partners, the men in these stories are expected to live up to God-like standards. This is how their person becomes detached from their body, as well as how their objectification begins. Their bodies are totems, their figures are action figures; their spirit, however, fades into the background, unattainable and unknown. The perception of modern man in Serbian popular music is thus that of a well-bred, strong, powerful, and good-looking man with no character.
Reflecting in his own image created by the system, man himself becomes a tableau vivant, which is precisely the medium Ivković employs for her art. In these constructs—born out of the heteronormative order—women are the ones who inadvertently take on the role of the creator, giving the impression of the closed-off male counterpart through projection and imagination. Being an occasional victim of this system herself, Ivković observes the script closely and breaks it down with its own weapons. She gives us living pictures, exaggerated emotion, and ambivalent silence, as in the installation Lines, Rows, Columns (Dormitory), 2016, where an army of men at the peak of their power and strength are presented almost nude and vulnerable, even if oddly static and arranged in a militant manner. Men in her installations look like objects, and this latently feminist twist raises questions: Is this the revenge for the long objectified female body? Is this the emancipation of the macho? Is this queerness or masculinity?
Ivković speaks to her audience through lyric poetry, minimal choreography, and imagery. In her works, words are appropriated from folk songs and even more often from the contemporary hybrid alternative, colloquially called “turbo-folk.” In translation from BCS to English, the lyrics the artist uses become even more ambiguous, and both the visual and the verbal are characterized by a certain lack of definition, which gives the work its interpretative qualities. When looking at the lyrics of the song Brat (2013) by Ceca, one of Serbia’s most popular living singers who is often cited in Ivković’s work, one could easily confuse a story about romantic love with a story about civil war “frenemies” reminiscing or reuniting: “I’ve only got one hour, you are not my brother, brother, no, no, no, no; you’re like a spaceship, we’re only related by booze, no, no, no, no; some fires, they never stop burning; bad relationships, they never die—so let’s do it all over again.” The possibility to understand the lyrics in different ways is what gives Ivković’s work its final touch, as this gets translated in visual terms as well, as in drawings with textual snippets that are on the verge between irony and genuine emotion, between love and delusion, and between what is being appreciated as high art and what is part of the mundane.