Feminist Interventions in Croatia: Female Body in Public Space

5 April 2022 - no responses

In this article*, through three examples of feminist interventions by Croatian female artists from different generations, I will demonstrate how the female body occupies the public space, how it uses the public space in an inappropriate way, debates with it and tolerates repercussions when the norm is violated. The selected examples, Triangle (1979), a performance by Sanja Iveković, Lady Godiva Walk (2001), a performance by Vlasta Delimar, and Dialogues (2016), a photography series by Tjaša Kalkan, will present the different stances taken by their authors and strategies implemented.

[Fig. 1. Tjaša Kalkan, Dialogues, 2016, photograph]

I shall begin with the example of Sanja Iveković, who utilized the political potential of the performance to demonstrate the existing ideology and its mechanisms of power.[1] In her remarkable performance Triangle (1979), documented in photographs, Iveković performed on the day of President Tito’s visit to Zagreb. The artist sat on her own balcony in Savska Street 1, read Bottomore’s book Elites and Society[2] and pretended to masturbate. The communication triangle was created at the moment when, from the top of a hotel building, a security man spotted her and reported to his policeman friend, who was standing in the street, what was happening on the balcony. According to the artist, “after a period of time, the doorbell in my apartment rang and the person who identified himself as an officer ordered over the intercom that ‘all persons and objects must be removed from the balcony.’ This marked the end of the performance.”[3] 

[Fig. 2. Sanja Iveković, Triangle, 1979, performance] 

Bojana Pejić points out that a woman-on-a-balcony is a mise en scene which clearly outlines gender dichotomy inscribed in the dialectic between the private and the public.[4] In other words, the balcony stands directly between the two spheres, i.e. it presents a place from which, throughout history, women have perceived the world in which they have not participated.[5] What is particularly interesting in the context of feminist criticism inscribed into this work is the fact that this site-specific and time-specific performance on the meta-level also occurs in a “political time” (the arrival of the president).[6] This circumstance transforms the private sphere of the balcony into the “political space” which now functions as the public space.[7] Triangle thus speaks out about repressive authorities who can, if necessary, proclaim that the private space is the public space, and at the same time it thematises practices of surveillance, control and male domination.[8] Although Iveković exchanged glances with a representative of the security structures, his male gaze eventually brought about sanctions in her private space. Šuvaković comments on this in the following way: ”she performed a characteristic invisible event of a woman without content or an invisible woman who will become alive, a visible woman, only through the gaze of the state security ‘officer’, i.e. institutional infrastructure of controlling everyday life in real socialism.“[9] For all of the above, Marjanić described this performance using a term feminist performance, which is “determined by a political stance as a subversion of all forms of patriarchy and sexism“.[10] 

[Fig. 3. Vlasta Delimar, Lady Godiva Walk, 2001, performance]

Civil disobedience is present in another performance, Lady Godiva Walk (2001) by Vlasta Delimar who, unlike Iveković, does not speak from a clear feminist position, but from an internal narrative logic.[11] She takes her own experiences as the starting point and uses her own body as her art medium. For this reason, Marjanić categorizes her performances under a female performance, a term which points to a biological fact, but does not affirm feminist viewpoints.[12] In the aforementioned performance, Delimar, inspired by the mythological Anglo-Saxon noblewoman, rode naked in Zagreb city center on a white horse named Petko.[13] The noblewoman acted in this way in order to save the citizens of Coventry from taxes levied on them, while Delimar did the same to point to the “individual responsibility of every person and bravery in confronting conventions and imposed heteronomies.“[14] With this action, the artist attempted to address injustice suffered by individuals who want to live by their own rules.[15] Let us turn for a moment to the legal and institutional background of this performance, which Delimar comments as follows:

“I have been preparing for the performance for several years, because the first performance should have been delivered in 1996, right after the Croatian War of Independence. I tried asking for help from the Museum of Modern Art and Miroslav Kraljević Gallery, to deliver the performance under their ‘protection’, but they refused. The Museum of Modern Art rejected me again in 2001, and the same happened with the Modern Gallery, where they said that the times are not favorable for this kind of action. The association BLOK, which organizes Urban festival, also rejected me. The police gave me a written approval, but with an input that the performance could be delivered only if the rider was dressed.“[16] 

Eventually, she organized the performance on her own; she was arrested and fined for civil disorder. Although this was not the goal, and nor was this the purpose of this action, Delimar concluded that culture was on the bottom rung in her country and that every thinking person was against the state.[17] However, the question remains as to what we can deduce if we observe the subversion of ethical principles through the reaction of the collective and institutions which initially disavowed the performance, then contextualized and institutionally legitimized it, and even encouraged a restaging of the performance in Dora Lipovčan’s interpretation.

Let us return to the interpretation of the performance, with which Delimar (consciously or unconsciously) voiced criticism of monumental sculpture depicting heroic horseman by making an anti-monument gesture to subvert the iconography of the male warrior’s triumph. At the same time, she opened the topic of the body as a symbol of contradiction, i.e. fluid perception of a naked female body in the public space, which is, on the one hand, omnipresent in its idealized form,[18] while on the other, in its original form, it provokes abhorrence in the observer. As Katerina Jovanović concludes, “while we observe Vlasta’s imperfections, we experience our own identity crisis which results in discomfort and stupor, and finally repulsion and disgust towards what we have seen“.[19] Delimar employs her own naked body almost as a manifesto of liberated sexuality,[20] which is, exposed in the public space, being treated also as an “element of the explored space, having in mind that this space does not only serve as a framework for the performance, but also that the performance arises as a reaction to it“.[21] Regarding Vlasta Delimar’s work, Šuvaković concludes:

”She presented a symbolic image of a social (ideological) struggle as an allegorical image of ‘sexual struggle’ in which and through which dimensions of sociality are being revealed. With this, she provoked exposition/concealment of normatization of ‘normality’ of the private and the public as socio-paradigmatic (ideological). […] Vlasta Delimar agrees to confront a game of power on her body, and in this game there is no salvation, redemption or liberation… because anatomy is destiny which is constantly being constructed and deconstructed in the social (sexual, economic and political) struggle for power.“[22]

The third work tackles aversion to the female body in the public space. This time it does not arise from nudity or divergence from the media-constructed image of an idealized body, but from its behavior in the public space. It is a photography series Dialogues (2016) by Tjaša Kalkan, in which the artist explores normed relation of the body in the public space. Kalkan describes the concept in the following way:

“Guided by the subjective experience of physical and psychological restrictions, through performance I intervene in the structure of these spaces by photographing a staged female body in relation to random passers-by. […] Via these actions, I create potential dialogues between the body and the space in order to defamiliarize the usual ways of perceiving and using the body.“[23]

[Fig. 4. Tjaša Kalkan, Dialogues, 2016, photograph]

In her deliberation on the project, Kalkan begins with her autobiographical experience, which she raises to the level of a general issue of socially conditioned corporeality, by twisting the normed use of the female body in the public space. The author points out that the urban space is “full of programmed and automatized bodies, which are mechanically moving, standing, waiting, sitting.“[24] She approaches social normatization from a clear theoretical cornerstone, providing an example of a sociologist Marcel Mauss who argued that our physical behavior is not natural, but rather learned and reinforced through the cultural-historical heritage.[25] It is further regulated through the systems of social control over the body and geometry of bans, which are the repercussion of the process of rationalization of the Western culture and its doctrine on the superiority of the mind over the body.[26] Therefore, the body is being controlled and self-regulated by means of various traditional (moral, church) and political authorities.[27] In the contemporary world, there are also surveillance cameras, numerous warnings and written rules which one can find in the public space. Furthermore, Kalkan concludes: “If the relation between the body and the space is conditioned by the context of the social norm, then the key to understanding and potentially changing this relation lies in negating, twisting or breaking the norm.“[28] For this reason, the artist comes up with performative stage settings which create dialogues with urban public spaces, and makes a woman the protagonist. Although Kalkan does not adopt an explicitly feminist position, some of the feminist criticism strategies are noticeable in the subtext of her work. Since the photograph is being understood through language, i.e. it is “scripto-visual“ by its nature, “even when we look at the photograph next to which or on which there is no text“, Victor Burgin points out, „the text is always there – in a fragmentary form, in the mind, as association.“[29] Therefore, the fact that the subject is female inevitably influences connotations attached to the performance, the reaction of the observer and implications produced by this “ritual exercise in disobedience”.[30] The action we observe is boiled down to a scene in which a woman, by means of her (female) body, defies a convention of adult behavior in the public and assumes the mode of childish playfulness. The semiotic chaos arising from this strategy is a result of the subversion of traditional categories and representation of the woman.

[Fig. 5. Vlatka Horvat, One on One, 2008, photograph]

[Fig. 6. Vlatka Horvat, Searching, 2004, photograph]

In a similar fashion, the artist Vlatka Horvat in her photography series explores ways of positioning the female body in the public space, by squirming it, twisting and leaning over other objects. Writing about the One on One series (2008), the curatorial collective What, How & for Whom highlights that: “The female body is here as much a piñata, a ragdoll and a target, as it is a dead-weight – an absurd (soon-to-be) lifeless figure lined up for annihilation.“[31] In the Searching (2004) series, Horvat pushes her own body into objects not intended for it, as if she is unsuccessfully trying to hide from an imaginary observer and his or her destructive gaze.[32] While Horvat has an imaginary observer, Kalkan introduces real observers into her series, who, unaware that they are being photographed, have genuine reactions, i.e. they are consciously not correcting themselves. With this framing, Kalkan puts subsequent viewers, gallery audience, into an almost voyeur-like position. She takes us into the scene in medias res, at the moment of obvious reaction of passers-by who are astonished or appalled by the unconventional behavior of the female subject in the public space. Since the passers-by are “active carriers of the norm“,[33] their unstaged bodies which produce what seem to be genuine reactions are in fact reactions stemming from learned behavioral patterns generated via culture. Kalkan skillfully exposed this paradoxical relation by creating dialogues on two levels – physical (in relation between the body and the urban landscape) and psychological/metaphorical (in relation with the passers-by).


By: Petra Šarin

*This article is a part of my unpublished MA thesis entitled Feminist Interventions in the Croatian Art After 2000: The Problematic and Critical Positions (2018).


[1] Martina Bratić, Destabilizacija praksi političkih sistema u radovima Sanje Iveković kao model feminističke umjetničke aktivnosti danas: Neke perspektive radova Andreje Kulunčić i Sandre Sterle, MA thesis, Zagreb: the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb, 2014, p. 21.

[2] Patricia Počanić, Izvedba identiteta u hrvatskom performansu, MA thesis, Zagreb: the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb, 2016, p. 36.

[3] Bojana Pejić, »Sanja Iveković: Metonimijske kretnje«, in: Uvod u feminističke teorije slike, (ed.) Branislava Anđelković, Belgrade: Centre for Contemporary Arts, 2002, p. 294.

[4] Ibid., p. 293.

[5] Ibid. Griselda Pollock wrote about a similar topic, spaces of femininity in the history of modern painting. Cf. Griselda Pollock, »Modernizam i prostori ženskosti«, in: Feministička likovna kritika i teorija likovnih umjetnosti (izabrani tekstovi), (ed.) Ljiljana Kolešnik, Zagreb: Centre for Women’s Studies, 1999, p. 157-196.

[6] Patricia Počanić, Izvedba identiteta u hrvatskom performansu, 2016, p. 36.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Martina Bratić, Destabilizacija praksi političkih sistema, 2014, p. 31.

[9] Miško Šuvaković, »Neizvesni modeli ženskog identiteta i konceptualna umetnost«, in: Konceptualna umetnost, (ed.) Miško Šuvaković, Novi Sad: Museum of Contemporary Art of Vojvodina; Cultural Center of Novi Sad, 2007, p. 273.

[10] Suzana Marjanić, Kronotop hrvatskoga performansa: od Travelera do danas, Zagreb: Bijeli val Association; the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research; Školska knjiga, 2014, p. 540.

[11] Martina Bratić, Destabilizacija praksi političkih sistema, 2014, p. 17.

[12] Suzana Marjanić, Kronotop hrvatskoga performansa, 2014, p. 540. Although this correctly follows Delimar’s self-interpretation, we shall see how her performances carry a strong feminist potential within themselves.

[13] Ibid., p. 558.

[14] Suzana Marjanić, »Vlasta Delimar ili žena je žena je žena…: auto/biografski performansi«, in: Vlasta Delimar: To sam ja, (ed.) Martina Munivrana, Zagreb: Domino, 2014, p. 48.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ružica Šimunović, Tijelo u dijalogu: Ženske performativne prakse u Hrvatskoj, Zagreb: Durieux and AICA Croatia, 2016, p. 103.

[17] Suzana Marjanić, »Vlasta Delimar ili žena je žena je žena«, 2014, p. 48.

[18] Through monument plastics, paintings, feature films, pornography etc.

[19] Katerina Jovanović, Performans kao umjetnost – tijelo kao umjetnost: Vlasta Delimar, MA thesis, Rijeka: Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Rijeka, 2016, p. 52. Jovanović writes: ”Thus on one occasion, in relation to the performance Lady Godiva Walk (2001), she received harsh criticism from a female observer saying that she is too fat and too old to expose her body publicly.“ Even today, more than fifteen years later, Delimar still performs naked, presenting a real body as it ages.

[20] Patricia Počanić, Izvedba identiteta u hrvatskom performansu, 2016, p. 30.

[21] Silva Kalčić, »Dogradnja prostora sadržajem: proces i trajanje«, in: Vlasta Delimar – Milan Božić: Provesti noć u prostoru…, Zagreb: Domino, 2015, p. 5. Qtd. in: Kristina Malbašić, »Umjetničko tijelo Vlaste Delimar kao medij kulturnoantropoloških značenja u javnom prostoru«, in: Zbornik radova međunarodnog i interdisciplinarnog skupa „Od državne umjetnosti do kreativnih industrija/transformacija rodnih, političkih i religijskih narativa“, (eds.) Josip Zanki et al., Zagreb: Croatian Association of Visual Artists, 2015, p. 110.

[22] Miško Šuvaković, »Neizvesni modeli ženskog identiteta i konceptualna umetnost«, 2007, p. 276-277.

[23] Tjaša Kalkan, artist’s statement on Dialogues, exhibition catalogue HT nagrada za hrvatsku suvremenu umjetnost, Zagreb: Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb, 2017

[24] Tjaša Kalkan, Dialogues, MA thesis, Zagreb: The Academy of Dramatic Art, University of Zagreb, 2016, p. 8. I thank Tjaša Kalkan for putting her MA thesis at my disposal.

[25] Ibid., p. 11.

[26] Ibid., p. 17.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., p. 18.

[29] Kate Linker, »Prikazivanje spolnosti«, in: Feministička likovna kritika i teorija likovnih umjetnosti (izabrani tekstovi), (ed.) Ljiljana Kolešnik, Zagreb: Centar za ženske studije, 1999, p. 129.

[30] Tjaša Kalkan, Dialogues, 2016, p. 37.

[31] WHW, The Vulnerable Body Object, in: Vlatka Horvat, In Other Words, in Other’s Words and Other Words, exhibition catalogue, Bergen Kunsthall, 2011, p. 9. I thank Sabina Sabolović for pointing me towards Vlatka Horvat’s work and giving me this catalogue.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Tjaša Kalkan, Dialogues, 2016, p. 17.



Figure 1: Tjaša Kalkan, Dialogues, 2016, photograph, taken from: http://croatian-photography.com/author/tjasa-kalkan/

Figure 2: Sanja Iveković, Triangle, 1979, performance, taken from: http://sumrevija.si/article/sum-1-izidor-barsi-trikotnik-sanje-ivekovic/

Figure 3: Vlasta Delimar, Lady Godiva Walk, 2001, performance, taken from: http://stari.kontejner.org/images/orig/delimar.jpg

Figure 4: Tjaša Kalkan, Dialogues, 2016, photograph, taken from: http://croatian-photography.com/author/tjasa-kalkan/

Figure 5: Vlatka Horvat, One on One, 2008, photograph, taken from: WHW, The Vulnerable Body Object, in: Vlatka Horvat, In Other Words, in Other’s Words and Other Words, exhibition catalogue, Bergen Kunsthall, 2011, p. 37.

Figure 6: Vlatka Horvat, Searching, 2004, photograph, taken from: https://www.culturenet.hr/default2.aspx?id=7054

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