Katalin Ladik’s body art tore away the veil of conformity for Eastern European women

We look at the work of Serbian-Hungarian artist Katalin Ladik, born on this day in 1942, who liberated poetry from the page, using her body as a material.

Katalin Ladik was born in 1942 in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia (present-day Serbia). She moved to Budapest in 1992 and has spent the last 20 years living between the Hungarian capital, Novi Sad, and the island of Hvar, in Croatia.

Throughout her decades-long career, Ladik has developed a dense yet focused multidisciplinary practice that spans collage, experimental music, performances, photography, body art, mail art, and audio plays. She works with paper, sound, and her own body, but despite the diversity of output, she remains first and foremost a poet. “Whatever material I use in my work”, Ladik wrote for Secondary Archive, “I always convey a poetic message through it as voice poetry with my voice, concrete poetry with my visual works and collages, and multimedia poetic performances with my body.” This hybridity of her work, and its unwavering concern with language, can be seen as a reflection of her hybrid cultural identity, as a Yugoslav and then a Serbian-Hungarian. Ladik is considered today one of the foremost Eastern European neo-avant-garde artists of her generation.

Seminal moments

Ladik studied economics at university in Novi Sad. Her poems were first published in 1962 in the avant-garde magazine Symposiom while she worked as a bank assistant. She then began her career at Radio Novi Sad (1963-1977). ​​ Her work with voice led her to performance; she joined the theatre group Bosch+Bosch as an actress in Subotica in 1977, and stayed until 1992, just one year after the beginning of the Yugoslav wars (1991-2001). Her 1976 record Phonopetica propelled her onto the international scene, with renowned sound poets from abroad — such as Bob Cobbing, Gerhard Rühm, and Henri Chopin — inviting her to perform at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1977. More recently, Ladik participated in Athens’ documenta14 in 2017. She is represented by the Budapest gallery acb, which has exhibited her work since 2016.

The Garden of Earthly Delights (2016)

Defining features

Ladik’s art is multi-disciplinary, but she is first and foremost a poet. She often alters or eschews paper, poetry’s natural medium, as she finds it too static. Her art, especially her performance art, presents the voice and the body as a site in which the personal and the political intersect and overlap. Using myths, personal narrative and everyday objects, her aim is feminist, since she seeks to explore her place and her struggles as a woman in Eastern Europe. Ladik always approaches these socio-political subjects with a lightness of touch and brazen humor. For example, she calls her Blackshave Poem performance (1978) an “anti-striptease”, as she applies shaving cream and removes lingerie on stage, all the while keeping on a black long sleeve shirt and black plants, thereby stopping the male gaze.

Ladik was the first female artist in Yugoslavia to use her own body in performances as an autonomous medium, as conducive to artistic ends as sound or text. Her 1970 bagpipe performance Shamanic Gest was a major moment in Eastern European actionism in the context of stiffening Yugoslav politics. It’s considered to have set in motion irreversible processes in the history of the emancipation of women not just in Yugoslavia, but also, as relations between the two scenes intensified, in the Hungarian avant-garde.

Poemim (1978)

Style and work

Ladik used her body in different ways to reflect on women’s roles in Eastern Europe. She sometimes performed almost completely naked, while at other times she concealed herself through costumes, masks, and props. The subjects of birth, the descent into the underworld, the struggle of the sexes with themselves and each other are all recurrent themes in her work. She often includes sexually ambiguous figures, such as androgynes and angels, as well as what she calls gender-neutralizing elements. In the photo-performance Poemim (1978), Ladik presses her face onto a glass plate until it becomes smooshed and deformed. “These faces,” Ladik writes in Secondary Archive, “reflect our inner selves, the mask that can be found in all of us.” The body is made unstable in Ladik’s work, its inside made outside and vice versa through vocalization (Ladik’s voice ranges from overtones to bass), ingestion and expulsion. “My art is based on movement,” Ladik writes. “Everything is in constant transformation, in eternal change in nature and in the universe.” While her work in the 70s incorporated instruments and printed circuits she found in the sound studio of Radio Novi Sad, more recent pieces such as the multimedia performance Alice in Codeland (2012-2017) include the QR codes and barcodes now ubiquitous in our daily lives.

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