Culture

Katalin Ladik: Under the radar

Katalin Ladik’s body of work is representative of an apt and unique transgression of time and space, rivalling many of the top contemporary artists. However, her career as a poet, performance artist and actress has disproportionately slipped under the radar. 

Born in 1942 in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, Ladik has been based in various cities in the region, primarily hopping between Novi Sad, Budapest and the Croatian Island of Hvar. Despite working under various communist regimes, her work is surprisingly explorative and controversial.

This was partly down to the relatively lax cultural laws that operated in both Yugoslavia and Hungary where, despite western stereotypes regarding the arts in communist countries, there was a niche and experimental avant-garde. Other notable artists such as Sanja Iveković and Vlasta Delimar also flourished.

Beginning her career as a poetess, Ladik immediately set her self apart from the mainstream, shifting away from the traditional medium of paper, using her body and movement as an instrument to express her words. These performances were accompanied by an evocative soundtrack rooted in Balkan folk music and ritualistic traditions, creating a multi-sensual immersive experience. This stripped language of its conventional meaning to the plosive and mechanical aspects of sound. 

These performances heavily relied on surrealist and erotic themes, earning her the epithet The Naked Poet.

In 1970 a media scandal erupted over the misinterpretation and sexualisation of her work following a naked performance at a Budapest poetry event. This opened her work up to disproportionate public scrutiny and critique. Her art was even featured in the men’s magazine Start. 

Her artistic expression through nudity and sensuality caused accusations of pornography and indecency, highlighting the deeply ingrained skewed morality of Yugoslav society, that is representative of sexism not only in the region, but universally. Yet rather than this discouraging Ladik, it only fired her up. Speaking shortly after the scandal she said, “I want to engage my audience in a kind of a ritual, a public ceremony celebrating the unity of body and spirit. This allows me to spouse every spectator. This is the deal: I am naked and the audiences are relieved of prejudice.”

A few years later, in 1978, she performed arguably her most significant and artistically astute work, Blackshave Poem, partly as a response to the media’s sexualisation of the female body and of her art in general.

Blackshave Poem. Photo: Artsy.net

The work featured the artist performing a ‘reverse striptease’, removing clothing and underwear to reveal herself dressed head to toe in black clothing, symbolising the naked body mimicked in the works title. She then applies shaving cream to her face and underarms, ‘shaving’ on top of this clothing. This immediately evokes a satire of heteronormative gender roles and the seeming pointlessness of a women shaving, as well as hinting at a crossover between both men and women, in the additional having of her face. 

This ingenious response to the sexualisation of her poetry further plays on one of the main motifs in Ladik’s work, which continues to this day – her body as a medium of communication. Providing a commentary on erotic representation and the objectification of women in popular culture is not only a valuable contribution to the avant-garde feminist art movement of the region, but to a broader critique of universal patriarchy, rendering her work both boundary breaking and boundary defining.