Kritičarski karavan | Katalin Ladik suffers a nervous breakdown, quits her job as a bank employee and becomes a conceptual artist
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Katalin Ladik suffers a nervous breakdown, quits her job as a bank employee and becomes a conceptual artist

„Katalin Ladik doživljava nervni slom, daje otkaz na mesto službenice u banci postaje konceptualna umetnica”

Katalin Ladik doživljava nervni slom, daje otkaz na mesto službenice u banci postaje konceptualna umetnica, režija Zlatko Paković, Pozorište „Deže Kostolanji“, Subotica, fotografija Edvard Molnar

If Marina Abramović is the grandmother of performance art, one could call Katalin Ladik the great-grandmother. Abramović began working with performance in Edinburgh in 1973, while Ladik was already doing so in Hungary and Yugoslavia in 1968.

Ambivalence characterises her biography. Ladik is of Hungarian origin and was born in Serbia (then Yugoslavia). Her parents were day labourers and worked on Serbian estates while she attended commercial school. She began working as a bank clerk in a socialist country, but after three years decided to give up her well-paid job and take refuge in the more modest financial circumstances of the art world. She swapped financial security for artistic freedom. She broke through the boundaries between different art forms, becoming a poet, actress and then performance artist, moving freely through the possibilities of these areas of expression. She published her first collection of poems entitled Ballad of the Silver Bicycle (Ballada az ezüstbicikliről) in 1969 with a gramophone disc on which the verses were performed verbally. In a patriarchal society in which a woman’s appearance is decisive for her success in the male hierarchy, Katalin Ladik uses her naked body precisely as a means of rebellion against the phallocentric social structure. In 1975, she was expelled from the League of Communists of Yugoslavia because she undressed during her performances, thus violating the provisions of the statutes that speak to the moral character of a member.

Her unique and provocative artistic career became the object of interest of another artist who also cultivated an uncompromising critical attitude towards many social phenomena, especially capitalism and nationalism. Recently Zlatko Paković staged a play with a very long title in the “Kosztolányi Dezső” Theatre in Subotica: Katalin Ladik suffers a nervous breakdown, quits her job as a bank employee and becomes a conceptual artist. A descriptive title can mislead the audience because it suggests a biographical play. However, this is not the case. The performance moves in no man’s land, on the border between a theatrical homage, i.e. a collection of Katalin Ladik’s performances, and an attempt to express a current and authentic critique of today’s society with the fragmentary structure of shortened repetitions of her earlier works.

In attempting to be both a museum exhibition of Katalin Ladik’s performative world and a personal political platform for Paković, the theatre piece comes across as an indecisive eclectic mess. All sorts of things have been thrown into it with seemingly no particular order, concept or coherent explanation. Actor Kucsov Borisz greets us, dressed as a DJ wearing a red apron that reads “Hero of Communist Kitchen”; he asks the audience, who are at the “Dezső” theatre for the first time, who there knows who Katalin Ladik is…? Meanwhile, the text of an avant-garde manifesto is projected onto the big screen behind him. Kucsov then speaks to an artificial intelligence, which he asks to write him a new communist manifesto. The AI replies that it is unable to do so; the actor expresses his request repeatedly and in different ways, but to no avail.

This opening sequence feels undefined because there is no established parallel between the AI, Katalin Ladik and her life and work. Perhaps the author wanted to say something about the availability of information related to the latest technological developments and that insufficiency of this information. If the point was to criticise the limits of artificial intelligence and the intention of corporate capital to empty the digital sphere of subversive political content because AI is not free to write a new communist manifesto, then this is simply not true, because ChatGPT and Bard, the two most widely used artificial text generators, wrote extensive manifestos in response to identical requests without any problems when I tried them at home.

Without repeating or explaining such an introduction, what follows are scenes from Katalin Ladik’s performances, performed by herself, but also by several actors and actresses. For example, we see part of Blackshave from the 1979 happening Screaming Hole, in which the performers in black turtlenecks smear shaving foam under their armpits and shave, then a performance in which the artist plays with a bow on her hair, or in which she performs her vocal poetry through inarticulate screams, or the one in which she leans her face against the glass and makes all kinds of grimaces. All of this takes place in an empty space into which the actors bring and remove props as required.

The presence of the artist herself and the re-enactment of fragments of her legendary performances is the greatest asset of this performance, as it revives her ephemeral performance art, which would otherwise be doomed to disappear, and recognises it as still relevant and current. While the effectiveness of these revitalised segments is undeniable, the performance as a whole leaves a very weak impression because the director fails to formulate a context in which all the parts would work together harmoniously. Paković targets nationalist politicians, the banking system, the failed Yugoslavian project, the Catholic Church and the petty bourgeoisie on a general level that does not go beyond the power of pamphlet  proclamations.

Andrej Canji

The review is part of the project “Critic’s Caravan”, which is carried out by the Association of Theatre Critics and Theatreologists of Serbia under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and Information.