They expect us to be pretty but I dare to be ugly
19 • 10 • 25Petra Bakos
Katalin Ladik on her early artistic experimentations, her collaboration with the Bosch + Bosch Group and her relationship with the arts estabishment of the semi-periphery. A conversation at the Budapest Ludwig Museum’s Bosch+Bosch Group and the Vojvodina Neo-avantgarde Movement exhibit.
How did you become a member of the Bosch+Bosch Group?
Before joining the Bosch+Bosch, I spent many years working independently. From time to time I joined forces with Attila Csernik, among others, with whom I engaged in body art and body poetry experiments, such as when he stamped and glued letters on my body. In 1972 Attila, Imre Póth and I made an experimental film, the Opus, in which I sang Csernik’s O material. Unlike most of my other works, the Opus was not based on improvisation. Instead I counted the number of the letter “O” in the material, noted whether the “O”s were large or small, black or white, mobile or fixed, made drawings of it all, and that became the visual score that I sang. It was because of this film that the founders of the Bosch+Bosch Group, Slavko Matković and Bálint Szombathy decided that they would like us to join the group. So we became members in 1973, from that time on if they called us we did things together, but I still mainly worked independently. In the Bosch+Bosch exhibits I also participated with independent work, although Matković and Szombathy told us ahead of time what to do and what topic to address. I was given the task to provide sound material, because the roles were set, the guys were the visual artists and I was the sound. Slavko had a permanent base in Subotica, so whatever I sent to the group ended up at his place, including my sewing pattern collages that are exhibited here. Here the sewing patterns are presented as pieces of visual art, but actually they are an intrinsic part of my sound poetry. I always took multimedial material to the Bosch+Bosch events, for instance I used the sewing patterns as musical scores during performances that accompanied our exhibits. In other words, the sewing patterns are collage-based musical scores.
The sewing machine has been an important metaphor of yours since the beginning.
That’s right, it’s a metaphor, and a female metaphor for that, just like the sewing pattern and the scissors. These are ancient intermedial symbols that weave from one artform to another. I started using these feminine componenents deliberately, because in the macho world of the time I didn’t want to express myself in a masculine fashion. First I tried to hide my femininity, but then I entered a period of defiance, from then on I wanted to express myself and realize myself as a woman. This defiance also marked other choices of mine, such as turning to body poetry, because I resisted my assimilation in the intellectual art of blue stockings. The grotesque is my primary element; I always despised when someone took themselves too seriously. When we held poetry readings with the journal Új Symposion in the seventies, the guys were all hairy and they held their cigarettes in front of their faces and beards and hands and smoke covered them up – this was the customary practice of hiding that I wanted to disrupt with my performances. If we are the most vulnerable in our poetry, we shall – so I thought – pour our whole bodies into them, since the reader comes to meet us at our fullest. I always considered that poetry is Gesamtkunstwerk. The most ancient poets, the shamans were mediators between the earth and the higher world. Now I’m talking about inner journeys, to which female nature is more receptive. But the poet still has to have a tool for such a journey, and the voice can be the táltos steed on which she can fly – so I put my whole body and voice into my readings. If we poets show up at readings then we should be really present for our readers, as they don’t come to watch us buried in our papers.
Your works often play with our understanding of presence.
Yes, for instance my 1974 work, Pseudo presence II, which is also exhibited here. Perhaps this was my first work during the Bosch + Bosch times, its score was published in Serbian in the WOW alternative art journal, edited by Szombathy. I played with the relation of presence and pseudo presence, inspired by Manet’s painting The Luncheon on the Grass (Déjeuner sur l'Herbe 1862/63). Inspired is not the right word perhaps, I should rather say I was constantly occupied by it, because I was so irritated by it, thinking, sure, this is normal, that all the men are elegantly dressed, and the woman is naked, she is there as an ornament really. So my idea was that I would ask the people of Novi Sad to put their portraits into their windows, and I put my life-size portraits into all of my windows as well, however, I also stood next to them, in other words I was in one of the windows and the photos were in the rest, therefore I was there and I wasn’t there at the same time.
But this had an antecedent. In 1972, with musicians from Zagreb I was preparing for our feature in the cultural program that accompanied the Olympics in Münich. We were in a really creative mood when I told them that I would like to make a happening right there, at the rehearsal. The others, mainly guys – there was only one more woman in the crew, a percussionist from the US – said fine, and then I took all my clothes off and sat back in my place and kept on sitting and rehearsing like that, fully naked. The other musicians didn’t give a toss, I was there like everyone else, still somehow I was not entirely there. This was my first experiment with pseudo presence, as well as my response to the Manet painting.
For this you must have needed lots of strength. Where did you get it from?
At the end of the sixties I increasingly felt that I have a fatal inhibition, which influences me as an artist. Also, from ’69 it was clear that I need to search for new forms of artistic expression. Then I was invited to a program on Radio Belgrade where I read my poetry in Serbian and performed sound poetry pieces. After that a journalist from a national newspaper interviewed me and I told him that I had a performance in which I recite my poetry as a shaman while naked. So I said this and it was published as if I had already had such a performance. When the interview got published, the director of the Atelje 212 Theater, Mira Trailović, and their dramaturge, Jovan Ćirilov, called me and told me that they would be interested in that performance of mine and that they would like to invite me into their Theater in the Basement. Despite my devastating bashfulness I said yes. I jumped straight in the deep water because I knew that it would take ages to shed the layers of my shyness gradually. So I traveled to Belgrade, took with me the necessary requisits and music. Luckily I’m short sighted, so when I started the performance I took off my glasses. Also, I was blinded by the reflectors, so I could really focus inwards while performing, but still, I felt I’m about to die of shame. Nevertheless I performed what I planned and the leaders of Atelje right away told me that the stage of the Theater in the Basement is mine for the next several evenings. At first there weren’t so many people but from the second night on they came in throngs. After this I was invited to the GEFF (Genre Experimental Film Festival) in Zagreb in 1970, and that performance got international reviews too.
I got so much feedback from women, plenty of women, who were thankful that I dared to be brave instead of them, as they said, that I dared to write, to say and do things.
Women understand that I have no choice but to be an exhibitionist, that my body is my only tool, because I am not a university professor or such.
You are naked on most photos exhibited here. You picked the pictures with deliberation, right?
Not at all, I hardly saw these in the past, for instance from the series in which Attila Csernik prints letters on my naked body I only own one piece, the rest is Attila’s, I never knew the name of the photographer even… so now I will finally find out [she walks to the pictures and reads the tag on the wall]… the photographer’s name is not indicated, weird… But my performance photos were almost always taken by people from the press or by friends and acquaintances, never by professionals.
What does it feel like to see these pictures now?
I will tell you what I see now. I see the woman who did not know yet that she would be stigmatized. Since 1970 I’ve been the “naked poetess”, and as such I have no real place in Hungarian literature. The printing of the body became a literal stigma. For instance here are the pictures of my famous and notorious performance in Budapest, the Sámánének (Shamanic Chant), where I have performed a fertility ritual as a semi-naked shaman woman – but that was perhaps five minutes from the whole event. I was focused on the rite, because poetry is a rite. So first I sat and read like any other poet, then I slowly pulled out the instruments, the tools… But of course the naked part is the most documented, although, as I said, it was but a fragment of the evening.
Still, besides putting a lasting stigma on you, I can imagine that it had a liberating effect on some.
I got so much feedback from women, plenty of women, who were thankful that I dared to be brave instead of them, as they said, that I dared to write, to say and do things. I got letters from all over Yugoslavia, saying that they now dare to write, to make their plans come true, and later I learned that I had a similar effect on women in Hungary, that I encouraged them to be themselves, while their letters satiated my pain of stigmatization and of being stuck on the periphery. Women understand that I have no choice but to be an exhibitionist, that my body is my only tool, because I am not a university professor or such. Not to say that women in science had it easy, so many of them are forgotten, like Mileva Marić, Albert Einstein's first wife.
Did they listen to you within the Bosch+Bosch group?
No. Matković and Szombathy decided what we would do and then they told us what they needed for when. Szombathy once gave me some addresses, because he had connections with international arts journals. I sent in my works and they were immediately published and from that time on I was individually sought out by arts journals. However, by that time I had decided that I would not follow so-called world trends, those things that were popular at the time such as typographic work, landart, all those things that Szombathy and the others did based on western patterns. It is true that at the beginning I was also interested in ready made visual poetry, very popular at the time, because I thought that with that I would fit better in the Bosch + Bosch Group, but I quickly realized that ithad nothing of me in it, it could be done by anyone, man or woman. This was also the time when more and more women started to emerge in the international art scene, for instance in mail art, but with a decidedly vaginal focus. I understood that this is the expression of their defiance, this direct vagina-art, but I did not want to engage with it, I wanted to do something more subtle and something that relates to women’s situation in the Balkans and in East Central Europe. I wanted to create work that is critical of social conditions but is more than a reaction to political matters. I decided to source my material from the everyday lives of women aorund me, and my presence – pseudo presence – experiment was already moving in that direction, as back then women were present, yet they were not exactly present, and if they were really present, they were in trouble. But I decided to look out of the picture, to ruin my face and to do things women hardly ever did back then. Today one almost never sees unphotoshopped images any more, while all the pictures taken of me were the most simple unaltered shots. What hasn’t changed is that it is expected from women to be pretty and doll-like, but I was against this, because I’m grotesque too and I dare to be ugly...
...which requires at least as much courage as getting undressed.
Yes. That’s what my 1980 experimental video, Poemim reflects on. For Bogdanka Poznanović’s suggestion the Novi Sad Academy of Fine Arts bought its first videocamera, and she asked me to make a performance for the camera. The Poznanovićes were older than we were and they were significant for us as well as for other artist groups, because as university professors they had the means to travel abroad. For instance they regularly visited the Venice Biennale and brought news about new trends in the world. From among the traditional Vojvodina Hungarian avantgarde artists, József Ács meant a lot for us. Ács and Petrik and Benes were the greatest among the traditional avantgarde artists who were in tune with world trends but still remained deeply Vojvodinian. Ács was the eldest, yet he approached us with attention and appreciation, and wrote about us before there was any sort of arts criticism in Vojvodina. He also appears on Attila Csernik’s Paris photographs, which are exhibited here, he had nothing against hanging out with us and getting inspired by us, the youth. Ernő Király was like that too, though he would have probably remained an old school composer had he not met me; he started experimenting with new forms and introduced my sound poetry into his compositions after that. The Poznanovićes were the eldest avantgarde couple in Novi Sad, we could get informed through them, they allowed us to access their amazing library, and sometimes helped us with technology too, just like in the case of my film. Bogdanka, who herself was a multimedial artist, recorded my videoperformance, the Poemim in the stairwell of the Academy of Fine Arts, amidst terrible working conditions. I put together this videoperformance from the elements of some earlier performances of mine. The focus was on the relationship of the artist and the artwork, and just like in my poem, the Gyere velem a mitológiába [Come with me into mythology] I am androgynous in it, because first I turn myself into an artwork with white spray, then as an artwork I revolt against my maker and ruin myself. However, when the white gypsum cover shreds off of the artwork that is the artist, she gets a thousand years older in a second – this is the price of her freedom.
We haven’t talked about your connection with folklore yet.
I got so much criticism for that. They said I’m going backwards, because I, the avantgarde poet turned to folklore! What happened was that I recognized what treasure folklore was exactly when everyone else around me wanted to become a beatnik and fight against the consumer society. What did we have to do with the consumer society then and there, at a time when if we had a plastic bag we washed it and reused it? [laughs] What I was interested in was where we stood, what was with us, I wanted to understand ourselves, our stories. So I read volumes upon volumes of folk tales from all over the world, I was most interested in the stories of the beginning, I even put together a volume of poetry on that topic, which finally got published in 1978. But long beforehand, in 1971 Professor Béla Gunda, the leader of the Ethnographic Research Group of the Hungarian Academy of Science published a beautiful article in the German journal Fabula, and in that he praised my poetry and parallelled it with Chagall’s peinture, claiming that they unite avantgarde with the folkloric tradition. In the meantime the others went on writing their Ginsbergian stuff, but what did we have in common with that worldview then? Other than that they were into landart, landscape manipulation and other fashionable things of the time. Of course not all of them, because for instance László Kerekes already begun as a very complete artist, a multisided talent, an original artist and a man with a difficult personality, who had many debates with Szombathy and Matković, no wonder that he was the first one to leave the Bosch + Bosch Group. Then eventually they kicked me and Attila Csernik out, because they were not content with us. Szombathy said something along the lines that we were not active enough [laughs].