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A Notable Modus Operandi

Notes on Katalin Ladik’s Ooooooooo-pus Exhibition at Ludwig Forum Aachen

  • Review
  • Jan 09 2024
  • Maja Ćirić
    is an independent curator and art critic. After the digital turn in 2020, she became more involved in phygital (physical + digital) projects, conferences and exhibitions in the hybrid field of art + science + tech. She also curates in the metaverse (meta + universe). Historically speaking, Maja was the curator of the Mediterranea 18 Young Artists Biennale, in Tirana (2017), and has been both the curator (2007) and the commissioner (2013) of the Serbian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Maja holds a PhD in Art Theory (Thesis: "Institutional Critique and Curating") from the University of Arts in Belgrade. Her speaking engagements, among others, were/are at MAC VAL (2017), Centre Pompidou (2018), and MNAC Bucharest (2018), AICA Serbia Conference (2021), Zlin Digital Exhibition Design Conference (2021), Interact Conference on Human-Computer Interaction (2021) and IKT Conference (2021). She contributed to Flash Art, Obieg, Artforum, Artmargins Online, Arts of the Working Class, springerin. Her areas of expertise from day one span from the geopolitical and the curatorial through curating as a practice of institutional critique. She sits at the Board of Advisors to The Telos Society, Arts & Culture Research Lab Observatorium in Athens and the Editorial Board of The Large Glass published by MoCA, Skopje. She is the art glass researcher and advisor for Digital Glass Serbia, a project whose goal is to evaluate the legacy of industrial glass production.

Ah, the visionary dance of art, an endless game of entwining itself in a dialogue with the intricacies of context, geopolitics, and the very essence of the artwork. Behold Ooooooooo-pus, an exhibition at the Ludwig Forum for International Art  in Aachen, whose very title pirouettes around the Latin word opus meaning “work” or “labor” and the neo-avant-garde heroine Katalin Ladik as its muse, whispering, mumbling and murmuring by the means of a performance around and by her (art)works. The exhibition unfolds as a collaborative effort, a rendezvous orchestrated by HdK Munich, Ludwig Forum, and Moderna Museet Stockholm. This second act, an exhibition assembled anew by the minds of Fanny Hauser and Hendrik Folkerts, introduces nuanced deviations.The surplus of 'o's, a playful homage to the experimental utterances of Ladik and Atila Csernik, kindred spirits from the Yugoslav Bosch+Bosch artistic collective, conjuring cinematic spells in O-pus (1972). Ladik is a luminary born in the multicultural Yugoslav embrace, cradled in the arms of Hungarian heritage, has etched her artistic saga in the fabric of Budapest since the dawn of the century. She is a poet and writer who expands the boundaries of poetry  phonetically, visually and kinetically. Her newest retrospective [1], a curatorially articulated body of artworks, beckons the senses into a multimedia tapestry of creation between poetry, theater, body art, performance and literature. Hauser and  Folkerts, as co-curators, focus their artistic lens on the multimedia works that dance at the intersection of visual and verbal splendor and the reflections in sound.

The framed collage Die Meistersinger (1980) [2] takes its place near the entrance to the second room of the exhibition dedicated to collaborative practices. It is a composition featuring a sheet of musical notes, a complete Cyrillic азбука (meaning alphabet), and a small historical stamp  created by Ladik and two fellow male artists Peter Below and Bálint Szombathy, from her Mail Art series. While there is no direct translation of the Cyrillic text, its purpose here is to remain cryptic. But this is not about learning the language, Katalin Ladik’s abundant practice is all about reshaping and rearticulating it. The black and white notes, alongside vibrant letters, create a visually striking fusion, inviting viewers into a unique voco-visual realm. This realm either houses or guards the inscription, a sentence in Cyrillic letters that reads, "I can do whatever I want now”. The stamp is attributed to the  “Rand Künstler Marginal Artists”, it dates itself back to 1978, but there is also an ad infinitum sign near the year. A retrospective is indeed a vision to be unfolded. The act of creation stemmed from a necessity rather than a pursuit of fame, a sentiment shared by the protagonists of the new artistic practices in the the 70s artists from Eastern Europe who believed that life is equated with art” and that  “art is not a closed sphere” [3]. Those challenging artistic norms often committed to a lifelong artistic marathon, treating experimentation as their essence. Upon emerging, their practices proved groundbreaking and exhilarating. The label "I can do whatever I want" serves as acknowledgment and readmission to the Western canon of art. Despite, Ladik took part in Documenta 14 and her artworks are in the collections of MACBA, MOMA etc, the signal sent here is not about being recognized, it is about the time where she was creating for a sake of art not career and thus made it to the history of art. In her own words “we didn't know it was significant, we worked freely, we didn't go abroad in order to succeed”.



The exhibition Ooooooooo-pus is less about validating the claim of relevance at the center of cultural production, and more about seeking original examples on the periphery. It comes from a genuine interest in an original art practice. However, Katalin Ladik's biography unveils what was initially a non-peripheric narrative. Unlike artists working behind the Iron Curtain, Ladik was already recognized and present in the West in the late 1970s. One of the novelties of the show at Ludwig Forum is a tablophone. It is a handheld multimedia device designed for the artist  by a musical composer Ernö Király, her first husband. Progressive and original, she was not only aligned with the practices in the Western Europe but also fully acknowledged, as an example, she performed on the tablephone at the prestigious international “Text in Sound Festival” at the Stedelijk,  in 1977.  Always determined to remain authentic,  she knew that she had to work with the tools and tales of her surroundings, thus the inspiration from shamanism, local folklore and original toys like the cornstalk fiddle, for example. 

The practice of Ladik is locally labeled as “a speech of an artist in the first person”. Yet, her impact on language transcends a mere anti-authoritarian stance, echoing Kurt Schwitters' early forays into sound poetry, exemplified by Ursonate (1922–1932) [4]. Beyond challenging conventions, Ladik actively engages in the subjectification of language. However, her artistic journey extends beyond linguistic borders to encompass her own corporeal boundaries. Ladik's exploration of her body's imagery proved challenging, leading to her resignation from the communist party. Undeterred, she transformed this challenge into a platform to mock objectification, framing her torsi in a deliberately grotesque manner in Poemin, (1978 and 1980). An intriguing facet of her defiance against conventional norms is found in her anti-striptease performances. These further underscore Ladik's commitment to dismantling traditional expectations, using her body as a tool for subversion and social critique. Cheat Sheet, (1973), striking artwork in Ladik's oeuvre features a Serbo-Croatian word, 'A LIE,' overlaid on a Yugoslav flag ,a poignant commentary on the questioned identification with Yugoslav identity. In  Identification, (1975), a photograph taken at the staircases of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, Ladik positions herself both in front of and behind a Yugoslav flag, raising further questions about national identity. 

Ladik's modus operandi intricately weaves together the mastery of language through her vocal capabilities, a strategic positioning within the geopolitics of the art world via her commanding presence in exhibition histories, and a profound connection with nature. A notable instance of her transformative approach is evident in "Painting the Sea" (1980). What might initially be perceived as a mere nude surrounded by menstrual blood, adrift in the sea, is alchemized by Ladik into an emblematic performance art piece, meticulously captured through the lens of photography [5]In this artistic metamorphosis, Ladik not only asserts dominance over both formal and conceptual elements but also manages to channel intense emotions into an object that transcends societal boundaries, acquiring an additional layer of art historical significance. In her adept hands, what might be perceived as unconventional becomes a poignant expression with broad cultural resonance, skillfully navigating the intersection of acceptance and elevated art historical value. Ladik's artistic prowess lies not just in pushing boundaries but in the nuanced transformation of the unconventional into the socially resonant and historically significant.

The creation of meaning in Ladik's art emerges organically, born out of freedom and an exploration of the otherwise unspoken. A recurring motif in her body of work is the letter “O”, a symbol laden with significance. Yet, her opera extends beyond personal symbolism, becoming a testament to the synchronicity of art histories. It reflects the interwoven nature of the Yugoslav art scene within the Western context, shedding light on a socialist legacy that originally approached gender issues and body art. Ladik is a long lasting pioneer in the relentless pursuit of new and unconventional forms of art, the newest vocal-visual artworks going a bit further by becoming a bit more spatial e.g. Leda Grows a Blue Beard (2019). Her uncompromising moves not only challenge artistic norms but also underscore the intricate connections between art movements and the broader cultural landscape.

In a world where authorities often make us doubt language and infrastructures, Ladik's organismal poetry becomes a flavor that gives vitality and integrity to the alternative. She does not only embody the cult personality of the Yugoslav and Central Eastern European avant-garde, her vocal-visual prowess resonating through the ages. 

This exhibition also sheds light on the complexity of the context from which Eastern European artists emerged, a context not always comprehensible but one that adds a unique depth to their creations. It whispers that the traditions of this region, though nearly invisible today, bear a certain differentia specifica, especially within the Yugoslav narrative. This narrative reveals a richness and nuance that can be elaborated through every letter of the Cyrilic alphabet, but “O” does just as well by setting it apart in the grand art history. 



Cover: Katalin Ladik, Poemim, (1980). Installation view, Ludwig Forum Aachen, 2023. Photo: Mareike Tocha

Fig. 1: Katalin Ladik, Androgin 1-3, (1978). Courtesy of Ludwig Forum Aachen, 2023. Photo: Mareike Tocha. 


    [1] Unlike here, the previous retrospective was focused on illuminating and understanding the gender related  aspects of Ladik’s artistic parcours, in relation to the specific position of gender in the Yugoslav socialist context. The Power of a Woman: Katalin Ladik, Retrospective (1962-2010). Curated by Dragomir Ugren, Catalog signed by Miško Šuvaković and Gabrijela Šuler,  MSUV, Novi Sad, Serbia, (2010).

    [2] The Master Singers.

    [3] Ješa Denegri, Teme srpske umetnosti, srpska umetnost, (1950-2000, 2019).

    [4] A translation of the title is Original Sonata or Primeval Sonata.The poem was influenced by Raoul Hausmann's poem "fmsbw" which Schwitters heard recited by Hausmann in Prague, (1921).

    [5] This piece like the previous ones,  also serves as confirmation that photography is a crucial media in the ‘70s.




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