Katalin Ladik

Blackshave Poem


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Not on display

Katalin Ladik born 1942
12 photographs, gelatin silver prints on paper
Frame: 532 × 437 × 12 mm
image: 388 × 293 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Russia and Eastern Europe Acquisitions Committee 2017


Blackshave Poem 1978 is a series of twelve black and white photographs of the artist performing in a make-shift studio against a plain backdrop. In each photograph, she is shown either removing a piece of clothing or applying shaving cream to her face and armpits and simulating the act of shaving. Underneath her underwear, the artist wears a long-sleeved black polo-neck, black trousers and black boots which remain on her body throughout the performance, mimicking Black skin as indicated in the work’s title. In the final image, Ladik feigns ‘shame’ by covering her crotch with her hands. The photographs document an action that took place in the artist’s apartment in Novi Sad, Serbia in 1978 and was performed specifically for the camera, without an audience. The photographs were taken by artist Imre Póth.

This action – referred to by the artist as an ‘inverted striptease’ – was one of a series of performances of the same title that Ladik performed publicly at venues including the Gallery of Modern Art, Zagreb, and City Library, Novi Sad, in 1978, and during her exhibition opening at the Young Artists’ Club (Fiatal Muvészek Klubja), Budapest, organized by László Beke in February 1979. Typically, the artist performed a number of different actions during one event, building up the performance from poetry reading to pure phonic performance, using her own poetry as a basis. In Budapest, for example, during a two-hour event, Ladik performed Blackshave Poem, in addition to exhibiting and performing her collages and scores, and presenting material relating to her Phonopoetica record. The ‘audiovisual’ programme ended with the realisation of the Change Art action, a participatory event, in which participants exchanged objects and ideas.

Blackshave Poem was also incorporated into the work The Screaming Hole, which was performed at the Young People’s Platform, Novi Sad, in 1979. Here the artist performed from within a small temporary structure, a wooden frame clad in paper, which the audience had to partially rip in order to peer through at her. This performance emphasised interaction and communication between the artist and audience.

The Blackshave Poem actions feature the artist simulating nudity and the spectacle of stripping. By substituting black garments for her naked body, she subverts the anticipated outcome and its attendant voyeurism. Her mimicry of the act of shaving can be seen as a mocking of the social convention of shaving and its relation to notions of beauty. Art historian Emese Kürti has written that Ladik:

commented that whereas undressing had been an erotic motif in the earlier period, the grotesque and humor [sic.] became more emphatic in the anti/striptease of Blackshave Poem, a gibe, saying ‘this one’s for you, and for me’. The performance amplified the aspiration to the grotesque through the motif of shaving, in which the artist referred to an abolishment of gender roles by shaving her foam-covered face and arms. Androgyny was crucial for Ladik as a metaphor of an ungendered ideal state and appeared as a projection of her contextual feminism in several works in the 1970s–80s.
(Kürti 2017, p.61.)

Ladik’s early actions, such as Incantation (Vabljenje), performed in Novi Sad in 1970, were erotic and surreal, rooted in Balkan folk music, Hungarian folklore, regional folk poetry and ritualistic traditions. She used her body not only to express emotions, but as if it were a musical instrument, producing and emitting sounds. Speaking in 1970, the artist described her approach in the following way: ‘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.’ (Quoted in ‘Poetry and Striptease: A Poetess reciting nude’, Vjesnik, vol.8, no.XII, 1970, p.121.)

A press scandal erupted in Hungary in 1970, following Ladik’s naked performance at a poetry event held in a cultural centre in Budapest. The media response paved the way for decades of negative responses to Ladik’s activities. As a public figure, a poet, actress and radio performer, Ladik’s actions were subject to public scrutiny. Colour photographs which documented her naked actions were printed in magazines such as the men’s magazine Start. Her deliberate use of theatrical nudity and construction of herself against traditional and currently prevailing moral-political norms was not welcomed by the mainstream Socialist press who defined her actions as transgressive, labelling her as the ‘naked poetess’. Accused of pornography and as a consequence of her ‘public transgressive media presence’, Ladik was expelled from the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (SKJ) in 1975 for subversive activities and indecency.

In the early 1970s Ladik had spoken in an interview with Yugoslav author Judita Šalgo (1941–1996) about her ‘dissatisfaction with the distasteful and subordinated position of women in society’ (Kürti 2017). Her work considered the eroticised body a medium of communication; however, following the backlash she experienced, Ladik shifted her interests towards feminist critique and it is in this context that the Blackshave Poem actions can be seen. These performances can be read specifically as Ladik’s reaction to the criticism she received, and more broadly as a comment on the erotic representation and objectification of women in popular culture.

Further reading
Dubravka Djuric, ‎Miško Šuvakovic (eds.), Impossible Histories: Historical Avant-gardes, Neo-avant-gardes, and Post-avant-gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918–1991, Cambridge, MA 2003.
The Power of a Woman, Katalin Ladik, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art Vojvodina, Novi Sad 2010.
Emese Kürti, Poetry, Sound and Action as Intermedia Practice in the work of Katalin Ladik, acb Researchlab, Budapest 2017.
Hendrik Folkerts, Keeping Score: Notation, Embodiment, and Liveness, 2017, http://www.documenta14.de/en/south/464_keeping_score_notation_embodiment_and_liveness, accessed 24 March 2017.

Juliet Bingham
March 2017

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