This piece was published in the epiphanies section of the June 2013 issue of the The Wire ♦ The centre of Pest – Budapest’s Rive Droite – is dense and busy, packed with elegant buildings dating from the city’s heyday before the First World War. They feature in the elegant images of the Hungarian capital usually promoted by tourist offices. But as you head south along the river to its outskirts, the city loses its character, becoming a disconnected landscape of wide roads, billboards, red brick chimneys, decrepit factories and train tracks. The main drag, Soroksári út, is flanked by empty plots, flattened, perhaps, in 1944 when the Soviet Red Army laid siege to the city. A few nondescript 19th century tenement buildings still stand, but most seem to be boarded up.
I know this road well because I walked up and down it a few times a couple of years ago looking for Katalin Ladik’s home. Eventually I found it, and her, in a tenement organised around a crumbling courtyard, now an echoing playground for wild kids. I was then gathering material for an exhibition of experimental art and music from Eastern Europe before 1989 and wanted to include Ladik’s work.
You may well have seen her perform. Last year, she made an appearance in Peter Strickland’s eerie film, Berberian Sound Studio. Playing a resurrected witch, she is ushered into the Italian sound studio to supply explosive screams for a horror movie being overdubbed there. Budapest-based Strickland paid her the credit of having her introduced as Signora Ladik on screen, testimony to her unique voice.
A Hungarian from the multi-ethnic Vojvodina region of Serbia, Ladik has been active since the mid-1960s. As a poet, actress, visual artist and performance artist, she was an animated and controversial spirit in the neo-avant garde in Yugoslavia in the 1960s and 1970s. But she left the country in 1992 at the start of the Yugoslav wars. It was clearly a traumatic experience, and Ladik was still feeling the loss of her home when I visited her. Yugoslavia – despite the terrible violence and intolerance that erupted in the 1990s – had been a remarkably fertile space for art in the 1970s.
I knew her work in that way that occurs when you slowly notice that someone or something never leaves your side vision. Without realising it, she had been a point of connection for so many images and sounds that interest me. Her first marriage was to Ernö Király, the composer and ethnomusicologist who used folk instruments as the sound source for his tape music in the 1960s. She performed with Dubravko Detoni and Milko Kelemen’s experimental group Acezantez, realising one counterculture’s fantasy of liberation by appearing naked on stage. Later in the 1970s she played a central role as a vocalist in what must have been a truly monumental performance of Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate. Conducted in Belgrade by Oskar Danon, it involved four vocalists, four orchestras and banks of tympany, all augmented – as if anything else might be needed Đ with Vladan Radovanović’s tape music made from samples of folk, electronic works and pop songs.
In 1973, when she was a member of Bosch + Bosch art group, Ladik crossed the border to Balatonboglár in Hungary, where young artists had rented out a disused chapel. 40 years on, long after the police had closed it down, the place has a kind of mythical status as a laboratory of conceptual art and what art historians like to call “the dematerialisation of the object”.
She performed O-pus there, an improvised sound poem exploring the register of intense sensations stored in the phonic O (“oh!” to “oooooooooooooooo”). Even then, of course, conceptual art was a specialist interest. But Ladik was also a celebrity, kind of. She often performed naked, treating her body like an instrument by running a primitive bow across her hair. When, in 1975, these performances attracted the attention of mass market magazines, she was expelled from the League of Communists of Yugoslavia for ‘immorality’. In the paradoxical fashion of Yugoslav socialism, she then became a star on state TV, appearing in one of its forays in erotica. Her science fiction and fantasy films from the early 1980s form a particular kind of late-socialist kitsch.
Ladik was never a campaigning feminist, and her performances always placed female subjectivity at the fore, often in uncompromising ways. In the early 1970s she created a remarkable body of graphic scores collaged from material sliced from West German women’s magazines, sewing patterns and popular music sheets from the 19th century. I knew that she had employed these artworks as graphic scores in live performances. There is a grainy photograph of her performing such a piece at the Belgrade Student Centre in the mid-1970s. But I did not know how they were used or what her interpretations sounded like. When I asked her, she took me to her kitchen where she stood in front of a score framed on the wall and began to sing. Her voice was and remains simply extraordinary – sweeping across an unnatural sonic spectrum from high frequency trilling to low rumbling tones. Expressing neither lyrics nor words, Ladik nevertheless seemed to draw on the full phonetic range of both Hungarian and Serbian, her two native languages in Vojvodina. Strangled plosive stops from Hungarian phonemics combined with the rattling cadences of the Slavic language. I had heard recordings of her voice before, of course, but what was so striking about this impromptu performance was the remarkable force of her breath. You could almost hear the air being struck, as dozens of different women tumbled out of her mouth. Patently being generated by Ladik, these sounds did not seem to belong to her. It was precisely this uncanny, even disturbing quality in her voice that Strickland celebrates in his film; I had the unnerving pleasure of being given a private performance.