Katarina Zdjelar: To Walk a Line
Reflecting upon the post-communist process of transitioning to a democracy that considers neoliberal capitalism its ne plus ultra, Boris Buden observes an Eastern European political landscape inhabited entirely by “children incapable of democratically organizing their lives without the guidance of others”. Although the people living in these countries actively brought about one of the most important revolutions in history, in a post-communist era, they are “neither the subjects nor authors of democracy: they have been dispossessed, prevented from enacting the post-communist transformation themselves, which has now returned from without, a foreign object they are forced to adopt in an arduous and often painful process”.1
In Katarina Zdjelar’s video “Shoum” (2009), an invisible group of men trying to phonetically transcribe the lyrics of the infamous 1985 pop song “Shout” by the British band Tears for Fears (you see hands writing, hear voices with a strong Slavic accent mimicking the lyrics in lieu of any knowledge of English) acts out the childlike identity Buden describes. Lines played and replayed from an off-screen source, like “Shout, shout, let it all out”, become poor copies: “Shoum, shoum, lajdi o lau”. The men note them on paper, cross them out, substitute them with better versions. Language, stripped of its symbolic function, becomes a phonetic-physical representation of national identity, a medium for performing it. Russian was, of course, the official language in the Soviet satellite states and the obligatory second language in other self-declared socialist nations, and after the fall of the Communist regimes it became replaced by English as the language of a “superior” culture.
For “A Girl, the Sun and an Airplane Airplane” (2007), Zdjelar asked Albanians what Russian words they remembered. They answer, or rather perform their answers, within an architecture created for the perfection of sound—a recording studio—and seem to be surprised when they realize that they remember no more than a few banal words. Here, Zdjelar, born in 1979 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and part of a generation of artists who take an investigative and biographical interest in the communist past, addresses the issue of memory and draws attention to the active repression of this past in the transformation process that followed it.
This repression allegorically manifests itself in the quest for a flawless English. The film “The Perfect Sound” (2009), which was first shown at the 53rd Biennale in Venice in the Serbian Pavilion, documents the imperial linguistic gesture also addressed in “Shoum” in an even more physical way (curator Aneta Rostkowska stressed the aspect of violence she perceives in the work). In long shots and close-ups, “The Perfect Sound” presents a British voice coach who helps a young man shed his accent, performing the perfect sounds again and again in an exaggerated manner for his student to mimic them in an almost childlike way, as if trying to get rid of not only an unwanted accent, but the whole ideological package that comes with language.
Though a line like “Shout, let it all out” implies raising one’s voice, Zdjelar chooses a subtler approach, skilfully analyzing the performative aspects of identity in a range of video pieces that have grown into a significant body of work. Her transdisciplinary interest is rooted in her studies at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam and the Centre for Contemporary Theatre and Performance Art in Belgrade. This is exemplified lucidly by “Act II” (2010). A Serbian immigrant becomes an actor in his adopted Western country, but, due to his Eastern European accent, he is only cast for certain minor parts, for instance a criminal or a drunkard, thus embodying the stereotypes regularly inflicted on him. The scenes in which he reenacts these parts become almost sculptural forms of performing the post-communist identity.
The postcolonial subject also takes centre stage in “My Lifetime (Malaika)” (2012). The elaborately filmed and montaged video work (the outcome of a residency in Ghana) shows a performance of Ghana’s National Symphony Orchestra. Founded in the late 1950s to represent the newborn nation, it adopted Western-style classical music, a colonial heritage insignificant in Ghanian society today and therefore poorly funded. That’s why in addition to their musical career, the members of this orchestra must also work in other jobs. In close-ups, the video shows the worn wooden instruments and faces of the musicians, who appear drained and exhausted.
A centrepiece of the exhibition, the poetically constructed film “Rise Again” (2011), takes Zdjelar’s interest in the performative aspects of identity even further, giving it an odd cinematic twist. Seeking shelter under a massive group of trees, several men, whom many in the audience would assume to be refugees (they are asylum seekers from Afghanistan), hang around until a person resembling Bruce Lee (one of the Afghans) shows up and performs a series of martial art movements using an unimpressive stone stela that is actually a World War II monument. Here, Zdjelar again brings up the subjects of memory and shifting identities, drawing attention to globally intertwined cultural and historical layers, combining documentary and fiction, introducing elements of magical realism, and aesthetically adjoining cinematic languages in a manner similar to Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul—in long shots, slow takes, and the poetic rhythm of montage.
In Cologne, Zdjelar also twists the idea of the monographic show. She turns it into a dialogue, juxtaposing her work with a few selected pieces by other artists, such as a photograph by Özlem Altin, a film by Aernout Mik, and a drawing by Petrit Halilaj, the “Bourgeois Hen” (2009), a figure fusing two birds that strangely echoes the hybrid characters of Zdjelar’s works. What they all have in common are their peculiar, uncanny motifs and styles, each specific to their respective media. The exhibition is part of a larger transdisciplinary programme for fine art, literature, music, performance, film, and discourse, the Pluriversale, headed by Ekaterina Degot. In this fifth edition, Zdjelar’s works enter a broader dialogue with projects by artists such as Uriel Barthélémi, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Louis Henderson, Mona Kkanj, Avi Mograbi, and Želimir Žilnik, all of which revolve around political landscapes—as the one Buden reflects upon— in which postcolonial bodies act and reenact identities in endless loops.
1 Boris Buden, Zone des Übergangs. Vom Ende des Postkommunismus, Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 2009, p. 45. Transl. by Andrea Scrima
Pluriversale V, Academyspace / Akademie der Künste der Welt, Cologne, 2. 9. – 16. 12. 2016