‘When I speak a language other than my mother tongue, my speech falls between me speaking language and language speaking me’, writes Katarina Zdjelar in the catalogue produced for the Serbian Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale. Zdjelar, born in Belgrade in 1979, has been encountering this fracture since childhood, particularly after she arrived in the Netherlands in 2004. In the former Yugoslavia, the country of her birth, language is splintering, and has become an instrument with which the new nations are forging their identities. The once official tongue, Serbo-Croatian, has, within a generation, become Serbian, Croatian, Montenegrin and Bosnian—languages with differences which are partly invented constructs. This leaves no doubt as to the political gravity of language, and further uproots an artist for whom foreignness is a condition and a study.
The mechanics of producing language first came into focus in Zdjelar’s work ‘Would that be alright with you if I bring my cat along’, 2006: the video follows adult students, in an integration class in the Netherlands, struggling to produce the Dutch accent. The students are learning a new language in order to gain acceptance, to be able to operate in the country, and to seem less foreign. The resulting footage shows that language production is not just a code but a physical and musical expression that the candidates must become attuned to and be able to reproduce, although their mouths are unwilling to adopt new movements. Questions of control and the politics of formation underlie the exercise; it is a meeting of individual and state, the latter flexing its muscles.
Since then, Zdjelar’s work has continued to investigate speech and language, offering immediate clarity on the complexity and expressive nature of these subjects. Before any words are understood, we communicate authority, confidence, mood, identity or convictions in our way of speaking, and at the point where language encounters foreigness, many linguistic rules become redundant. It is dangerous to presume, for instance, that a person says what they think because language (or lack of it) can intervene. Zdjelar’s videos emerge from long processes of dialogue. She works alone with her subjects, and though the results are often spontaneous and unrehearsed, there are no coincidences. The artist and those involved collaborate until they develop an expression of their investigation.
Thus the video ‘Shoum’, 2009, came about after three years of talking with men who work as occasional musicians in a Belgrade bar. It begins with a segment of black footage, with the opening to Tears for Fears’ ‘Shout’ on the soundtrack. The music then halts, and a man’s hand is seen writing a phonetic version of the song’s lyrics. It is clear he cannot speak English, yet he corrects and rehearses the text as he goes along until he is satisfied with the result. He then performs the text. His hands suggest he is a manual worker, and his voice is not accustomed to the words he sings. Although the track is one he suggested, he seems unable to understand the expressive lyrics. ‘Shoum’ uses foreign language as a lens through which to portray a generation of Balkan men, born in turbulent times, who could not complete their education, but were sent to war as young adults in a society with dubious moral leadership. Despite being middle-aged, they do not possess the universal currency of the English language and, to some extent, remain suspended in adolescence, mimicking imported music. Zdjelar’s desire to communicate her encounter effectively frames her shots. She is in search of beauty—the revelation of the complexity and potential of humanity—in a moment, in the Belgrade bar, born of a horrible situation.
In contrast with the intimate ‘Shoum’, ‘Don’t Do It Wrong’, 2007, was filmed covertly in a Turkish school. Zdjelar arrived in Istanbul on a Platform Garanti residency shortly after the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink had been murdered by a young Turkish nationalist. Before his death, Dink had written about singing the national anthem every day as a schoolboy, yet somehow the indoctrination had failed to make him Turkish to the detriment of his Armenian identity. Zdjelar applied for permission to document this school ritual that has existed since the 1920s, and continues today, but was refused due to an atmosphere where criticism of the state is viewed as incendiary. She ultimately gained access by shadowing parents bringing their children to school, and filmed pupils being herded into place and chastised before they sing the anthem. The children seem unlikely to comprehend the import of lines such as ‘Oh coy crescent do not frown for I am ready to sacrifice myself for you!’, but the ritual was familiar to the artist, reminiscent of her experience as one of the last of Tito’s ‘Pioneers’. The symbols may be replaced but the methods of instilling ideologies in young people remains the same.
Zdjelar turned her attention to accent in ‘The Perfect Sound’, 2009, calling the piece a ‘spoken stain’. Like vocabulary, our accents attest to background, origins and education. An extreme example of its significance appears in the ongoing International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia, in which aggressors are identified by their pronunciation; at the time their crimes were investigated, everyone involved was ethnically similar and shared a common language. ‘The Perfect Sound’ follows a speech therapist schooling a young man in pronunciation, but to this end words are reduced to a rhythmic and nonsensical concatenation of sounds. Is this an exercise to perfect skill, or to iron out difference? What advantage can be gained from the neutral position of an accent that betrays no background?
Katarina Zdjelar’s 2009 / 10 exhibition at TENT, Rotterdam, was entitled Parapoetics . Borrowing its name from a term coined by Clark Lunberry, the word describes the destabilisations of a language by students who unintentionally deviate from the tight codes that grammar and vocabulary purports to command. Zdjelar’s videos explore this poetry and the host of differences that are revealed in the texture of speech. The constant flux of the contemporary world makes identity all the more precious, and yet our voices, which form and communicate this, are outside of us, and at the edge of our control. Speech is an essential way to express ourselves, in spite of the fact that we depend on others to be understood. For Zdjelar, pauses, mispronunciations and misunderstandings allow a glimpse into the complexity, the authority and the ethics involved in both speaking and listening.
Aoife Rosenmeyer is a writer based in Zurich