Language, with all its complexities and various manifestations, is the research domain of the Serbian-born artist Katarina Zdjelar. The speaking of language and speaking in a language other than one’s mother tongue are recurring themes in her work. For example, in the video There Is No Is (2006), we see an Asian woman struggle with the correct pronunciation of the family name ‘Zdjelar’. At the end of the video, the camera zooms in on the mouth of the speaker, and in doing so, on the woman’s physical inability, despite her efforts, to (re)produce the proper sounds. Mastering a foreign language is not only a mental and cultural challenge; it also demands a physical exertion that sometimes calls on muscles that have never before been used.
Zdjelar’s interest in what is now a commonly occurring situation, where people find themselves ‘between two languages’, is not so much focused on the potential loss of meaning in the translation process, but on the creative potential of this linguistic – and cultural – in-between position, on the actual surplus of meaning, the so-called ‘para-poetics’ that are generated in such circumstances. It is sometimes all too glibly claimed that because of the internationalization of English, as the dominant world language, many local languages and dialects are dying out. People forget, however, that through verbal expression and migration, countless ‘languages’ are also being created. ‘Broken English’ is a good example, the rich melting pot of new variations of English that are created in diverse migrant communities.
One’s native language – the mother tongue – is usually so deeply rooted that it unconsciously and sometimes unwillingly remains audible, thus betraying one’s identity as a non-native speaker. For her most recent video work, The Perfect Sound (2008), Zdjelar filmed a speech therapist who, with a great deal of hand gesturing, tries to impart perfect English pronunciation – the ‘Queen’s English’ – to his student. In this work as well, the emphasis is on the physical character of verbal communication and the voice as an independent apparatus that often imparts more information than the mere meaning of the words and sentences that it produces. Zdjelar calls this so-called non-communicative information ‘spoken stains’. An accent is probably the most obvious of these spoken stains. In The Perfect Sound, the speech therapist is determined to eradicate the accent of the speaker, and with it, every possible reference to his ‘being a foreigner’. This is undoubtedly well intended, but it can also be seen as a mirror of our society’s ideas and opinions about integration, assimilation and ‘being different’.
In addition to There Is No Is and The Perfect Sound, Zdjelar, who has lived and worked in Rotterdam since 2004, is also presenting two additional video works on the same theme in the Serbian pavilion at the Venice Biennial. Representing Serbia at the Venice Biennial brings its own interesting challenge. Although her work certainly has a connection with current debates on migration, multiculturalism, power relationships and the underlying mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, Zdjelar emphatically does not wish her work to make a political statement. ‘I am very wary of all direct politicizing of art. The notion of (national) identity as a starting point is also problematic for me. I am interested in ‘processes of identification’ and these processes naturally resist any static or solid form. The works that I am showing in Venice did not evolve from any specifically Serbian context, whatever that might be. I do not believe in that kind of representation.’
In Zdjelar’s work, it becomes clear how our voices mark out our sovereign existence. The voice is the place where we ourselves – confronted with any system, such as language, ideology or religion – can determine how we want to relate to that system. Do we adopt a perfectly accent-free Queen’s English, so that we are no longer ‘different’, or do we keep our accents and create a unique variation in which we preserve our own identity?
Christel Vesters is an art historian and curator in Amsterdam.