Depending on when you entered the exhibition, the sounds emanating from Serbian artist Katarina Zdjelar’s video installation, Shoum (2009), might have been a badly sung rendition of the Tears for Fears song ‘Shout’ (1985), the original new wave version or a strange coalescence of the two. As the song plays faintly, we see two friends work hard at transcribing the lyrics. Wrestling with lines like, ‘In violent times, you shouldn’t have to sell your soul’, they jot verses down according to the sounds and alphabet of their native Serbian. Making sense of it all is not easy. Half-way through, one emphatically asks, ‘But what does “Shoum” mean?’ and receives the frustrated reply: ‘Damn English.’ Singing ‘Shoum, shoum, lejdio lav!’ over Roland Orzabal’s ‘Shout, shout, let it all out!’ produces a warble, both close to and far from the original version. But so resolutely sung, ‘I’m talking at you’ for ‘I’m talking to you’ sounds perfectly sensible. (And, to native English ears, rather endearing.)
The video works in Zdjelar’s first major solo exhibition in the Netherlands feature subjects attempting to fulfil vocal demands, and producing myriad new words, sounds, languages and identities in the process. The title of the exhibition, ‘Parapoetics’, refers to all that takes place outside of meaningful language – the surplus poetics and parallel actions created when individuals entering into new communities remain outsiders, either due to vocal incapacities or by their own choice.
Coupled with unexpectedly seductive images of willing but incapable participants and displayed within a slick exhibition design (the product of a close collaboration between the artist and Dutch architect and designer Claus Wiersma), Zdjelar’s works establish a discourse about belonging that presents silence and unease along with a physical incapacity to reproduce sound as potentially powerful models of resistance. The perfect example of this would be the relative absence of sound in Would it Be Alright With You if I Bring My Cat Along? (2006), a video that manages, through the absence of subtitles or translation, to show only the boredom, confusion and dismay on the faces of citizenship candidates in a mandatory Dutch language course.
Even though the participants sometimes drag their heels, the exercises in these and other works are hardly treated insouciantly; through them the naturalization process emerges as physical labour. A speech pathologist in The Perfect Sound (2009) demonstrates all the proper positions of the tongue, teeth, lips and mouth necessary for a student to lose his foreign accent in English. As their painstaking exercises advance towards perfectly formed words, including ‘father’ and ‘meow’, a doctor and a patient enter into a shared space of sound and non-sense, where words reduced to pure sounds take on new and ambiguous meanings.