* “Politics is the cleanest and most all-encompassing art, and we, who create contemporary Slovenian art consider ourselves politicians” – Laibach
All art is subject to manipulation, except that art which speaks the language of manipulation – is the key thesis needed for understanding the phenomenon that is Neue Slowenicshe Kunsta, i.e. Laibach. Undoubtedly, this is the most controversial cultural phenomenon from the region of ex-Yugoslavia, who celebrated their thirty year anniversary last year. Far from any trite ceremonious festivities and laurels, the Maribor Art Gallery organized the exhibition Ausstellung Laibach Kunst – Perspectives 1980 – 2011, which represents key moments of Laibach’s visual activities and performances; from their beginnings in a small coal mining town Trbovlje up to planetary recognition in the field of popular culture. The exhibition includes installations, video works, photos and graphics as well as special Collections of Neil Rectorio and Daniel Miller, original works of Jan Štravs and Sašo Podgoršek as well as objects from the Maribor Regional Museum and the University of Ljubljana Institute of Anatomy.
The exhibition curators Simona Vidmar and the Laibach music group, together with Claudia Richter, briefly presented Laibach’s main functioning principle through the concept of retro-avant-garde. Namely, retro-avant-garde recycles and points out the deterioration of avant-garde utopian iconography within defunct capitalism, simulates modes of expression characteristic of national-socialistic art, that is, socialist realism while disclosing the mechanisms that produce meaning.
The retro-avant-garde actions are linked to the NSK, Neue Slowenische Kunst movement, established in the early eighties in Slovenia including the music group Laibach, the visual arts group IRWIN, the theater troup Sester Scipion Nasice (who later changed its name to Rdeči pilot-Kozmokinetičko kazalište/Rdeči pilot-Cosmo-kinetic Theater, and subsequently to Noordung kozmokinetički teatar/Noordung Cosmo-kinetic Theater), the design group Novi kolektivizam/New Collectivism and Odjeljenje za čistu i praktičnu filozofiju/Department of Clean and Practical Philosophy. The NSK declared itself “an abstract social body placed in a specific socio-political environment that simultaneously shows both west and east phenomena.”
Laibach, as well as the other NSK members, use methods idiomatic to avant-garde movements: programming texts, joint performances, anonymity through industrial production, public provocations and interventions. Laibach is known for their radical questioning of representational models, presentations and circulation of art works stemming from Slovenia and other areas of the former Yugoslavia.
The music group Laibach itself emerged within the context of the Slovenian punk movement. From the group’s very beginnings they were instantaneously linked with Nazism due to the distinctness of their performances,. The lead singer performed in a pseudo-Nazi uniform and struck poses characteristic of Mussolini’s speeches. The stage they performed on was always meticulously prepared beforehand and included flags, horns, lights and film projections at the back of the stage. The band members were always blacked out in the background, devoid of any individuality, save for the front man who acted as an MC. The group’s lyrics included samples of Slovenian politicians’ speeches, various political discourse with use of teutonic music characteristic of the Nazi movement. As opposed to run-of-the-mill pop/rock concerts, emotions were contained at Laibach concerts thus rendering them more intense. Mocking or a critical standpoint idiomatic to the punk movement wasn’t reflected in Laibach’s performances. Instead, the group performed a sort of repetition of totalitarian rituals. The Maribor exhibition, by way of Jan Štravs’ photos, presents a cult moment from Laibach’s first live performance in Ljubljana in 1982. Namely, a piece of glass from a beer bottle that flew on stage as a reaction to Laibach’s performance, hit the then front man Tomaž Hostnik in the face drawing blood. But Hostnik coolly continued his performance as if nothing happened.
The Maribor exhibition also discloses Laibach’s ideological structure. The principle is simple: the totalitarian ideology was undermined not by parodied imitations or subversion of totalitarian codes, but by identifying with those same codes. The prerequisite for full efficiency of totalitarian codes is their opaqueness and non-transparency; and by disclosing and zealously embracing them, Laibach was declared a social threat to the state. The exhibition presents a video clip of the notorious television interview for the Ljubljana television- TV-Tednik/TV-Guide from 1983. The consequence was issuing a ban on using the name Laibach as well as a ban on the group’s public performances from 1983 to 1987.
The design group New Collectivism also found itself under fire of the former state for disclosing totalitarian codes and structures. The design solution of the New Collectivism won the competition for the poster set to celebrate the 1987 Youth Day. The Council of Socialist Youth of Yugoslavia decided that this was precisely the type of poster suitable for glorifying this holiday. A few days later a letter turned up in the papers informing that this poster was a replica of a Nazi work entitled “The Third Reich” created by Richard Klein in1936. The New Collectivism’s intervention was minimal: Nazi symbols were replaced with socialist symbols: instead of the Nazi swastika they put up a star, in place of the Reich flag there was a Yugoslavian flag. The New Collectivism pointed out the identicalness of the totalitarian and socialist ideologies with this work. Following this incident, the competition for the poster was revoked, and the New Collectivism even faced a jail sentence.
Pictures and graphics presented at the exhibition firstly represent the particular montage of repeating and recycling of art styles and trends that make up the Slovenian art history: socrealism, modernism of the sixties, Heimat-painting and traumatic or censored places idiomatic to ideology-related art. Just to note, this isn’t about superficial citations, or rewriting art history or nostalgia for past stylistic movements. The goal of such montaged pictures is to build one’s own art history, without censored places imposed by various cultural institutions. Laibach thus interpreted the discarded items of prescribed Slovenian art thus enabling catharsis. It’s important to note that some of these pictures were first exhibited in private residences and were viewed exclusively by invitation. This type of exhibition is a sort of conscious mystification that raises the issue of the privacy of a place where art history “incurs.” In 1985 such a private exhibition had its ideological background. Laibach band members were prohibited from performing in public so they transferred their performance existence in the realm of the private.
The disappearance of Yugoslavia partly reversed the subversive freshness of Laibach, but just by entering the Maribor Art Gallery it’s very clear that the Laibach phenomenon still incites reactions. The poster advertising the exhibition, depicting a coffee cup with a swastika, has been wiped out with black spray paint with the caption “Laibach ist toth“. Notwithstanding that most young anti-globalists aren’t familiar with the German language (I presume), while just a few steps further, at the very center of Maribor, the idea of Laibach’s death is refuted with brand new stencil-art works depicting the current Laibach front man in his typical triumphant pose. Thus in place of a conclusion we can dare to presume the validity of the following thesis: where there’s an ideology, there’ll be a Laibach.