Features EssaysPerformance Published 23 May 2012

Laibach: Post-Ideological Tricksters

‘In art, morality is nonsense; in practice it is immoral; in people it is a sickness’

SImon Bell

On the 14th April Laibach delivered the Monumental Retro-avant-garde performance at the Tate Modern, London, celebrating over thirty years of Laibach Kunst machine.  The Turbine Hall was split in two; on one side the Laibach stage, on the other a large black box.  At the forefront of the stage was a stag’s head with antlers, inside the box was a diamond-encrusted skull.  The antlers are a familiar Völkish motif occurring throughout the Laibach spectacle; the skull is Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God (2007).  The price of the mounted stag head is unknown, the price of the Hirst skull £50 million.  It was possible to touch the antlers, to photograph it, and it would have been possible to remove it from its mount.  The Hirst skull on the other hand was subject to the tightest security, only a few were allowed into the black box to view it at a time, it glittered under a glass case, and photographs were forbidden.  Thematically however, the conditions of accessibility are reversed.  Whilst the title, cost, and vulgarity of the Hirst skull is an arguably straightforward observation on the art world, consumerism, mortality, and their interrelations, Laibach’s antlers remain obscure.  The antlers might be a familiar Völkish trope, but re-encoded in the Laibach spectacle they simultaneously denounce and re-affirm the association with the grand utopian narrative and a traumatic European historical.  The Hirst skull is a novelty of its time; a coy playful pastiche arising from and in collaboration with late-capitalism.  The antlers are antiquated Weltanschauung, whose only currency in late-capitalism is as playfully offensive kitsch.  It is in this discourse that Laibach’s interventions are so vital, and why, after thirty years of provocations and controversy, the Laibach enigma remains as salient as ever.

Laibach at Tate Modern. Photo: BrothertonLock

Laibach are the prime delivery system of the performance-art collective the NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst) and Slovenia’s most famous and influential cultural export.  They are popularly conceived as a “martial-industrial” band, yet music is paradoxically incidental to Laibach Kunst.  They have consistently frustrated categorisation and assimilation into the current hive-mind media-age nightmare of Baudrillard’s “obscene transparency”, where information is currency.  They occupy a unique space, both sustaining and frustrating our fantasies; fantasies of a historical Eastern Europe, of totalitarianism, of obedience and dissent.  Central to an analysis of this unique quality is Laibach’s role as a nexus between East and West; despite thediscourse’s defining centrality, it’s curiously neglected both in “global” aesthetic discourse and in academic work on Laibach.  The Laibach spectacle/construct has a correlation in Agnes Horvath’s Nulla; in maths the Nulla is the numberless number, and in Horvath’s understanding of Eastern Europe, the Nulla  is a ‘fluid state of non-being’; caught in a liminal geopolitical space between the West and the Orient, and the transitional historical of post-socialism where ‘everything can happen without meaning’.[i]  This is the space of the trickster figure, a liminal space of Laibach’s origin and reason for being.

Operating from a space of non-being, with a strategy of treating their native Slovenia, the state, and history itself as a Duchampian readymade, Laibach are free from cultural and historical determinants.  They belong neither to the establishment nor to opposition; they are the true Trickster, one that is neither party, not self or other, but a third and disruptive (external) unit in a dialectic.  Ethnographically, the Trickster is involved with bodily functions and excreta, but the abject here has a positive rather than negative value.  The abject becomes what must be expelled from the subject as threatening to its sense of coherence; ‘an anxiety emerging with bourgeois power and its attempts to eradicate values inconsistent with its own claims to truth’[ii].  In resurrecting the trauma and guilt of Europe’s totalitarian past, moreover in re-mythologizing it, are Laibach and the NSK still playing with Europe’s shit?[iii]

This role as nexus between East and West is integral to an understanding of Laibach and NSK praxis, whether as Trickster operating outside this binary or in establishing an Eastern aesthetic autonomy in the face of hegemonic Western aesthetic discourse.  The West’s failure to meaningfully engage with Laibach and the NSK is manifested in its reportage of Laibach.  Reviews of the Laibach recordings, performances and texts (particularly in the eighties) are guaranteed to contain the phrases “Flirting with fascism”, “tongue-in-cheek” and “Wagnerian”, claiming an irony to Laibach found nowhere in their music or press releases.  It is an express attempt to render comfortable the provocation of an incongruously overt grand utopian narrative form that is apparently without irony or pastiche, and is indicative of a degree of separation from the European traumatic historical.  In living memory Central and Eastern Europe has experienced the cataclysms of total war and the trauma of two totalitarian political systems.[iv] Its borders have been in a state of flux; whole nations have been founded and lost, and it has known mass refugee movements.  This necessarily more direct understanding of the European traumatic historical differs from the perspective of Britain or America, whose version of events is primarily shaped by the dominance of the Hollywood film industry.


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SImon Bell is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine