Reviews PerformanceReviews Published 4 May 2012

Laibach: Monumental Retro- avant-garde

Tate Modern ⋄ 14th April 2012

Radical over-identification, sort of.

Andrew Haydon

Chances are if you don’t know who Laibach are, you’re probably not reading this review. However, in the hope that there is a wider audience for this piece, it feels that, more than a lot of other “bands”, Laibach need a fair bit of introduction and contextualising.

In Britain, Laibach are perhaps best known – if they’re known at all – as: “that band who did those covers of Queen’s One Vision and Opus’s Life is Life in the Eighties, while dressed up like Nazis”.

Laibach were formed in Trbovlje, Slovenia, then a part of Yugoslavia, shortly after the death of the post-war Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito in 1980. Laibach was the core around which the radical art movemenent NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst – the German for New Slovenian Art – pronounced: en-es-kah) was developed. Their approach revolves largely around what the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek described as “radical over-identification”. In a totalitarian state, this boils down to behaving more totalitarian than the state itself.

The band’s name comes from the German name for Slovenia’s capital city, Ljubljana- first recorded in print in 1144, used again when Slovenia was absorbed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and for a third time when Yugoslavia was invaded by the Nazis in 1941. In their home country Laibach’s name reflected these historical traumas. Combining their “over-identification” with their nominally communist leaders, Laibach “emphasised the correlations between fascism and Yugoslavian socialist tropes” (Alexei Monroe, Tate catalogue).

There is a very famous interview the band did with Yugoslav state television in 1983 in which the authorities were so keen to finger them as Fascists that they essentially cemented the band’s reputation overnight in precisely the opposite way than intended. As a way around banning the band directly, the Yugoslavian authorities banned the word ‘Laibach’ in 1984.

It is striking how little of this context is immediately *legible* in Britain.

Without background knowledge and outside the context of a totalitarian state in which the band operated, which also served as its legitimiser, what one is left with could easily be mistaken for a novelty band doing goth covers whilst dressed up like Nazis.

Now, however, all that ambiguity seems lost; Laibach and NSK are the subject of a respectable retrospective at Tate Modern.

Now that Laibach live, eschewing the haircuts and drums, they’re quire removed from the full-on evocations of Nuremberg.

Now that Laibach themselves are as much a Laibach tribute act as they are Laibach…

Now that there is no concrete context for that with which they were over-identifying…

Well, you do wonder precisely what it is you are actually watching.

The concert is titled: Monumental Retro-avant-garde which, as titles go, is about the most intelligent I’ve ever heard given to a rock concert. The internal contradiction of retro- and avant- is particularly appealing. In Simon Reynold’s excellent book on the music industry’s current addiction to mining its own past, Retromania, there a section early on dedicated to the work of Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard (p.44-48), who re-stage (filmed) gigs by once cutting-edge bands and then re-film those re-creations- as art.


Andrew Haydon

Andrew Haydon was a freelance theatre critic (FT, Guardian, Time Out, etc.). He was also the editor of the CultureWars theatre section between 2000-2010, where he discovered exciting new theatre thinkers, including Andy Field, Matt Trueman and Miriam Gillinson. Then he went to Berlin for a while. Now he seems to be back for a bit. His blog here:

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