Neue Slowenische Kunst

N. L. Centrum

The artists’ collective Neue Slowenische Kunst (New Slovenian Art) comes from a Central European city of tempestuous tradition, a city known to us as Ljubljana in Yugoslavia, but found in older atlases under the name of Laibach in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These days, the collective consists of about 35 members, but the number constantly changes. The many shows put on by this group in Amsterdam on their European tour this past summer—rock concerts, theater works, and art exhibitions—suggested a cross between straight nostalgia and the absurdist humor of a slapstick comedy of manners. Their work was both futuristic and folkloristic, presented with all the trappings of post-Modernism, but conceived primarily as a cultural manifestation of a regional idiom in a modern cosmopolitan world.

The rock band Laibach, at present the mainstay of the collective, is known for its New Wave versions of songs by Queen and other popular bands, its militaristic appearance, and its demonic stage presentations. Laibach evokes the recent history of Slovenia and its people—specifically, their Germanization under Austrian rule and, during World War II, under the Nazis. They reinforce this symbol of cultural oppression by singing almost exclusively in German and by wearing the uniforms and regalia of Nazi storm troopers. The notion of living under fascist (and, by extension, Communist) control, deprived of their independent ethnic identity, is paralleled by the idea of the depersonalized artist, so important to the Neue Slowenische Kunst. Presenting this theme through an amalgam of styles and motifs, Laibach manages to convey the mental alienation that overtakes us all, subjected as we still are to an international cultural colonialism.

The theater group Scipio/Red Pilot offered a present-day version of Medea and Jason that dealt with our robot-ridden future. Adopting an almost Grecian classical manner, the production lacked the mechanical edge that would have made it more than a mere staging. Although its concerns were as relevant to modern life as those expressed by Laibach, the New Wave rock group was more successful at bringing them alive.

With an installation of paintings in a large and beautiful 16th-century house here, the artists’ group IRWIN made clear its members’ overtly political interests. At first glance, the many little canvases hung one above another on the walls seemed to represent an amalgam of enigmatic post-Modern elements. But it became apparent that they formed a configuration of free-floating contemporary Western historical symbols purified of all significant content, the meaning of which remained completely open to interpretation. In this Eastern European variant of “the new painting,” these symbols—social realist icons, Nazi insignias, etc.—are unmasked as thoroughly domesticated signs, on a par with Kasimir Malevich’s crosses or Yves Klein’s blue. Transformed into art, such symbols serve as clues to Slovenian culture, and particularly that of the capital city of Ljubljana. It is not the idea of “cultural progress”—not the “authentic values” or “eternal beauty” that official art history, of both West and East, promises us—that interests the artists of these works but the idea of cultural identity. This may perhaps sound like a contemporary art cliché to Western ears, but in Yugoslavia, where since the death of President Tito the fragile equilibrium between the various ethnic population groups has been threatened by nationalist and separatist tendencies, such an endeavor makes their collective voice count for more than the usual art event. Because the works presented by Neue Slowenische Kunst were not just the latest manifestations of what the art schools of Rome, Düsseldorf, or Vienna have to offer, they challenged the preconceptions of even the more sophisticated minds of those who are part of the rather sleepy and all too self-absorbed artistic life of Amsterdam.

Reviewed by Paul Groot.

Translated from the Dutch by Ernst van Haagen.