Laibach

It would be impossible to write about performance art in Eastern Europe without mentioning Laibach. Although technically a music group associated with industrial music, their work spans a range of discipline, from graphics and collage to paintings and installations, along with multi-media musical performances.

Their work employs the strategy of over-identification, specifically with Nazi and totalitarian symbols and ideology. In employing a militaristic aesthetic and approach, and utilizing Nazi and military imagery, specifically the swastika, the group create a situation that is replete with ambiguity. This is evinced in the fact that both those who would support and those who would oppose fascism are attracted to their work, and both social groups can be found at their concerts.

In addition to Nazi symbology, Laibach draw not only on the historic avant-garde, namely the work of Malevich, and specifically his black cross, but also art history in general. The group was founded in the Slovenian mining town of Trbvloje, and the man that was the impetus behind the group, Dejan Knez, is the son of one of Slovenia’s most celebrated painters, and is also a painter himself. Dejan is the only member of the group that I met when I was in Slovenia, and meeting the entire group would be a near impossibility, as its numbers have fluctuated over time, and in the past three decades has had several dozen members. But this is also part of the strategy – anonymity and collectivism. What the founding members of Laibach effectively created was a brand that will live on after all of its original members have gone. I find it interesting that anonymity seems to be at the heart of the Slovenian art scene, which consists of collectives such as NSK, Laibach, and IRWIN, along with artists who shared the same name, such as Janez Jansa, Janez Jansa and Janez Jansa, with the effect of the work of art being known before the artist. And many artists told me that Laibach was always in the background of what they were doing.

The group emerged in 1980, coinciding with the death of Tito. The 1980s were the beginning of an exuberant period for Slovenian art and alternative culture, and Laibach was right at the start of it. They took as their name the German name for Ljubljana, a move that, in combination with their overt use of Nazi imagery, effectively led to their work being banned. For a time, only the black cross, or alternatively a cogged wheel, would identify them – which of course further anonymized them as a group, since they were referred to only as a symbol, not even as a collective name.