Monday, 9 July 2012

Ancien Regime: Laibach in Retrospective

[a full version review of a gig which appeared in The Wire #340]

Laibach – Monumental Retro-Avantgarde Show
Tate Modern, LondonUK

Every movement that tries to perpetuate itself, becomes reactionary – said no one else than Marshall Tito, repeating Marx. Ask Laibach fans what they think about it, gathering that windy night around sinister edifice of Tate Modern, monochromely clad in black leather ankle-length coats, white shirts with omnipresent medical looking Malevich crosses, thigh-high platforms and officer boots. The discipline of a Laibach fan is military, not only to get the quickly disappearing tickets. Like mercenaries for hire, wristbanded, we queque, surrounded by men in black, no matter, if you’re Mute's Daniel Miller, Hanif Kureishi or Anat Ben-David, we, the Laibach Police. As long as it is for fun and we don’t really have to worry about the rise of the far right sure, why not!

In the Turbine Hall, Albert Speer-like as ever, they’re already showing typical communist agit-prop for the last hour, after a conference that was taking place all day in Tate, where Laibach themselves were discussing their status as the walking work of art. But as it’ll become clear during this show called Monumental Retro Avant-garde, it is exactly the strong insistence on art origins and the relation with the art world, that in the end, instead of adding another layer of meaning, turns back onto them. Problem with many groups of 'conceptual' provenence is that they overtrusted in irony, overidentification, 'intellectualisation' as if it was in any case a road to artistic success. The knowing kitsch, vanity and irony, implied by the NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst) movement is precisely what is preempting the possible ideological menace both politically and as objects of art. The questioning of ideology and post-modern mindset of NSK (IRWIN, Novi Kolektivizem) begs question as to whether by questioning the political order of the 1980s group was yearning to the early communist collectivism or merely was embracing the western version of capitalism.

When the Fab Four, or rather the inter-generational combo, retrospective also in terms of line-up, enter the stage and begin their freak show, the latter seems more possible. The monumental Intro is stupendous and then they go nostalgic – fittingly with the Retro-Avant Garde in the title, they play a bunch of songs from the early postpunk period as a reconstruction of historical performances at Music Biennial Zagreb ’83 and Occupied Europe Tour from the same year. Milan Fras has the lowest, darkest and most piercing of basses – not surprisingly, Laibach did an opera once – and the first five or ten songs sung in Slovenian possess the dark, menacing, almost chthonic power, culminated in the Mi Kujemo Bodosnost (We’re forging the future), which, accompanied by the images of gigantic factory hammer and machinery, though thrills, provokes instantly the opposite: No, you actually don’t anymore! The constant references to industry, which shaped their youth and pervades especially their early work, can be now rendered only in an aestheticised form in a former power station turned gallery.

Head wants to explode among the intensifying rumbling of the rhythm and the drums. At some point a man steps out of the band, looking like a forest monster, a butcher or rather a steelworker who stepped from the screen, and exudes terminal gargle. The public freezes. More Slovenian songs, like Smrt za Smrt, causes the applause and singalongs of the Slovenian community in London by my side. Like on every cult band gig, there’s a strong sense of a ritual going on between the band and the crowd. Everything seems synchronized. A spectacle is a spectacle and Laibach are better in it than anyone else. I’m drinking the 5 L beer over the Yugoslavian newsreels, party meetings, fragments of Leni Riefenstahl and Yukio Mishima's PatriotismStalin and Tito speaking over the scene, which is decorated with the iconic deer’s head. A deep sigh. When Laibach came to concerts in Poland during the late Martial Law in 1983, at the conference, asked about political views, they said “we are communists”, much to the organizers and crowd’s dismay. What the band was excavating when they started in the late 1970s/early 1980s, was not to call the late Tito’s (the marshal died in 1980) socialist Yugoslavia ‘Nazi’, ‘fascist’ or ‘Stalinist’ – as eternal pranksters and born postmodernists, they rather wanted to wind up the 1980s Slovenian society by quoting its 1940s and 1950s past. The aim always was to shock and repulse.

Whatever works: in 1983 it was communism, in 1987 it was “songs for Europe”: a Nazified Queen’s One Vision, Geburt Einen Nation and Opus’ Life is Life. That was probably their peak and the songs of course appear in the gig, as carefully planned encore. Not only it worked at the time as a wind-up, it was really touching upon unhealed traumas and real shame in the country, that was the Nazi era or collapsing communism. The later re-makes mark their nature of recyclers: The Beatles (tonight with Across the Universe), Bach's Kunst der Fuge, The Normal’s Warm Leatherette, Gainsbourg’s Love on the Beat and Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man, which they perform as the last track. In theory, what's not to like about them. And in practice, I'm enjoying it, because how could I not, the look of it, the muscular sound, the aesthetics are everything to satisfy my perverted sophisticated needs; it's an intellectualised GWAR for art teachers or Slavoj Zizek. One could say: “they can get away with the ‘fascist’, because they’re from Soviet Bloc. If they were Germans, people would eat them alive.” But they did, with DAF, who not only wore uniforms similar to Nazi in the videos and gigs, Tanz der Mussolini (which also contains a line about dancing with Hitler) and Greif Nach Den Sternen contain quite straightforward fascistic repercussions, for which the band was severely attacked back in the 80s. DAF got played too, their Alle Gegen Alle.

Laibach were the anti-Kraftwerk, a projection of Ian Curtis turned real. In Turbine Hall in 2012 they are stripped to what they have always been, fancy dressed pranksters on sheer dregs of what they could’ve meant in the 80s, a pantomime, a splendid Grand Guignol without much reference to what is now happening in their country: recession after joining the Eurozone and a crisis of the whole post-Soviet region. In them, we seemingly cherish everything, that is disturbing in art, from Wagner to Leni R. to Syberberg. But here, we can start asking questions, whether they really could be put in the same line? There’s nothing they can do to still shock, cause resonance, even if they did a Socialist Realist album on the bad European Union, sucking all the energies from the remnants of the welfare state. Instead, they did a soundtrack to a film about Nazis in space.

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