The following article was published in N-SPHERE July 2010 issue.


Trbovlje, a small industrial town in ex–Yugoslavia, now in Slovenia, boasts with its enduring coal mining activity and the tallest chimney in Europe. One could hardly suspect that it’s now famous for being the birthplace of NSK or Neue Slowenische Kunst (New Slovenian Art), one of the most compelling and controversial art movements in post–war Eastern Europe.

During the early ’80s, when NSK was formed, Eastern Europe witnessed a period of intellectual fervor and strengthening of the civil society, as well as constant repression of the communist regimes. Despite being the first socialist republic to refuse the Soviet hegemony and advocating “socialism with a human face”, Yugoslavia was not exempted from the predicaments of totalitarianism.

The cultural scene responded to this oppressive context through a vibrant student movement (as observed from Mladina journal or Radio Student), an emerging alternative culture [Marina Gržinic] in Slovenia and the Lacanian School, led by influential theoretician Slavoj Žižek. Fueled by this newfound creativity, NSK coalesced in 1984 around the industrial band Laibach (founded in 1980), the art collective Irwin (1983) and the theatre group Scipion Nasice Sisters (1983–1987). Immediately, the design group New Collectivism was formed by members of the other collectives. Later, more subdivisions were established, such as the Department for Pure and Applied Philosophy. Thus, the organigram of NSK grew and developed, broaching almost every cultural field, from fine art and architecture to philosophy and politics. Roles were assigned to each member of the group, Laibach being considered the politicians, Irwin the state artists and Scipion Nasice Sisters Theatre representing religion. As the founding members recall in an interview given in 2000, NSK was finished as a movement in 1990, when the state of Yugoslavia collapsed and Slovenia proclaimed independence. New issues needed to be assessed after the fall of the Berlin Wall, taking into account the retracing of European state borders and the resurgence of nationalism, following the imposed communist internationalism. Thus, the NSK State in Time project was initiated, accompanied by a whole range of state symbols and actions, from establishing a constitution and embassies to issuing passports.

Appropriating totalitarian imagery from both sides of the political spectrum, NSK was criticized by the left, as well as the right. »Are they fascists? « or »Do they serve as communist propagandists?« were recurrent inquiries. Slavoj Žižek, usually considered the theoretical counterpart of NSK, stepped in and introduced the concept of over–identification [Slavoj Žižek, Interrogation Machine, Laibach and NSK]. Instead of assuming critical distance from its subject, namely the internal mechanics of authority, NSK adopted an even more subversive strategy, by over–identifying with the structure and taking it more seriously than it takes itself, as Žižek explained. In the words of Laibach “Art and totalitarianism are not mutually exclusive. Totalitarian regimes abolish the illusion of revolutionary individual artistic freedom. LAIBACH KUNST is the principle of conscious rejection of personal tastes, free depersonalization, ultramodernism…” This brings to mind both the stunted process of modernization in Eastern Europe as well as the impossibility of implementing utopia. Hence, it rendered visible the unspoken, obscene undertones of the establishment. And as every system contains its own breach, NSK seized this opportunity, by exposing the gap between state ideology and reality, defined by tacitly accepted transgressions of the official communist agenda. But following their procedure of unfinished and suspended dialectics, the conflict was neither resolved, nor assimilated.

This brings us to another concept introduced by NSK, retro–avantgarde. As Eda Cufer and Irwin wrote in 1992 »Neue Slowenische Kunst – as Art in the image of the State – revives the trauma of the avant–garde movements by identifying with it in the stage of their assimilation in the systems of totalitarian states.” [Joanne Richardson, Irwin & Eda Cufer Interview] This is why the NSK insignia contains references to avant–garde symbols such as Kazimir Malevich’s 1913 suprematist painting,

Black Square. One of Irwin’s performances, during the NSK Moscow Embassy action in 1992, consisted of placing a black cloth in the shape of a square on the symbolically laden ground of the Red Square in the Russian capital. Thus, an aesthetical supremacy was asserted, reversing the historical process of avant–garde assimilation. Malevich’s black square on Moscow’s Red Square suspended for a few moments the hierarchy of politics and aesthetics, positioning the former in the service of the latter. For a brief instant, the utopian avant–garde of early 20th century was revived, before its denouncement as merely bourgeois art by the communist establishment and its replacement with Socialist Realism.

German theoretician Boris Groys further elaborated on the Eastern and Western avant–garde. [Boris Groys, Primary Documents: A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art since 1950s] In spite of their formal similarities, Groys sustains that the movements had very different goals on each side of the Iron Curtain. While Western artists were mainly seduced by Marxist ideals, their Eastern colleagues were more interested in affirming their individuality. Therefore, the critical stance was unequivocally assigned to avant–garde procedures, while traditional attitudes were associated with affirmative actions. NSK, on the other hand, questioned precisely this opposition between critical and affirmative, between collectivity and individualism, between East and West. Negating the conflict while at the same time expressing it proved to be a difficult position to understand for many.

Nonetheless, NSK was never short of followers and in October 2010, the First NSK Citizens Congress [congress.nskstate.com] will be organized in Berlin at Haus der Kulturen der Welt. The program will include lectures, concerts and exhibitions, all centered around the main interests of the collective. Whether or not the movement has maintained its vitality and relevance, while preserving its penchant for uncomfortable issues remains to be seen, but it is beyond doubt that since the ’80s NSK had a massive influence on the European cultural scene and its uncompromising methods are still a model for contemporary artists and intellectuals.

Artwork: NSK Logo. Courtesy of NSK

by Simina Neagu

Full article here.