Music

Swastikas for the Sake of Art: a Review of Mona Foma’s Most Polarising Band

Everyone at MONA's summer festival was talking about Laibach—but no one could decide whether they were Nazis or not.
February 5, 2020, 5:04am
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Laibach's lead singer. All images supplied by Mona Foma

You don’t expect to see swastikas in Launceston. Tasmania’s second most populous city still feels like a big quiet country town, and my first 24 hours there for Mona Foma—the music and arts festival held each year by the eponymous and ever-provocative gallery MONA—had been unexpectedly wholesome. I’d drank beer in Cataract Gorge and watched giant puppets dance on the riverbank. I’d taken a boat ride through a kitschy olde-Australian theme park with animatronic pirates and lasers. I’d seen kids playing hide-and-seek around the festival grounds while their parents slurped oysters and locally-sourced chardonnay. And then, in the 25th hour, I saw the biggest swastika I’d ever laid my eyes on.

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Maybe you’ve heard of Laibach, the avant garde industrial rock group that emerged out of Cold War era Yugoslavia, now Slovenia, in the early 80s. I hadn’t. As I shuffled towards the front of the main stage that night, threading my way through through the crowd, I didn’t know what I was in for. People I spoke to afterwards said they’d felt the same: that they hadn’t known what to expect, but they certainly hadn’t expected that. More than a few told me, in so many words, that they thought it was incredible. “A highlight” for some.

What I remember is this: a man in a suit and a long draping hat bellowing into the microphone, his voice a leathery growl. Songs that wheeled erratically from doom metal to neoclassical via a dark reimagining of The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” There were some American flags and Vladimir Putin and finally, suddenly, the aforementioned swastika, emblazoned on the sleeve of a marching Nazi stormtrooper as flaming zeppelins wheeled overhead. I remember the band bowing, leaving the stage, and at least half the crowd erupting into applause. And I remember the rest of the crowd standing there looking uncomfortable, not sure what they’d seen or if they should clap.

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Laibach have been doing their thing for 40 years now, and still people can’t quite nail down what that “thing” is. The group formed in 1980 in the small Slovenian mining town of Trbovlje, their name referencing the German word for Ljubljana that was used by the Nazis during the occupation of Slovenia. In 1982 they played a show in the Slovenian capital that replicated a militant authoritarian performance: lead singer Tomaž Hostnik taking to the stage dressed as Mussolini as the band detonated military smoke bombs in lieu of dry ice, assaulting the audience with sirens and horns while playing video footage of Nazi rallies.

Shortly thereafter, the Ljubljana City Council banned the group from performing in public under the name Laibach, and in December of ‘82 Hostnik committed ritual suicide by hanging himself from a kozolec: a wooden hay rack which many Sloveninans view as a national symbol. The rest of the band, disapproving of the act, posthumously expelled him from the group.

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Over the years that followed Laibach garnered international recognition and success, the style and content of their music transforming over the decades as they gradually broadened their reach and spoke to an increasingly diverse audience. Since 1985 they’ve released eight original albums, four soundtracks, and five compilations of cover songs—the latter canon reengineering music from the likes of The Beatles, Queen, and Pink Floyd so as to skew the meaning of those famous pop songs and cast them in a new light. In 2018 they performed their latest cover album, songs from The Sound of Music, in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, and in so doing became the first Western band to ever play live in the totalitarian nation.

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All of this is to say that Laibach is a band like no other, and over the course of some 40 years they’ve plotted an unlikely trajectory from countercultural anarchists to controversial cult heroes. Perhaps the most important development for the group, though—and the one that comes closest to explaining their contentious use of fascistic imagery—came in 1984, when the band founded the Slovenian political art collective Neue Slowenische Kunst (“New Slovenian Art" in German) or NSK.

NSK art is typically interested in adopting the symbols and iconography of extreme nationalist movements and reappropriating them in a visual style reminiscent of the Dada movement: juxtaposing symbols from different, often incompatible political ideologies in order to create new meanings. And it is this—what some would call “reappropriation” but others would just call “imitation”—that’s made Laibach such a consistently polarising force over the years.

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Much has been made of the group’s penchant for fascistic imagery, and the band members themselves have refused to clear up any ambiguity regarding where they stand on the matter. When asked in an early-1980s interview “are you fascists or not?”, the band replied: “we are fascists as much as Hitler was an artist.” Critics have denounced them as Nazis, apologists have heralded them as ironic satirists, while Slavoj Žižek—a left-wing Slovenian philosopher who has become one of the group’s most vocal defenders—suggest that both interpretations are completely missing the point.

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“The big question that everybody is asking herself or himself apropos Laibach of course is: are they taking themselves serious or is it meant in an ironic way?” Žižek said in a 1996 interview. “Well I think… this is the wrong alternative, because the automatic assumption of this question is that if your attitude towards a certain social system… is ironic, that then you are subversive; [and if] you take it seriously, you are a conformist.”

Žižek suggests that Laibach is dead serious about embodying fascist themes because they want to put those themes centre stage and shine a critical light on them. In doing so, they hope to highlight modern society’s own fascistic tendencies—or what Žižek calls society’s “inherent transgressions”.

“What Laibach is doing is precisely bringing to the light of the day this inherent transgression, which… in order for the system to reproduce itself, must remain hidden,” he says. In this way, he argues, Laibach’s commitment to the aesthetics and militarism of totalitarian themes could in fact be read as anti-fascist.

It’s a generous interpretation of the group, but also a bit of a hard sell, and for many people it probably won’t alleviate the discomfort of watching a band play German martial music while flanked by Nazi iconography. There were people at Mona Foma who looked genuinely perplexed, even confronted, by what they’d witnessed that night—and it’s easy to understand why. But, at the very least, perhaps they shouldn’t have been surprised. This was MONA’s festival, after all, and feeling confronted by anything MONA does is virtually par for the course.

It’s a precedent the gallery has been expected to deliver on ever since it opened its doors in 2011. People want to be confronted; they want to be challenged; they want to see what MONA will come up with next to bend, if not break, the rules of social decency. This has taken various forms over the years, from a wall of plaster-moulded labias through to the ritualistic dismemberment of a bull carcass—all for the sake of taboo-testing “art”—and if absolutely nothing else it always gets people talking. At the best of times, it takes people to places they don’t necessarily want to go in order to make them think differently about where they stand.

In his 2013 essay Why are Laibach and NSK not Fascists?, Žižek suggests that the point of the band is not here to solve problems, but to present them. “Laibach itself does not function as an answer, but a question,” he says. Perhaps one ought to interpret the work of MONA in much the same way.