20. desember: Neue Slowenische Kunst


The collective Neue Slowenische Kunst’s (NSK) appropriation and montage of iconography from Nazism, Stalinism, Christianity, Suprematism, and traditional Austrian leitmotifs, is something that does not sit well neither historically nor geographically with Boris Groys’ claims about Eastern European art. NSK emerged in Ljubljana in 1984 and includes the musical division, Laibach, the visual arts group, IRWIN, and the Cosmokinetic Cabinet Noordung Theatre Group (previously Scipion Nasice and Red Pilot). Historically, IRWIN’s appropriated images apply to, but are not reduced to having local significance. Slovenia was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and in 1941 a major part of present-day Slovenia was split between German Nazis and Italian fascists. It has also been part of communist Yugoslavia, which after Tito’s split from Stalin in 1948 experienced a significantly different cultural ideology than what was official in the Soviet Union and its satellite states. The iconography IRWIN employs thus plays on the official visual language of “oppressors,” and with reference to religion, it could be argued that religious iconography mixed with fascist symbols such as the swastika, was a commentary on the religious and ethnic nationalism within Yugoslavia before and after its disintegration.

Something Boris Groys does not address when referring to the influence of Western art practices in the East,[1] is that after Tito’s break with Stalin, Yugoslavia’s cultural politics can be said to have been “swinging on the fence between East and West.”[2] For the art scene, this meant that it worked outside the “rigid ideological pressures” of Socialist Realism as well as outside the pressure from the international art market.[3] The legacies of pan-European Modernism were adopted as the official art of Yugoslavia and the party supported foreign exhibitions.[4] There was also a general openness towards Western conceptualism in the 1960s and 1970s, which may have influenced artists like Marina Abramovic, the artist group OHO, and ultimately also NSK.[5] In relation to NSK’s appropriation of Suprematist art, and especially the paintings of Malevich, the fact that Modernism was the official art practice gives this appropriation a meaning it would not have had in Russia, where Modernism was considered dissident.


There are three main reasons for NSK’s appropriation of Malevich’s art. By doing so they are subverting the myth of the artist that was heavily mobilised around Malevich. Secondly, it was used as an ideology carrier both in its original use and in the Modernist legacy of which it was part when Modernism became the official art of Yugoslavia. Referring to it subjected this legacy and its official function in Yugoslavia to the same critique as the other totalitarian references NSK mobilised. Thirdly, if we may consider Malevich an Avant-Gardist as well as a Modernist, the direct appropriation of his work contributed in NSK’s overall appropriation of Avant-Garde methods, such as the use of “manifestos, collective performances, public provocations and intervention in politics.”[6]


Although NSK’s appropriation and identification with different iconography related to the recent history of oppression in Slovenia, this appropriation also extends their practice beyond the borders of Slovenia, Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe. By a strategy Slavoj Zizek identifies as “over-identification”[7] – a process of revealing the “underside” of the system (the aspects that people don’t talk about, or that is hidden) by over-emphasising its violent bureaucracy and ideological relation to fascism – NSK is able to provide a radical critique of any heavily ideological models of representation.[8] With the Retro-Garde[9] principle, which all the NSK sub-groups were working under, already-existing symbols, images, and ways of speaking, which can be identified with “artistic, political, religious or technological ‘salvation utopias’ of the 20th century”[10] were mobilised eclectically. NSK Scholar Inke Arns has noted that with the Retro-Garde principle, NSK was able to point to an ensemble of “collective traumata”[11] which operated across borders of East and West. The over-identification therefore, was not only effective in former-Yugoslavia, but all over the European continent, and even beyond it.


Already in 1984 when the group was founded, NSK appropriated the state’s “identification with ideology,” bureaucracy, and other fascist elements as “ready-mades” in the Duchampian way. But in 1991 this identification with the state model took a more radical turn with the declaration of the NSK State in Time, only a few months after the declaration of Slovenian independence. Like the Retro-Garde principle, the NSK State in Time responds to the local (Slovenian) cultural and political moment at the same time as it also transcends this national context. Inke Arns argues that the creation of the NSK State in Time “comments on the concrete political developments in ex-Yugoslavia” by hinting at an alternative “to the political fixations on territories, ethnic groups and borders that gained strength since the beginning of the 90s.”[12] The strategy of doing so seems to have gained momentum not only in former Yugoslavia, but also all over the world (out of the NSK passport holders, a large proportion are Nigerian). The NSK State itself does not exist within any geographical borders. Replacing the importance of space with the notion of time defines the conceptual borders of the NSK State. The physical manifestation of the NSK State comes into play occasionally and temporarily in different locations, for example in Gallery Calvert 22 in London (2012) or in the guise of an embassy, which was the case at the Ridzhina Gallery in Moscow (1992). The mobility of the NSK State across borders transcends it from the East and makes it relevant and comprehensible in multiple non-Eastern European contexts.


When Boris Groys attempts to find similarity in the ways in which artists from the former East have dealt with their communist past, he has consciously looked beyond the local, and emphasised how these artists have transcended from their local context. Therefore, Groys does not attempt at analysing the local specificities of his artistic examples. On the one hand this is problematic because it creates the illusion of a false unity and homogeneity across the former East. When this illusion becomes available in books and exhibitions such as Nostalgia and Contemporary Art In Eastern Europe, one of the risks is reinforcing a Cold War Western perception of the homogenous East, and thus negating the local specificities that may be essential for a nuanced understanding of the artwork.


On the other hand, with the loss of local specificity in his analysis of how works have either responded to the system either with irony or by being utopian and dystopian at the same time (Ambivalence), Groys risks that his analyses become superficial and over-simplified. He refers to the practice of Komar and Melamid along with the work of Kabakov and Bulatov from Russia, KwieKulik from Poland and IRWIN as using some form of irony to distance themselves from the regime.


By referring to IRWIN’s practices as ironic in his text,[13] Groys disagrees with Slavoj Zizek and Inke Arns. Groys claims that the IRWIN group employs irony to distance itself from the communist ideology, but as Zizek and Arns have shown, I believe that what IRWIN is doing is not irony. It is as mentioned above, more of an over-identification with the communist regime and with other fascist symbols, than an ironical distancing itself from it. Their strategy is to “respond to fascism with fascism,” and to draw “attention to the power of these signs”[14] that they are employing eclectically. By emphasising the iconography of the ruling ideology and by using montage to draw attention to the fascism involved in the aesthetics, the IRWIN group manages to “deprive” the ruling ideology of some of its power.[15] According to NSK, the Retro-Garde principle ‘answer(s) these languages with themselves’, with appropriation, repetition and montage.[16] As a result, this “frustrates the system”[17] by acting on the subjectivity of the viewers, who through being confronted with unhidden totalitarianism, may start to question their status quo for their use of symbols and icons in their ideology.



[1] Boris Groys, “Haunted by Communism”, Contemporary Art in Eastern Europe (Black Books, 2010), 22.

[2] Jesa Denegri, “Inside or Outside ‘Socialist Modernism’?: Radical Views on the Yugoslav Art Scene 1950-1970,” in Impossible Histories: Historic Avant-Gardes, Neo-Avant-Gardes, and Post-Avant-Gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918-1991, eds. Dubravska Djuric, Misko Suvakovic, (MIT Press, 2006), 171.

[3] Ibid.

[4] ibid, 173.

[5] Misko Suvakovic, “Conceptual Art” in Impossible Histories: Historic Avant-Gardes, Neo-Avant-Gardes, and Post-Avant-Gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918-1991, eds. Dubravska Djuric, Misko Suvakovic, (MIT Press, 2006), 213.

[6] Marina Grzinic, “Neue Slowenische Kunst,” in Impossible Histories: Historic Avant-Gardes, Neo-Avant-Gardes, and Post-Avant-Gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918-1991, eds. Dubravska Djuric, Misko Suvakovic, (MIT Press, 2006), 258.

[7] Slavoj Zizek, “Why are Laibach and NSK not Fascists?” in the Retrogarde Reading Room, accessed 11 March 2013, http://www.reanimator.8m.com/NSK/zizek.html.

[8] Marina Grzinic, “Neue Slowenische Kunst,” 248.

[9] For a full discussion of the Retro-Garde principle, see Inke Arns, “Mobile States / Shifting Borders /Moving Entities: The Slovenian Artists’ Collective NSK,” Backspace Media Lab, accessed 15 March, 2013, http://bak.spc.org/everything/e/hard/texts2/1nsk.html.

[10] Inke Arns, “Mobile States…”

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] It should be mentioned that Boris Groys has written more nuanced papers on NSK and IRWIN, for example in his “The Irwin Group: More Total then Totalitarianism” in Primary Documents: A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art Since 1950s, ed. Laura Hoptman, (MIT Press, 2002).

[14] Inke Arns, “Mobile States…”

[15] Ibid.

[16] Inke Arns and Sylvia Sasse, “Subversive Affirmation: on Mimesis as a Strategy of Resistance,” in East Art Map: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe, ed. IRWIN, (MIT Press, 2006), 448.

[17] Slavoj Zizek, “Why Laibach and NKS are not Fascist.”

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