Fake passports and violent messages: Slovenian tricksters hit the Burren

The controversial art group NSK has unleashed a host of challenging works in Clare


As art cults go, you couldn’t invent Neue Slowenische Kunst (New Slovenian Art). NSK formed in 1984 in the then Socialist Republic of Slovenia, part of Yugoslavia. This came four years after the death of Tito, the second World War hero-partisan whose personality cult bound the socialist federation together. Partly due to Yugoslavia’s nonaligned cold war status, Slovenia enjoyed relative autonomy: people could travel and buy western goods, but the regime jailed dissidents and many writers.

NSK united the “retro-futurist” Irwin artistic collective, the operatic “industrial” band Laibach (whose early gigs were banned, along with their title, which is the German name for Ljubljana), and Scipion Nasice Sisters Theatre (now Cosmokinetic Cabinet Noordung, and known for performing “postgravitational art” in Russian Ilyushin II-76 aircraft).

NSK artists say they appropriate totalitarian state symbols and collide these with past avant-garde art. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek denies that NSK and Laibach are satirists: instead, their “overidentification” with state ideology exposes its “inherent, unspeakable transgressions”.

Yet NSK are tricksters. Their visual lexicon evokes a folkish, cryptic sect: the stag, the anatomical heart, the sower, or their emblem, Kazimir Malevich’s Black Cross. They also resurrect Russian icons of constructivism, futurism, Dadaism, kitsch and radioactive iconography from Nazi and socialist times.

Irwin are conceptualist artists who challenge the “grand narrative” of western Modernist art. Their first big show, Back to the USA, was a simulacrum in Ljubljana of an American exhibition then touring western Europe; and their East Art Map is a cartography of eastern European art history since 1945.

Techno-militarist marches

Laibach’s live shows are self-styled Gesamtkunstwerk (total artworks) using provocative imagery, techno-militarist marches and Milan Fras’s doom-laden pronouncements, often in the accented German of the second World War occupiers. Known for their disco classic Tanz mit Laibach, or apocalyptic covers of Queen anthems, Sympathy for the Devil or Jesus Christ Superstar, their recent VolksWagner musical project with RTV Symphony Orchestra has seen them become a national treasure. In 2015 they were the first “western” band to play North Korea.

As for NSK’s design wing, Novi Kolektivizem (NK), their infamous poster for 1987’s Yugoslavian National Youth Day, approved by Belgrade generals and apparatchiks, was a pastiche of Nazi artist Richard Klein’s Allegory of Heroism. The scandal convulsed Yugoslavia, NK were interrogated, and Belgrade pressed for jail terms.

As communism collapsed and long-suppressed nationalism tore Yugoslavia apart, NSK set up its virtual State in Time, occupying temporary “embassies” in Warsaw, Moscow, Beijing, Berlin and New York, with an insignia, coat of arms, and official-looking stamps and passports. In 1995 they visited besieged Sarajevo, where Laibach celebrated the Dayton Accord with their Nato album. Irwin crowd-sourced a contemporary art collection for a nascent Sarajevo museum. NSK passports helped people escape the city. More than 14,000 “citizens” worldwide now carry NSK passports.

In 2004 the Slovenian ambassador to Dublin hosted an NSK embassy involving all of its “factions”; it included one transgressive performance that scandalised the Sunday World. NSK will again occupy its own state pavilion at next year’s Venice Biennale.

Now, the collective is holding its second State Folk Art Biennale, called Folk Art Rising 1916-2016, which is this year’s Burren Annual exhibition at the Burren College of Art in Clare. The dean of the college, Conor McGrady, was a “facilitator” at the 2010 First NSK Citizen’s Congress in Berlin.

In the Burren college gallery, citizens in Blackshirt apparel issued “visas” on an old typewriter, in front of a large photo-artwork from Irwin’s Garda series. It features four members of the Irish Reserve Defence Forces, with black-cross armbands before the NSK flag. The collective has done similar work with Bosnian, Croatian, Albanian, Kosovan, Austrian, Czech, Kyrgyz and Georgian armies.

Meanwhile, folk art from 30-odd Slovenian, Croatian, German, Israeli and Irish artists was selected by McGrady, NSK chronicler Alexei Monroe, Greek designer Haris Hararis and Yale artist-curator David K Thompson.

A Clare twist

Neue Sorbische Kunst’s blown eggs feature vignettes of the 1916 Proclamation signatories. Noel O’Callaghan’s Irish Archipelago proposes a clump of upland islands, based on projections of a 6m sea-level elevation, even if the world manages to limit global warming.

Other pieces are more gothic: Caul Audiac’s monstrous cradle of the French Revolution; Valnoir Mortasonge’s child with NSK coins over her eyes, Russell MacEwan’s geological sprite, Changeling; or Rose Vidal’s tiny referential altar. More refer to internecine wars: Shane Cullen’s maquette for his monumental Good Friday Agreement; or Alan Phelan’s derelict floodlight from Belgrade’s Tašmajdan Stadium, long after Nato’s bombardments.

The Burren’s opening symposium was attended by one of the five Irwin artists, Borut Vogelnik, a tall, genial man who recapped NSK’s origins, in a state that “as we knew it, was gone, almost in an instant”. After Brexit and Lisbon, Michaële Cutaya’s paper, Dissolve the People and Elect Another, was wryly apt.

There are performances in the 16th-century Newtown Castle tower: Llewyn Máire’s noise/body-art piece State Control Resistance features a raucous whirlwind of US imperial wars and Irish revolutionary fragments, as Máire gently bleeds on to crossed hurley sticks; Sz Berlin’s dystopian Stahlschwert16 is embedded with slights on the Irish “race” from Churchill to Goethe; and Vera Bremerton’s Leviathan, in which, clad in a butcher’s apron, stiletto-heels and Yulia Tymoshenko corn-braids, she sews a Malevich cross of venison striplets on to canvas.

Screenings included Megs Morley’s History of Stone, on Irish figurative statuary; and Johnny Gogan’s Generate the State on the 1920s Ardnacrusha/Siemens electrification scheme, when a defeated Germany was burning Deutschmarks for fuel.

Hyperinflation recurred in Charles Lewis’s excellent presentation. Lewis and Thompson set up the NSK State Reserve, buying up old Yugoslavian dinars, North Korean wons and Zimbabwean dollars; and, like second World War occupiers, they overprinted them with NSK iconography. He spoke of the “revived trauma” dead currencies induce. NSK notes are melancholy artefacts.

The symposium finishes with falconry, and then it’s out to Richard Long’s 1975 stone circle across the Burren limestone grykes. In an Atlantic gale, citizens light 12 fires to invoke a volcanic EU flag.

Post-socialist Slovenia is now in Nato, the euro zone and OECD. Yet its people are hurting from remorseless austerity imposed by the IMF, Frankfurt and Brussels. An Occupy movement camped before the Slovene stock exchange in 2011, as NK produced another illegal poster campaign (No Fear, No Führer), which fed into Slovenia’s so called Zombie Uprising, in 2012 and 2013.

The trigger was Maribor city’s new traffic cameras, installed by a Slovenian firm that charged huge speeding fines of up to a third of the average monthly salary. Violence erupted nationwide. Meanwhile the state’s response to over half a million refugees from the south has been to cattle-herd them along a fenced corridor into Austria, before closing its southern borders last March.

  • The second NSK State Folk Art Biennale: Folk Art Rising 1916-2016 runs at the Burren College of Art until August 5th
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