The 70th anniversary of the Korean peninsula’s liberation from colonial Japan is being celebrated in Pyongyang with two concerts by the Slovenian rock band Laibach. This will be the first performance of a foreign band in North Korea.
The choice of band may seem appropriate. Formed in 1980, Laibach is known more for its controversial aesthetics and performances than for its music. Its early stage shows took on the characteristics of mass totalitarian rallies, and its name has fascist associations, being the German word for the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana, used by the Nazis during the occupation of the country.
Despite the incendiary name, the actual position of the group has always remained stolidly opaque. This has meant that Laibach has frequently been accused of both far-left and far-right political stances. They remain resolutely ambiguous, saying in a notorious TV interview in 1983: “We are fascists as much as Hitler was a painter.”
To get to grips with the band, a little history is necessary. In 1941, Slovenia was divided among Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Hungary. Under Nazi rule, Slovenians faced complete annihilation of their national identity: Slovene books and monuments were destroyed, and names, like that of Ljubljana, were Germanised. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, Slovenia became part of Yugoslavia. The partisan movement that helped liberate Yugoslavia from the Nazis was not only celebrated, but became central to the official narratives of the new country.
Mussolini on stage
Laibach appeared in Slovenia the early 1980s. Their flagrant use of the Nazi-era name angered those who still remembered the war. Yugoslav partisan veteran organisations voiced their disapproval of the group through a public letter-writing campaign, many of which were published in the popular press.
Laibach did not take heed. At the Novi Rock Festival in Ljubljana in 1982, Laibach took it up a notch with a spectacle that came to be characteristic of their concerts: a militant authoritarian performance, the lead singer playing the role of a dictator. Extreme noise, sirens, horns and smoke bombs aurally assaulted the audience, accompanied by film footage of German atrocities, Nazi mass rallies and the partisan resistance and socialist propaganda. The band’s performances effectively restaged the relationship between the individual and the totalitarian regime. But they provided no explanation for this contradictory imagery, leaving audience members to interpret it for themselves.
Audiences who went to their concerts expecting to be entertained were disappointed. Laibach’s performances subverted the notion of a rock concert, taking spectators well out of their comfort zones. Audiences not yet familiar with these strategies responded with equal violence: at the 1982 concert, the lead singer, Tomaž Hostnik (who was dressed as Mussolini in full military gear) was hit in the face with a bottle. Instead of responding, he maintained his authoritarian stance, and continued to perform with blood dripping from his head.
Soon after, and especially in the aftermath of the infamous Hitler quip, the Ljubljana City Council, citing the group’s “abuse” of the name of the city, banned the group from performing in public while using the name Laibach.
Fascist or forward thinking?
Given this background, the reasons for their invitation to North Korea may seem obvious. But since the 1980s, following their international success and a better understanding of their strategies, much of the disapproval with the band has dissipated. Even their material has changed: under communism their focus was on political regimes, whereas under capitalism their focus has been popular culture and music. The concert in Pyongyang shifts these expectations again: it’s reportedly to feature their interpretations of songs from the musical The Sound of Music, along with traditional Korean songs.
These days the general consensus is that Laibach took on fascist imagery in order to provoke discussion on politics and forms of government – something that the North Korean leaders have perhaps not cottoned on to. So the fact that they are the first foreign rock group to play a gig in North Korea is perfect.
Laibach’s metamorphosis from being viewed as a fundamentally fascist band to a subversive, forward-thinking one is largely down to the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek – one of the group’s strongest defenders. In 1993, he penned an essay explaining how Laibach’s excessive adoption of the aesthetics, choreography, militarism and intensity of totalitarianism could be seen as anti-fascist.
Instead of overtly critiquing or mocking fascism, Laibach imitates its strategies and copies its aesthetics faithfully. Žižek considers that the cynical distance allowed by an ironic performance would actually represent conformity, in that it acknowledges the system. The system requires the appearance of dissent, through criticism, as a validation of its existence, in order to function. So true subversion, Žižek postures, only comes through direct copying, as Laibach does.
Laibach’s attitude toward fascism is deliberately ambiguous – in presenting fascist symbols and postures without commentary, they can be interpreted as being either for or against its authoritarianism.
By walking the line between the two positions, Laibach forces the audience to choose which side they are on. In this sense, their show can function simultaneously as an obedient act for the regime, as well as offering audience members the freedom to decide. And for this reason, there could not be a better selection of band to play this concert in Pyongyang.
While the government and administration of North Korea will be pleased to have found a band that seems to support its centralised, single-party government, others may suspect that this is one massive joke played on the Supreme Leader. Neither would be correct. As Žižek has said, Laibach “does not function as an answer, but a question”. And questions are far often far more subversive than answers.
Laibach’s Sound of Music concerts will take place in the Kim Won Gyun Music Conservatory and the Kum Song Music School in Pyongyang, North Korea on August 19 and 20.
Amy Bryzgel is Lecturer in Film and Visual Culture at University of Aberdeen.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.