TANZ MIT KIM JONG UN
On Laibach’s Upcoming North Korean Performances
Monday, August 17th marks the beginning of two annual traditions in Korea. The first, observed by the South, is the Ulchi Freedom Guardian, a series of military exercises conducted by the South Korean army alongside the United States and about a half-dozen other NATO countries, in order ‘to enhance … readiness, protect the region and maintain stability on the Korean peninsula’ (according to a joint communiqué issued by South Korea and the United States). At the same time in the North, there is the annual rattling of the sabre in response to a display of military might on the part of their neighbors and Western powers, accompanied by threats and boasting by the government and promises that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea stands ready to engage her enemies at any time. This year, however, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Korea (both halves) from Japanese rule, the DPRK is adding something a little different into the mix: they’re adding Laibach.
Laibach have been an artistic thorn in the side of art and culture for thirty-five years. Early on, they were banned from performing in their home country of Yugoslavia because of their ‘radically ambiguous’ (their phrase) use of Nazi, futurist, and socialist imagery. Their use of militaristic flourishes in their music, as well as in their appearance, led many to believe that they were fascists, ignoring the fact that the cover art for their first, eponymous album was explicitly anti-fascist and, more importantly, missing the obvious current of humour that ran through their work. Indeed, Laibach, as the musical branch of a collective known as the NSK (‘Neue Slowenische Kunst’ or ‘New Slovenian Art’) identify most strongly with artistic movements that have been able to destabilize, or at least discomfit, authoritarian regimes. An essay available on their website connects their work with the anti-Stalinist oeuvre of Kasimir Malevich, which may be as close to a forthright statement of intent as the normally deadpan Laibach have ever provided.
No one knows how the Slovenian avant-retro-gardists connected with the leader of the Hermit Kingdom, but they will be playing two shows on August 19th and 20th in the capital of Pyongyang, featuring covers of songs from The Sound of Music, rendered in the inimitable Laibach style. They are the first Western artists ever to be invited to perform in the DPRK, which is at best a questionable honour. What little we know of the Kim political dynasty, now in its third generation, paints a picture of a bizarre cult of personality and a level of intrigue that could rival the Medicis. The Kim family has lived well and their lives have been high-profile, while the lot of the great mass of North Koreans has gone from bad to worse. Shortages of virtually every commodity, disastrous floods, and chronic malnourishment are commonplace, as are mass arrests, imprisonments, and executions for those who are labeled as insufficiently loyal to the government and its Juche ideology.
Despite its desperate poverty, the DPRK has the highest rate of militarization in the world (i.e., the highest percentage of citizens in the military) and boasts an army of 9.5 million. The national obsession with its armed forces and with maintaining a military that will allow them to stay independent (a central tenet of Juche) may explain where the affinity for Laibach comes in. After all, Laibach have made use of military instrumentation, of Wagnerian classical motifs, snippets of authoritarian leaders (especially Josip Broz Tito), and their live performances are highly disciplined, precise affairs, where the bulk of members remain anonymous. The imagery seems to fit and the DPRK is all about image; massive banners of the Kim family loom over public spaces, their names spoken with a quasi-religious reverence.
Laibach have been characteristically reserved in speaking about their Pyongyang shows, indicating only that it will feature tracks from The Sound of Music and that the material will be recorded for use in a documentary expected in 2016. As might be expected, there has been not one word about the political implications of performing at the behest of a brutal dictator and, given their usual cryptic answers to political questions, it’s unlikely that they ever will.
It’s a strange set of circumstances and it’s hard to tell what to make of it. Does Korean leader Kim Jong Un realize that Laibach’s militaristic presentation (or their parallel use of imagery of happy, hearty common folk working for ‘the cause’) isn’t entirely serious? Or is he taking the band at face value and believe that their aesthetics simply mesh with his own? It’s tempting to think the former and that Laibach are pulling one over on everyone’s favourite target. However, that might be selling the man a little short (so to speak): Jong Un spent years abroad before his father’s death pushed him into the spotlight. Although the details are a little sketchy, it seems clear that he attended at least one school in Switzerland in the 1990s (under an assumed name) and received a degree from the University of Lyon (around the early 2000s), which makes it very possible that he heard, or at least heard of, Laibach. He could easily have seen them on several tours during that period. It’s patronizing to assume that he would have been incapable of seeing the irony.
Of course, the average North Korean has absolutely no idea who Laibach are. What they see in Pyongyang will be a spectacle similar in style to ones they see from their government and military all the time. So whether or not Jong Un ‘gets’ Laibach, the larger audience won’t. They might find the performances entertaining, thrilling, or bizarre, but there’s no doubt: someone in this whole affair is the butt of a very confusing joke.
Last Week Tonight host John Oliver reported on the upcoming performances while howling with laughter over Laibach’s notorious videos for their stirring and hilarious covers of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and ‘Life Is Life’. He was completely unsure of how to take them, beyond the obvious ‘everyman’ reaction that their music was pretty bizarre and wasn’t the sort of thing you’d expect as a first emissary of Western musical culture. Fair enough. For most people, this is all layering weirdness upon weirdness and won’t amount to anything more than a time-filler at the end of a news broadcast.
Shortly after the announcement, however, a Facebook friend announced that he was immediately putting all of his Laibach merchandise up for sale and wanted nothing to do with them from now on. His reasoning was that Laibach was supporting one of the most repressive governments in the world and that no artistic statement was worth shaking the hand of a man who’s rumoured to have punished a general for dozing off at a meeting by shooting him with an anti-aircraft gun.
This is a fair point, but isn’t industrial music supposed to be confrontational? Hasn’t it been known since its inception for appropriating images from the most murderous regimes, the most violent killers, the most militant racists, and sexists, forcing listeners to deal with them? Hasn’t transgressing the line of political acceptability always been intrinsic to Laibach? Embracing the world’s bête noire, far from being shocking, seems like the very essence of Laibach. Rather than being offended, surely the reaction for a proper, long-term Laibach fan would be to laugh along at the idea that these Euro-art-ninjas are pulling one over on a dictator: taking his money and using it to make a mockery of him. It’s all very clever, right?
Wrong. It’s not clever at all. I’m sure if I were to say that this is Laibach ‘selling out’, their cagey half-response would be to say that of course they are, and that all art is selling out, or something of that sort. But that’s hardly an original thought. Walter Benjamin was writing about mass production, the ‘culture of the copy’, and the devolution of art into a commodity in the 1930s (before he committed suicide in order to avoid falling into the hands of the most notorious dictatorship of his time). Surely, there has to be something more original to Laibach’s historic visit than that?
One could argue that it’s a way of allowing the excessively sheltered North Korean people to see something from the fringes of the art world, something that could perhaps impart the idea that artistic statements can be dangerous, that they are more effective against the mechanisms of the state than guns and much harder to remove. But the artists who have successively shown that in the past have clearly done so without the approbation of the governments that they criticize, whereas Laibach are there at his express invitation. They are presented as something that the powers that be appreciate, exactly like the vast majority of things they’re permitted to see. It’s pretty far-fetched to think that anything revolutionary will be fomented by Laibach’s visit (and, again, it’s pretty patronizing to assume that no one in North Korea will have been exposed to this idea at any point).
It could also be that Laibach are simply spreading the gospel of Laibach. It’s been years since they’ve exerted a major influence on either the music or the art scene, and while they retain a devoted core of followers, the themes of militaristic pomp and artistic confrontation they entwined so well in their music and presentation have been co-opted and expanded on by others. So the opportunity to do something scandalous is a way of reviving their legacy and catching the attention of prospective new fans. If that’s the case, it’s an exceptionally crass gesture, taking money away from people in desperate need in order to fund their art. I think that even the most die-hard art fan would argue that donating food would be a much better gesture.
I’ve been priming myself to write this piece by listening to some of Laibach’s earliest material—before the pop song covers; before they declared themselves an ‘independent state of art’ and started selling passports; before they expounded on their philosophy. And damn, that material really holds up. I liken it to hearing very old blues music, the kind that makes you understand why people of the time thought it came straight out of the fiery pits of Hell. Laibach’s older material still bites with the teeth of a pack of ravenous wolves (really the only appropriate metaphor). It sounds dangerous. It was dangerous; the band didn’t perform legally in Yugoslavia until five years after their founding. Clearly they were doing something to disturb their overlords. The stark, questionable imagery and noisy grandeur forces you to think and gives you absolutely no pointers. It’s challenging, but more than that, it’s powerful.
Holding the hand of an autocrat, letting him show you his version of his country, and letting its people see his version of you is not subversive, nor is it particularly original. Queen were excoriated for performing at the Apartheid resort Sun City in the mid-eighties, for instance. We all laughed at Dennis Rodman and his ‘basketball diplomacy’, but Laibach are simply cloaking the same behavior in the shroud of art. They aren’t any smarter, more daring, or more capable than Rodman. They just have better outfits.