irwin: the eye of the stateAvi Pitchon
"in the kingdom of the blind
the one-eyed man is king"
After the occupation of Mount Hermon in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Israeli Television correspondent, Micha Limor arrived on location and interviewed Golani Brigade soldier Benny Massas, who explained that his commander had told them that the Hermon outpost was vital because it was “the eyes of the state.” One year later, conceptual artist Michal Na’aman installed a signboard bearing the same metaphorical expression on the Tel Aviv beach. In the catalogue of the exhibition “Artist and Society in Israeli Art, 1948-1978” (The Tel Aviv Museum, 1978), curator Sarah Breitberg-Semal maintained that Na’aman’s use of the national verbal readymade indicated the nation as a living, yet monstrous creature, further adding that “Na’aman shifts the eyes of the state from the high, masculine, phallic Hermon… to the low, quiet, feminine place.”
The NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst – New Slovenian Art) artists’ collective, and the Irwin group which is one of its founders, are likely to demand that, in case I am interviewed on Channel 1 or brief a company of artists, I should declare that they are vital because they are “the eye of the state.” The eyes of the state were directed outward to protect the country’s citizens from external enemies. The eye of the state is turned inward, to watch over the same citizens who are potential enemies, in case they betray its values. NSK explored this inward gaze by masquerading as a fanatical, authoritarian and totalitarian organization which confused, perplexed, and scared the eye of the state (Yugoslavia, and subsequently Slovenia). When they declared themselves a “State in Time,” it was as though they had taken Na’aman’s anthropomorphism one step forward, and compared the state not to a mere monster, but to a Cyclops whose gaze is mutational (a distortion of a more harmonious past structure) and terrifying on the one hand, seductive and mobilizing, on the other, by virtue of its mythological grandeur. The eye of the state—the mythical/harmonious eye of the storm at the heart of a body that has wrought destruction and havoc over the past two hundred years—stands beyond good and evil, as a natural phenomenon. The eye of the storm is an icon, a figure, a symbol, a sign, a code, an aesthetic gesture. Something had gone awry at the beginning of the 20th century, when that utopian-aesthetic gesture, as embodied by the modernist art movements, served as the source, generator, and event horizon an event which gave rise to a three-headed mutant: the totalitarian political regimes. An entity which echoed the beauty of a lost golden age from the twilight zone between the historical and mythological past as a glistening, veiled dream, abruptly turned into a terrible nightmare. NSK’s hold on the mythical eye around which the state took shape enabled them to revisit that traumatic moment, to trace the steps that had led to it, and to sow the seeds that will sprout in the future and recreate the Eden from which we were all banished. Having delivered The eye of the state from the dangerous mutated summit and shifted it to the quiet, level shore of the artistic sphere, they stare back at it, from there, with a blazing Cyclops-like gaze. And when the state flinches and blinks first, they take the opportunity, turn the gaze at us, and wink with that same big scary eye in an ambivalent, mischievous gesture. Is the monster in fact a fairy? The mythological tension is both deterring and luring, and we are forced to make a decision: whether to run away screaming or walk into the eye of the storm.
"the past is all one can know in his
life… no one has lived in the present
or will live in the future"
(laibach, Kapital, 1992)
Role reversal, dualities, contradictions, paradoxes, and opposites are the conscious and professed daily lot of Irwin and NSK from their inception in communist Yugoslavia of the 1980s, through the dramatic tribulations experienced by their homeland Slovenia, Eastern and Western Europe, and the entire world since. Irwin and NSK historically spearheaded these changes; their emphasis on constant perusal of the tempting and nightmarish presence of the past in the present has often led them to take positions and to commit acts of a prophetic nature misconstrued by their fellow countrymen, who responded with shock and excommunication (gradually exchanged by reserved acceptance following their success in the West). Nevertheless, the aesthetics, the strategy, and world view held by Irwin and NSK are vital not only as a lesson in the history of art colliding frontally with a lesson in world history, but primarily since they offer a model for thought and action in Israel. It is a relevant and challenging model not only because it proposes a new perspective barely examined in Israeli art—a third position which interrupts the paralyzing duality of coalition and opposition, approval and criticism, integration and rebellion (most of contemporary artistic practice may be divided into two camps: pragmatic globalist careerism versus political activism, both of them quintessentially post-Zionist)—but mainly since Israel is passing through a sensitive and fragile intermediate state very similar to the situation into which Irwin and NSK emerged and in which they operated, provoked reactions and made waves.
The oppressive weight of Irwin’s aesthetics stems from the insistence to conjure up a bleeding, traumatic past, yet one which—in a disturbing and challenging manner—is also glorious, noble, authoritative, paternal and, strangest of all, reminding us of something which we could not have experienced ourselves. In a destabilizing cultural and political space, infected by the unbearable lightness of oblivion and repression, contemporary art all-too-often—even when it is successful, worthy, beautiful and acute—feels like a pile of leaves blowing in a random, capricious wind; like a thin layer of dust on a grand ancient table, which, when observed from the correct angle, shimmers briefly in the twilight, but scatters in all directions and dissolves with the first gust of wind. Irwin observes the table itself, offering us an anchor which will provide us with a foothold. It offers us an Archimedean position for action. It offers us everything we refuse to admit that we want: order, discipline, belonging, and power. And when the evil, poisoned wind comes, a turbid blast of an imminent catastrophe—we will be ready and prepared.
"all art is subject to political manipulation except for that which speaks the language of this same manipulation."
(laibach, from 10 items of the covenant, 1982)
Irwin was founded in Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana in 1983, at a time when Slovenia was one of the six constituent republics of Yugoslavia. One year later the group participated in the establishment of the NSK Collective together with the Scipion Nasice Sisters Theater company and the music group Laibach. The latter was founded in 1980 in the mining town, Trbovlje, one month after the death of Yugoslavia’s legendary leader, Marshal Josip Broz Tito.
Laibach are still the best-known members of NSK (which also includes a design section, Novi Kolektivizem, and a department of Pure and Applied Philosophy), and has attracted fire since its inception due to the use of aesthetics which draw on the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century: communism, fascism, and Nazism. These aesthetics were intertwined with motifs drawn from modernist art movements as well as popular Volkist, traditional and religious elements. This charged aesthetic wrapped aggressive, bombastic music typified by military march rhythms, Wagnerian orchestrations, and abstract industrial noise. Their leitmotifs—eagle, deer, the little drummer, the Sower, the Black Cross of the father of Suprematism, Kasimir Malevich—were later adopted by Irwin. The very use of the name Laibach is a political provocation echoing past traumas since this was the German name of Ljubljana during the Nazi occupation. The first event planned by the group—an exhibition and a live performance—was blocked by the authorities under the pretext of “inappropriate use of symbols.” Laibach succeeded in holding a few events, but, much like what happened to the Sex Pistols after swearing in a 1976 British television program, their debut on Slovenian television in 1983 also resulted in an official ban on their performances in Slovenia, which was only lifted in 1987.
One of the first scholars to support Laibach and NSK—who were of course accused of fascism and Nazism (although, it should be noted that the only swastika presented by Laibach, in 1987, was the one designed by anti-fascist political artist John Heartfield, and it wasn’t until 2003 that they slipped into an SS uniform)—was fellow-townsman philosopher Slavoj Žižek. Žižek’s philosophy (and the Slovene Lacanian School which evolved around it) and NSK’s activity developed simultaneously, mutually nourishing each other and functioning as the foundations of Ljubljana’s alternative scene.
Žižek defined NSK’s strategy as “over-identification.” He maintained that overt criticism of the regime was not as effective as an act of masquerading which radicalized the values of the hegemonic center, while planting aesthetic and ideological booby-traps in them. To be “more stately than the state,” thus, is a more subversive act than to criticize it directly, since this radicalization exposes the “hidden reverse,” namely, the bare, real intention behind the ideological guise, the transgression which is not discussed explicitly, but nevertheless allowed as a behavioral norm (just as the Ku-Klux-Klan lynchings and the pogroms which culminated in Kristallnacht were not overtly supported by the authorities, yet were an outcome of the official ideology, the “hidden reverse”). The strategy of responding to the language of the system by using this very language, of being more totalitarian than totalitarianism, this radical affirmation is subversive, embarrassing the regime much more than manifestations of criticism and opposition which are easier to deflect. (By the same token, this may explain why the IDF was embarrassed when the affair of the T-shirts printed by IDF squadrons bearing slogans and caricatures depicting the killing of women and children was exposed). The hidden reverse has a vampire-like nature: its bringing to light alone can kill it.
NSK’s best-known act of “over-identification” was launched by its design section in 1987. In a state contest for a poster to commemorate the Dan mladosti (“Youth Day”), a nation-wide sports’ festival celebrated on Tito’s birthday, the poster designed by Novi Kolektivizem won first prize. Only later was it revealed that the key image starring in it was borrowed from a Nazi poster. The prize committee, which praised the poster and how it reflected the spirit of the Yugoslavian people, was deeply humiliated, and the scandal led to the holiday’s immediate annulment.
Once NSK was founded, the responsibility for its aesthetic platform was entrusted to Irwin. Irwin took Laibach’s over-identification with the totalitarian experience, and supplemented it with a layer of self over identification after appointing themselves the historians and documenters of NSK, and those who repeatedly replicate its icons and formulate their meaning and significance. The continued strictness regarding the work as a collective, as part of which each individual explicitly waives his personal taste and wishes, and their declaration (a presumptuous declaration, bearing in mind that it was voiced by a group that emerged from the margins) of themselves as the authentic embodiment of Slovenian national art, stung and challenged the ethos of art which consecrates the individual and freedom, prophesying both the conformism of art dictated by the demands of a commercial market and the aspirations for national differentiation of Yugoslavia’s constituent republics. Only in recent years did Irwin shift from signing works with the group’s logo to personal credits given to the five group members: Duśan Mandic, Miran Mohar, Andrej Savski, Roman Uranjek, and Borut Vogelnik. The group’s original name was Rrose IRWIN Sélavy, which combined homage to Marcel Duchamp’s alter ego with the name of a watch manufacturer, as well as the name of an American town with a large Slovenian community. Irwin developed Duchamp’s idea of the readymade into a sampling of signs, symbols, motifs, and entire works of art within a new context, and based on a pre-modern work technique of Christian icon paintings. The sampling repeats itself over and over again, each time in a new mix, with five interpretations per theme. Irwin called their work mode the Retroprincip (retro-principle), alluding not to the mannerist citation typical of postmodern art, but rather to a specific reliance on the collection of symbols, signs, images, forms, and rhetoric which characterized the modernist Utopian movements of the 20th century, as well as what happened to this collection following the traumatic encounter of these movements with the totalitarian regimes they dreamed into being or prophesied, and the way in which these regimes adopted major characteristics of such movements while co-opting, excluding, or persecuting these very movements. For Irwin and NSK, these traumas continue to be present in the cultural and political reality of Europe, and therefore their conjuring up, by means of the Retroprincip, is an attempt to account for existential questions which were raised back then and have remained unanswered (since their voice was swallowed by the canons’ roar) as to the nature and origin of power in the modern era. The answers are supposed to serve as a live model for the present and the future, because the Retroprincip is not an artistic style or school, but rather a philosophical approach.
The dichotomy between criticism and embrace, rejection and affirmation, as manifested in Laibach’s actions (in the aforementioned television program, when asked for their response to the regime’s ban, they replied that the ban had been their goal in the first place, because they wanted to test the assertive alertness of the state security system, whose quick response crowned their act as a success), was translated, in a structured manner in Irwin’s works, into a dichotomy between the abstract and revolutionary avant-garde and its demand to change all aspects of human and political existence, on the one hand, and the realistic traditional classicism of Nazism and Stalinism, on the other. The contradiction appears irreconcilable unless we remind ourselves that avant-garde in fact prevailed in Eastern Europe when it took part in a real dramatic metamorphosis, and continued to exist there for a limited period of time as an affirmation of an existing order: the new utopian order. Art and life indeed coalesced in 1917; the state became a total work of art which realizes the dream of the avant-garde: the total transformation of mankind.
Nazi and Stalinist art did not really revert to realistic mimesis which represents a reality, since in both cases it depicted a constant movement toward something aspired and intense—the realism was phantasmagorical and served a dynamics of permanent revolution. Its function was similar to that of the avant-garde which it had persecuted and suppressed.
NSK’s return to classicist realism threatened the tranquility of Tito’s Communism, which set itself apart from Soviet Stalinism; it is disconcerting for us in the West because the avant-garde itself has in recent decades become the official classic of the modernist ethos, nimbly omitting the option of prevailing and existing in a reality in which it can affirm and support the change it had demanded. In fact, it was silenced and neutralized by art history just as it was by the 20th century right and left wing totalitarian systems. The West’s hidden reverse is, thus, this elegant silencing of what totalitarianism had silenced with overt brutality.
"art is fanaticism that
In the late 1980s and early 1990, with the collapse of the Soviet bloc, NSK faced a paradigmatic challenge. After the war broke out, Slovenia was the first to declare its independence in June 1991, leaving the battlefield ten days later. What NSK did concurrently was to declare itself a state existing in time rather than in space, and relying on the memories and experiences of its subjects who are not supposed to belong to any given nation or ethnic group; a state which furnishes time with visibility, a time defined through experience and movement rather than through blood and soil. Against the backdrop of Yugoslavia’s dissolution into states fanatically based on national and ethnic affiliation, the NSK state prophesied the grave results of the absence of an ethnically impartial regulating organization due to which the region deteriorated to a blood bath. The NSK state introduced an alternative model which sharply criticized the disastrous naïveté of libertarian emancipation theories striving to dissolve the foci of authority, leading not to a free utopian society, but rather to a much more dangerous and barbaric type of centralization. Furthermore, one may extract from this model a prophetic critique on the loss of liberties involved in the transition to a political format operating within global (or pan-European) capitalism which supervises and controls in an ostensibly different, dynamic, flexible, mobile, and boundless manner, enabling the market to flow undisturbed, and harnessing the state apparatus in its full force to confront disturbances when needed (as opposed to constantly). In the dramatic transition from socialism to blatant nationalism and all-encompassing capitalism, NSK tried to rescue the baby lest it be thrown out with the bath water, implying the possible existence of a positive state structure.
The logic of over-identification also implemented itself in the context of the artistic proclamation of independence; it was manifested in the totality with which NSK adopted all the aesthetic, ritualistic, and symbolic features of states. NSK began to declare every event of the organization as the materialization of a transient state territory manifested as a full-fledged embassy and consulates which issued passports to anyone willing to fill out a form and pay the necessary fee. The passports appeared perfectly authentic, and could easily mislead a weary or slightly ignorant passport control officer. The NSK logo became the state’s flag. What happened with previous acts of over-identification, repeated itself in the new context: it was reported that an unknown number of citizens fled the war zone in Bosnia-Herzegovina and crossed the border using the fictive passport. In recent years, NSK found itself in a new front of the European stronghold as it began to receive thousands of passport applications from African citizens who thought they had found a loophole and a legitimate admission ticket to the European Union. In addition, Irwin initiated the NSK Guards (NSK Garda) project—a photographic documentation of rituals during which soldiers of various armies (mostly from East European countries) wear an armband bearing Malevich’s cross, standing to attention at the foot of the NSK flag. This perfect emulation of a political apparatus and the temporary conceptual conquest of real territories (embassies) and armies hint at the fictive element in every state, centered on an accepted mythology based on symbols and forms. When an army agrees to be conquered by a foreign flag and emblem just because they are ostensibly imaginary, this indicates the arbitrariness of the rules, values and flag which it swore to defend, and the absurdity inherent in the existence of something shared by all national aesthetics, nations whose struggles are based on a somewhat neurotic, narcissistic concentration on nuances. In an act of total theater which dissolves art and life, Irwin make armies do voluntarily what in any ordinary situation they would have done only following surrender at the conclusion of a bloody battle.
NSK’s first embassy was inaugurated in a private apartment in Moscow in 1992. Since then, the NSK state has transformed into a parasitical, colonizing spirit no longer focused on its geographical homeland, but rather generating its temporal heritage via the real and dynamic movement of its citizens in the world, and through encounter, dialogue, and interaction. From East Europe to West, from there to America, and now—to the Middle East.
"the explanation is the
whip and you bleed."
(tomas hostnik, apologia laibach, 1982)
As long as we bear in mind that NSK is the outcome of an avant-garde tradition that prevailed, and therefore transformed from opposition to coalition, an experience which is totally foreign to us as Westerners (but not as Israelis, a point which will be elaborated below), it will be easier to understand that Retroprincip and over-identification differ not only from approaches adhering to direct criticism, but also from ironic, parodic, or satirical estrangement. They are truly and effectively subversive precisely because they do not purport to overcome, evade or scorn ideological systems as such; NSK does not rely on mere negation and repudiation because the memory of victory renders them optimistic (even if the victory was short-lived and doomed to collapse into an apocalyptic catastrophe, it was still worthwhile), placing them firmly within history, within culture, within civilization, not outside them. Neither iconoclasts nor anarchists (even if their strategy embeds such inclinations). NSK indicate the fragile, traumatic moment of transition from utopia to apocalypse because there is something to lose, and therefore there is something to salvage. They strive to enfeeble or even neutralize apocalyptic forces threatening to repeat the pattern of the brutal past in the here-and-now, and they do so by indicating the aesthetics which sets them in motion, and the fact that their power stems from that aesthetic, and not from any other source. NSK’s gaze is far-reaching, pointing not at power relations based on coercion, law and obedience, but rather at the aesthetic-mythological glue enabling these power relations a-priori. This indication conceals a possibility at once tempting and scary, of harnessing this aesthetic and reclaiming it for the sake of a new utopian element.
The importance of this not all-negating approach is emphasized against the backdrop of the cynicism of the ideological discourse in the postmodern era. The exposure and deconstruction of blind power and interest underlying political views have contributed to the creation of an atmosphere of public heartbreak, bitterness, helplessness, passivity, and a-politicism. Instead of neutralizing or decentralizing power, deconstruction has given it the license to cynically admit that it is motivated by self-interest, without paying the price (in Silvio Berlusconi’s case, for example, his image as a person who unwaveringly looks after his own interests is precisely part of what constructs his popular masculine image. In Israel too, the criminal allegations against Avigdor Lieberman combine with his nationalist aggression to generate a positive image of a man’s man and no weakling). Its subjects implement this egoism in their everyday life, excluding themselves from any political involvement or discourse, since the center is but another interest-motivated sector, devoid of values and care for the public at large, for the nation, hence not only is it irrelevant as a sphere of action, but it has become one of the groups with which the citizen competes for a piece of the pie. The daily administration of many Western capitalistic regimes no longer bothers to correspond with lofty ideals or some shared ideological solidarity, but rather with a cold and dystopian Robocopic jargon of maintaining order and nothing else, while cutting off manifestations of extremism that may interrupt the flow of market forces. In this atmosphere, the sole expression of solidarity is nostalgic and voracious, and as such—it is radicalized, hysterical, fanatical, and racist. It is the traumatic panic of the fall from the Eden of belonging and justice.
The power of the Retroprincip and over-identification lies in learning the historical lesson and avoiding repetition of the aforesaid destructive Marxist-avant-garde process. There is something misanthropic, gloating, and
anti-social about the act of disrobing the system of its ideological Emperor’s clothes carried out by the Marxist and postmodern left, something which is translated into a defeatist political program. Rational deconstruction alone cannot bring about a change because the very idea of change is romantic by definition, and as such, it draws on the same mythological origin which the center grabbed for its own use. The alienation from the apparatus is experienced by the deconstructivists alone as a differentiated, extraterrestrial elite. The masses do not share this alienation in the first place. They feel a belonging, enjoy and take pride in it, and the eating from the Tree of Knowledge only breaks their spirit instead of mobilizing them. The call for the superiority of reason over emotion and the patronizing labeling of the yearning for flags and slogans as an opiate of the masses, guarantee that the status quo will remain intact, and worse still—they ensure an accelerated adherence of the masses to the center precisely at the moment when it is laid bare. The center is the public’s enemy on the material level, but it is its best friend on the mythological level (or, at least, it was so in the past, in the golden age for which the public always pines). The Retroprincip does not patronize or estrange itself from that ostensibly naïve past existence in which there existed collective and a public that believed in something. Over-identification exposes the system, but does not leave us empty handed in the process. It snatches the aesthetic-mythical power from the center, disarms it, and hands it over to us, namely—it generates a cultural, artistic, social space in which we can re-celebrate the paradise of a collective sense of justice and the involvement in a movement which is greater than we are and larger than life; we already know that the original utopia led to trauma and a heartbreak, that the dream was flawed, but we emerge stronger because over-identification leaves us in a space which acknowledges and respects the utopian moment. Since NSK does not stand outside and criticize, they have no problem to be partners in this yearning, and with the fact that human history will always be inspired by it.
The hidden reverse of every ideology is epitomized by the ultimate transgression—war—as part of which people are sent to kill and be killed in its name with elation, boundless devotion, an amazing outburst of superhuman stamina and unending solidarity. Those who survive the blood bath will remember the experience as a formative peak. NSK take this murderous, barbaric, bestial excitement, combined with feelings of inner enlightenment and purifying, absolute, religious truth. They hold onto that collective orgasm, but instead of emptying it—as does the alienating, individualistic, urban-bohemian-decadent-erudite-misanthropic-patronizing-meglomaniac-Judeo-Christian left—they snatch it from the banal political center (which is embarrassed by the act of informing and exposing of the hidden reverse and washes its hands of the whole business) and from the fascist and nationalistic heritage in general (since the symbols and insignia it used existed before and continue to exist thereafter; they are eternal, and as such, they are not introduced as a monopoly in the hands of a given regime, but rather wait as a potential for any regime whatsoever) giving it to us. The accomplishment is double because it changes something both in the public sphere and in the ruling consciousness. Primarily, the orgasmic experience is made possible in a ritualistic space—the artistic space—and therefore does not involve bloodletting. At the same time, one should emphasize that this is not a simulation, because the potential inherent to symbols and aesthetics is real, and therefore always carries a promise for the future, otherwise there wouldn’t have been an orgasm there. NSK’s absurd and contradictory combination of symbols indeed empties the existing ideological promise, exposes it as corrupt, or simply neutralizes it by the very use of mishmash; the paradoxical mix-up neutralizes the formula and the specific, momentary compound chosen by the existing order, but it does not neutralize the symbols themselves on which the compound is based, which continue to enjoy the aura of eternal flame which cannot be dimmed. Along with the abduction of an eternal essence from the heart of a decayed apparatus and its handing over to the public, NSK does not hesitate to retrace its steps, to look into the apparatus’s eyes and smear that essence in its face. This gesture embarrasses the center because it reminds it of the time during which it was by itself swept after the myth it had constructed to control us. This is the profound reason why when Laibach and NSK met with repression, banning, and prohibition, they expressed their satisfaction with the regime’s awakening from its degenerating complacency, from the automatic pilot, determined to defend itself and its vitality: on the bottom line, what NSK achieve is a remobilization of all parties involved for the flag of myth, for remembering a belief in something beyond the material—capital and coercive power. The center is embarrassed and loses balance because it remembers that there is always a greater power around the corner, threatening/promising to sweep us all off our feet. And us? We are forced to choose whether we stand outside or inside the human experience, and whether we join the party or alternatively condemn the hosts; this is the permanent risk taken by NSK, since this is precisely the sole feature of totalitarian regimes left an the empty square—the scapegoat, the root of the problem, the propagator of the disease, the one betraying the revolution, the inferior race.
"similia similibus curator"
("likes are cured by likes," the homeopathic axiom)
The State of Israel was spawned by a utopian, modernist, European idea whose roots go directly back to the Volkist national revival of Eastern and Central Europe in the mid- and late 19th century. To put it in somewhat more dramatic terms, we shall say that in today’s world there remain two political experiments which emerged from the modernist heritage: Israel and NSK. We shall further add that in the early days of a national movement, that strove to gather its citizens from all over Europe (only much later did Zionism turn to the rest of the world), take them to another continent as inspired by the bible, and set up a state there, the idea most likely sounded far-fetched and imaginary at least as much as the idea of a “State in Time” sounds today. Considering the fact that the first NSK Congress is scheduled to take place later this year, however, there is room to speculate on what if, while looking back at the chaos created by implementing the objectives of the Zionist Congresses.
What’s important is that NSK’s aesthetics and symbols echo something distant here, blurred yet familiar, because they originate in the same background and employ the same heritage. What is doubly important is that NSK’s philosophical approach, strategy, and modus operandi can serve as a model for action and thought in Israel in general due to the aforesaid analogies, and specifically since the activity of NSK was made possible and scored achievements because it took place in a paradigmatic transition period nearly identical in nature to the one experienced in Israel, a time typified by the erosion of the original utopian idea and the solidarity it created, giving room to fanatic nationalism and vulture capitalism. Israel, like Slovenia, stood between East and West, between socialism and democracy, between mobilized collectivism and free-market individualism. NSK’s lesson is akin to a gauntlet thrown down to artists in Israel; picking it up implies reconsideration of the collective past and the aesthetic and mythological toolbox of Zionism (and not only its history in a hegemonic or post-Zionist interpretation. NSK proposes a third footing which carries the potential of liberating the region from the dualistic loop in which it is stuck). Picking up the gauntlet means recognizing the privilege of life in a fateful transition period, when one ideological system becomes weakened, loosened, corrupt, and another ideological system capable of replacing or improving it has not yet emerged. It is a privilege facing both inwardly (more inward possibilities and spheres of action vis-à-vis a degenerating center), and outwardly (the world observing us attentively, awaiting a loud and clear new voice). The tactic of over-identification fullfills its maximum potential (and perhaps possible only) in a time of the narrative’s waning; it is precisely this fateful time span which makes for the creation of a replica more beautiful and enthusiastic than the disintegrating original. Since the original has not yet collapsed, and since the governmental center still speaks its language (more and more grotesquely and oblivious, that for the younger generation this language has long dissolved into the mere empty intonation of overzealous television promos), the question begs itself: what disintegration exactly do the buds of the over-identification tactic in Israel prophesy, and what future synthesis do they herald?
Over-identification has long existed in Israeli art, and one may adamantly maintain that its roots lie in Michal Na’aman’s aforementioned act. The state monumentality of the 1990s installations by Erez Harodi and Nir Nader was designed and shaped to expose the center by imitating its aesthetics of authority. Concurrently in Jerusalem, Anat Ben-David used Laibach’s music in her performances, which led her over time to conceptual infiltration into the world of the rock/pop concert based on an ongoing study of the totalitarian character of the stage performer. Her brother, Yoav Ben-David, painted homeland vistas and historical Zionist figures, using the same impersonal technique of icon painting, resulting in postcards disturbing in their strange neutrality. Ilya Rabinovich acted similarly in his photographs of haunted, deserted public and national institutions. One may call the tactic employed by both these artists “over-objectivity”: their cold gaze exposes cracks in the official aesthetics; the disconcert and dread simmering under the surfaces of their works are somewhat reminiscent of the way in which David Lynch extracts horror from every inanimate part of the space appearing in his frames.
The performance group Public Movement is currently the most vociferous and quintessential example of an over-identification tactic. Their use of ritualistic aesthetics originated and enacted by the youth movements, the IDF, and various state apparatuses, reduced into a salute to an ideological vacuum centered on a flag that represents itself alone, the idea of a flag, and when the list of collective aesthetic experiences courtesy of Zionism, whose mobilizing power diminishes, is supplemented with the only contemporary experiences which generate a sense of togetherness—sex, terrorist attacks, and road accidents (serving as freshly acquired international footballers)—the result is an elusive, wild and intricate system of over-identification which laments the evil at the core of the mechanism, but also the loss of the ability to take part in its rituals out of love and identification. Public Movement does not operate in a vacuum. Artist Yael Bartana reconstructed photographs of pioneers from the early Yishuv days, but replaced some of these Jewish role models with Palestinians (as part of the exhibition “Never Looked Better” curated by Galit Eilat and Eyal Danon, which invaded the Diaspora Museum like a Trojan horse of subtle over-identification). Pil & Galia Kollectiv landed at the Herzliya Biennial, and constructed, as part of a futurist performance in a revolutionary Russian dialect, a Real-socialist sculpture of a capitalistic yacht, mounted by a crew dressed in Dadaist costumes. In a current exhibition Yochai Avrahami looks back at a personal story oscillating between Germany and Israel, between the Bauhaus and the Taas (Israel Military Industries) factory, constructing a museum which imitates settlement and Zionist museums, centered on the circumstantial argument that the Uzi sub-machine gun was shaped according to the values of the German Bauhaus.
Irwin invited the IDF to enlist its soldiers in the NSK Guards. The IDF refused, echoing the relationship between Laibach and the Yugoslavian regime in the early 1980s. Who are the Israeli artists who will analyze the IDF’s refusal and draw operative conclusions? Who will appropriate the aesthetic heritage of Zionism and thereby construct a model which will change the past and remember the future? Who will prepare us for the imminent dark recesses of Kali Yuga, to the birth of a new cycle of life, which will emerge from oblivion?
- New Collectivism (ed.), Neue Slowenische Kunst, tr. Mario Golobi (Los Angeles: Amok Books, 1991)
- Inke Arns (ed.), Irwin: Retroprincip, 1983-2003 (Berlin: Künstlerhaus Bethanien, 2003)
- Alexei Monroe, Interrogation Machine (London and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005)
- Never Looked Better: Contemporary Artists Respond to the Leni & Herbert - Sonnenfeld Photo Collection (Tel Aviv: The Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, Beth Hatefutsoth, 2009).