Time for a New State/NSK: Folk Art
22 Calvert Avenue E2 7JP
London until June 24th 2012
If a state only existed in time, what would its art look like? This is one of the questions NSK: Time for a New State tries to address. Multi-media Art collective Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) formed in Slovenia in 1983, shortly before the country became independent of Yugoslavia. It was fuelled by two ideas: publicising Eastern European art and questioning the notions of nationality and identity being exploited by new nationalist movements in the region. NSK established its 'State in Time' in 1992, during the high tide of nationalist aggression which led to the Bosnian war. It has 14,000 citizens, each with specially-issued passports. Conceived to “exist within the framework of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia”, many of the works exhibited here by NSK's art wing IRWIN and its “citizens” play with the iconography of old regimes. Despite the provenance of the movement, many of the issues raised around nationality seem especially relevant now with ever tightening borders.
There are technically two exhibitions here, with official state art upstairs and its “folk art” downstairs. Upstairs, the photographic series Transnacionala documents actions such as the placing of a giant black square in a public space near the Kremlin. IRWIN appropriates its black square and circle symbols from the pre-revolutionary Russian art movement Suprematism, which was later banned by Stalin in favour of Socialist Realism. There is a constant dialogue with avant-garde art, which acknowledges both its subversion and engagement with authoritarian regimes.
There is a wall dedicated to IRWIN's work from the past two decades. It is dotted with heavy wooden frames and hunting trophies, recalling Eastern Europe's reputation for hunting. Figures ranging from Lenin to saints have their images slathered on the wood surfaces like ancient flyers. There are some religious icons and the Orthodox cross, referring to much older artistic traditions. Sometimes the frames are simply filled in with reflective tiles or industrial paint. There are few other overt references to the region’s very recent political upheavals, despite the fact that IRWIN produced much of the work during a series of uprisings in Serbia and neighbouring states. In the same way, the passport stamp, the issue desk and the picture of four men in suits standing over the desk seem particularly old-fashioned, from an analogue past well before the inception of the NSK's state. It's odd remembering that none of it is rooted in reality at all, despite the elaborate staging of processions and rituals in the photographs. There is something inherently funny about imitating official pomp – but there are no winks or dry humour to acknowledge this.
Downstairs, the folk art is far more engaging. Folk art is often associated with unofficial celebrations, and the tumultuous spirit of carnival. However, New York artist and NSK citizen Christian Matzke takes on the role of a loyalist. He devised the 'Retrogarde' reading room and lending library, which is in his own house, and a video project where 'rolling' NSK state news is shown. In his discussion of the reading room, he reveals that he is an employee of the all-American LL Bean during the day. He describes the strange “bleed” between his imaginary life and his real life that occurs when the company ends up using the photo from his NSK passport (which he carries everywhere) for his official entrance pass. Matzke's dedication makes me think it's bizarre that he doesn't perceive the NSK as part of his real world already. For one artwork, he creates a uniform based on that of the Swiss Military Guard. There's peace to be kept even in an imaginary state.
Other works include Astrid Thingplatz's trumpet version of Kim Wilde's 'The Kids in America' slowed down and stripped of its soar, overlaid with a historical recording extolling the meeting of “the swastikas of the east and the west”. Christian Chrobok's Ikon Suprematische photographs are poster-ready – it references the art movement, but the model could be out of an American Apparel shoot. Undoubtedly, there's a little bit of exclusive hipster posturing in all the works. The expressions of identity are variously earnest, pompous, amusing, and sinister. NSK's musical wing Laibach claimed that it used symbols from National Socialism and fascist movements in order to weaken their power and show how the ideologies represented had failed to live up to their utopian promises. The artists here use such imagery interchangeably as reminders of how national identities have historically been shaped and utilised by totalitarian regimes. They don’t offer an alternative but instead raise spectres as warnings of what can happen when we forget the past.
There were celebratory Union Jacks adorned on every surface in East London, but I felt on leaving that the outside world had been changed a little by NSK's alternative reality. That might be even more evident to those who see the collective's billboard currently on the Elephant & Castle roundabout. It declares it's 'Time for a New State'. It's rare that art escapes a self-referential loop, but this thought-provoking exhibition manages to wittily explore concerns about national identity and inclusiveness.
Zakia Uddin is an East London-based writer who has previously written for Time Out, Londonist, Dazed & Confused, The Guardian, and The Wire.view all articles from this author