The painters' collective IRWIN (1983) is part of the artists' collective Neue Slowenische Kunst(On Neue Slowenische Kunst cf. Arns, Inke: Neue Slowenische Kunst. Regensburg, 2002.) (NSK), together with the music group Laibach (1980), and the performance group Gledališce Sester Scipion Nasice (1983),which, in 1987, renamed itself Kozmokineticno Gledališce Rdeci Pilot, and, since 1990, has been called Kozmokineticni Kabinet Noordung.(A fourth sub-group should be mentioned here: the New Collectivism design group which consists of members of Laibach, Irwin and the theatre collective. New Collectivism is best known for a scandal that ensued in 1986/1987 when their remake of a Nazi poster was awarded the first prize in the national competition for the Dan Mladosti (Youth Day) -thereby showing the proximity between socialist realism and Nazi Kunst that was indistinguishable to the jury. Following the scandal, the yearly ritual of celebrating Tito's birthday was abolished.)
NSK was founded in the Slovenian republic of the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia in 1984. According to a declaration written in 1982 by the precursor of NSK Laibach Kunst, NSK did not define itself as an alliance of individuals, but rather as an explicitly uniform collective. From the beginning, NSK's radical strategy was one of over-identification with the 'hidden reverse' or the implicit premises of state ideology. Having been influenced by the theory of the Slovenian Lacan school, which developed in the 1980s around philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek, NSK was a genuine part of Ljubljana's sub-cultural scene.
In the 1980s, all the groups of the NSK were bound to the working method of retro(-avant-)garde, resp. the retro-principle.(Laibach, the 'politicians', used the expression "retro-avant-garde"; Irwin, who fulfilled the role of the 'chronists', used the notion "retro-principle"; and the theater group - taking over the function of 'religion' within the NSK framework - used "retro-garde". Miran Mohar specifies in an interview: "The meaning of these words differed, as it is obvious from the expressions themselves. For Irwin, in the first manifesto, this was declared as a principle, as a way of doing things. Retro-principlewas connected to the organic eclecticism of Slovenian art; we accepted eclecticism by birth, we took it over as an obvious standpoint, even though everybody at the time was trying to speak about the 'originality' of Slovenian art." (In: Joanne Richardson. Neue Slowenische Kunst. Miran Mohar, Borut Vogelnik and Eda Cufer. Interview. In: ARTMargins. 16 June 2000.) It consists of an'emphatic ecclecticism' which appropriates all those texts (signs, images, symbols and forms of rhetoric), which retrospectively have become identification signs for artistic, political, religious or technological 'salvation utopias' of the 20th century.
These very different utopias have been formulated aesthetically as well, and it is exactly these aesthetic signs that - following NSK - are associated with collective traumata still at work today. Rather than through the invention of a new sign language, it is through a recourse to existing traumatic texts that it is possible for NSK to return to, name, point to and re-work thosespecific moments in history in which the turning-point from genuinely utopian dispositions into traumatic experiences has crystallized. For NSK one such turningpoint is the assimilation and consecutive abolition of the artistic avant-gardes into totalitarian systems at the end of the 1920s. After Laibach was banned by the Yugoslav authorities from performing in public in 1983 IRWIN,(Before the founding of NSK IRWIN called itself 'Rrose IRWIN Sélavy', thus establishing a link to Marcel Duchamp who started to use the name 'Rrose Sélavy' ("Rose - c'est la vie") as a female pseudonym in 1920. The group's name was soon to be cut into 'R IRWIN S' (today still present in the logo of the group) - and finally, in 1984, the name changed into IRWIN. IRWIN members are: Dušan Mandic (Ljubljana 1954), Miran Mohar (Novo Mesto 1958), Andrej Savski (Ljubljana 1961), Roman Uranjek (Trbovlje 1961), Borut Vogelnik (Kranj 1959).) as the Department of Visual Art of the newly formed NSK organisation, took over the specific Laibachesque iconography an added to it an outspoken cultural historical aspect: By using the working method of retrogarde, respectively the retro-principle which was formulated in 1984 in the Program of the IRWIN Group the painters' collective started analysing the formative moments of Slovenian national culture, and, more generally speaking, of cultural identification models.
By adopting an 'emphatic eclecticism' which used all those signs that had traversed Slovenia's territory over time; e.g. Socialist Realism and Nazi art, Italian Futurism and Soviet Constructivism, motives of Slovenian art of the 19th and 20th century, as well as Laibach's Leitmotifs eagle, deer, sower, the small drummer, and Malevic's black cross, IRWIN "asserted national culture"(IRWIN, Program Skupine IRWIN. (Program of the IRWIN Group). 1984. In: Neue Slowenische Kunst. Zagreb 1991. 54.) and claimed to develop the new national Slovene art and a "platform for national authenticity".(IRWIN. Retro Princip: Princip Manipulacije z Memorijo Videnega Potencirani Eklekticizem - Platforma Nacionalne Avtenticnosti. (Retro Principle: The Principle of Manipulation with the Memory of the Visible Emphasized Eclecticism - The Platform for National Authenticity). April 1984. First published in Problemi... No. 6. Ljubljana 1985 (special edition on NSK). Engl. in: NSK. 1991. 111.)
However, while IRWIN claimed to represent the new national Slovene art (which perfectly fitted into the growing wish for independence in the late 1980s), at the same time this claim was deconstructed by the widespread use of German names within the collective (Laibach, Neue Slowenische Kunst), and by the total eclecticism and heterogeneity of the elements comprised in IRWIN's and NSK's work.IRWIN was in fact claiming that there was no Slovene culture. Or: While claiming to be the founders of a new national art, IRWIN's work consisted of everything except 'originally' Slovene stuff. This suggested that Slovene identity was a patchwork of all kinds of different cultural influences.
I therefore strongly disagree with Toma Longinovich's view of Laibach and NSK as "[o]ne of the most interesting cultural manifestations of Slovene racism" expressed in his ARTMargins article "Indivisible Reminders".(Longinovich, Toma: Indivisible Reminders. In ARTMargins, 15 April 2001.) For Longinovich, Laibach's "intentional or unintentional participation" in the project of "white European supremacist discourse" (supposedly directed against those on the "Eastern side of the symbolic boundary that began to divide Yugoslavia after Tito's death in 1980") was "manifested in the choice of German language and names".
According to Longinovich, Laibach's performances "clearly articulated the Slovene supremacy within the disintegrating socialist state" and therefore were "blatantly racist". While his analysis provides some interesting insights into Slovene nationalist discourse of the late 1980s, Longinovich's classification of Laibach as racist and nationalist misses the point. As I have argued above and elsewhere,(Cf. Arns, Inke: Neue Slowenische Kunst. Regensburg, 2002.) it is not only German (= 'Western') names that are adopted and appropriated, but, on the contrary, a multiplicity of 'Western' as well as 'Eastern' codes.
Further, in Laibach's performances totalitarianism is certainly not denounced as something 'barbaric', 'culturally inferior', 'eastern', or 'serb', but it is presented, rather, as a universal form of domination which in certain situations individuals easily tend to submit to and which, for example, is also at work in rock concerts.
To add a third and last point to my argument, one has to keep in mind that the response to Laibach and NSK amongst youth (sub)cultures all over Yugoslavia in the 1980s was more than positive. This certainly would not have been the case had Laibach simply promoted 'Slovene supremacy' over the other Yugoslav nationalities. Laibach were positively received because in their performances of radical 'over-identification' they exactly alluded to the universal nature of totalitarian forms of domination.
In 1981 Dejan Knez, the founder of Laibach Kunst, produced a Xeroxed Christmas postcard depicting René Magritte's La Condition Humaine (1933). Magritte's originalshowed an easel in front of an open window leading the view onto an idyllic landscape. The painting on the easel depicts exactly the section it covers.
Knez replaced the landscape by a photo of a Nazi rally during the Reichsparteitag in Nürnberg in 1934, and called his collage Artist Condition I. (from) René Margritte 1934.. This radical intervention alluded to the social and political context in which Magritte's painting had been created. It was dedicated to the Belgrade artist Goran Ðorðevic whom Knez, while serving in the army in Belgrade in 1981, had often visited and whose exhibition The Harbringers of Apocalypsehe had seen in the beginning of 1981 in the ŠKUC Galerija. The exhibition consisted of 50 very similar copies of a painting thatÐorðevic had painted in 1969.(Cf. for Goran Ðorðevic Michael Erlhoff's article 'Bilder bilden' as well as the documentation of Ðorðevic's actions realized under various pseudonyms. In: Weibel, Peter (ed.): Kontext Kunst: Kunst der 90er Jahre. Cologne, 1994. 409 - 420.) It is here that we can find the roots of IRWIN's and NSK's use of appropriation(Various authors have pointed out the importance of this exhibition. C.f. Marina Grzinic. 15 let Galerije ŠKUC [15 Years of Gallery ŠKUC]. In: Letni katalog Galerije ŠKUC 1993. Ljubljana 1993. 10. Dušan Mandic who ran the gallery between 1980 and 1982 and who later became a member of IRWIN and NSK, wrote in 1991: "I believe that Ðorðevic, for instance, has greatly influenced the whole of NSK [...]." (Dušan Mandic, 15 let Galerije ŠKUC. In: Letni katalog Galerije ŠKUC 1993. Ljubljana, 1993. 8).) which later was developed into the retrogardemethod, or, the retro-principle.
The monumental oil painting Vstajenje Gledališca Sester Scipion Nasice (Resurrection of the Theatre of the Sisters of Scipion Nasica, 320 x 400 cm, 1984) is IRWIN's earliest work to combine the method of appropriation with the typical form language.(In 1984 the group exhibited Back to the USA in the ŠKUC Galerija in Ljubljana. Even if this project still did not display the typically IRWIN form language it contained the important conceptual preconditions for all IRWIN projects in the 1980s. Back to the USA was a complete reconstruction - "a shameless appropriation" (Erjavec/Grzinic) - of a group exhibition of American artists that was touring Western Europe at that time whose participants were, amongst others, Nicholas Africano, John Ahearn, Jonathan Borofsky, Richard Bosman, Neil Jenney, Robert Kushner, Matt Mullican and Cindy Sherman.) It appropriates a painting by Anselm Kiefer (Innenraum, 1981) showing an interior view of Albert Speer's Neue Reichskanzlei in Berlin. Kiefer's painting was chosen because of its striking similarity with the space depicted in Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper (1495/98).(IRWIN, in an e-mail to I. Arns, 28 Oct 2001.) Through an aperture in the wall of IRWIN's appropriation one can see the neoclassical architectures of the Slovenian architect Jože Plecnik (1872-1957). Instead of a signature Vstajenje carries a copper plate with the inscriptionVstajenje Gledališca Sester Scipion Nasice -IRWIN. Engraved in the center is Plecnik's design for the Slovenian Parliament (1947). This unrealized project was one of Plecnik's last monumental architectural plans for the city of Ljubljana.(In spite of the many realized projects in Ljubljana in the 1930s this architect was forgotten after 1945. His symbolist and monumental style seemed anachronistic during the period of functionalism in the late 1940s and 1950s. In the framework of the changes of the 1980s (postmodernism in architecture, eclecticism) the architect and his works (even the unrealized ones) re-gained public attention. In 1931 Plecnik had started to work on plans for the Slovenian Acropolis. Plecnik wanted to transform the castle in the center of Ljubljana into a National Museum. In 1947 he proposed a design for the Slovenian Parliament which was to be crowned by a monumental, 120 meter high rising cone-shaped cupola. In NSK's work there are many references towards Plecnik's Slovenian Acropolisas well as the Slovenian Parliament. For Plecnik c.f. Peter Krecic: Plecnik. The Complete Works. London 1993.)
One of the most important projects of IRWIN in the 1980s was Was ist Kunst?(The title of the series Was ist Kunst? relates to a series of performances of the same name executed in the 1970s by Belgrade-based artist Raša Todosijevic. By shouting at his 'victims' - gallerists, museum workers, etc. - the question "Was ist Kunst?" (What is art?) he formulated a radical critique of the art system. During these performances Todosijevic got more and more excited while the "victims" remained cool and totally passive. Cf. Davor Maticevic. A propos d'une exposition. In: Avant-gardes Yougoslaves. Carcassonne, 1989. 12.), which was begun in April/May 1985. Was ist Kunst?developed over time into a series of more than a hundred framed oil paintings. Thesepaintings contain montages of Socialist Realist, Agitprop and motives quoted from Slovene modernist art of the 1960s. To this IRWIN adds archetypal Laibach motives: metal worker, deer, deer's antlers, axes, the image of a coffee drinker, cog-wheels, and a black Malevic cross. Striking are the materials used in/on the paintings: blood, tar, animal skin, coal, wood, gold-leaf and other metals, while the paintings' heavy frames consist of black tar, wood and coal.
The first semi-public presentation of Was ist Kunst? took place in 1985 first in a private apartment in Ljubljana, later on in Mala Galerija where only invited visitors were granted entry because of the official ban of Laibach between 1983 - 87.
Rdeci Revirji(Red Mining Districts, 1985/1987) focuses on the Socialist Realist workers'iconography. These works are based on woodcuts by the Yugoslav artist Janez Knez from the 1950s depicting the factories of the mining town of Trbovlje. The black-and-white prints (enlargements of the original linocuts) are soaked with pig's blood and covered with glass, the gold-leaf granting them an aura of relics.
In the 1987 version, four prints are arranged into a monumental ensemble (350 x 420 cm). The corners of the frame are decorated by four tar-made male torsi. According to Marina Grzinic, with Rdeci Revirji we get "the repetition of the Social-Realist iconography, but with an excrescent bloody surplus: the one that colored the lives of thousands of painters, artists, whose Revolutionary abstractions were stifled in the bloody Stalinist purges […]. Irwin's repetition has provided the [original, I.A.] artwork with a repulsively obscene element of Truth."(Grzinic, Marina: Fiction Reconstructed. Eastern Europe, Post-Socialism & the Retro-Avantgarde. Vienna, 2000. 122.)
The text accompanying Rdeci Revirji alludes to the symbolical meaning of the city of Trbovlje by pointing to the fierce political fights between fascist and communist groups which took place in the 1920s in the Slovenian mining districts of the Zasavje region (Trbovlje, Zagorje, Hrastnik). On a more abstract level it alludes to the Slovenian trauma of 10th century German colonization which Slovenia finally could free itself from, but to which it remains "irrevocably connected, culturally, linguistically and historically, in an uncertain and unclear relation."(Iles, Chrissie: Ewige Gegenwart. Über die slowenische Künstlergruppe IRWIN. In: 59to1. Jan./Feb. 1989. 63 f.)
In the project Slovenske Atene (Slovenian Athens, 1987) the sower(The figure of the sower is based on the Slovenian painter Ivan Grohar's painting Sejalec (Sower) from 1907.) was the dominant motiv. Slovenske Atene consists of a series of five paintings (each measuring 340 x 160 cm) combining the motif of the sower with, amongst others, representations of different (Slovenian) landscapes: the sea, the mountains, the fields, the forest and the Alps. The title of this series of five monumental paintings hints towards an exhibition project which was initiated by IRWIN and which took place in Moderna Galerija in 1991.
For the exhibition Slovenske Atene, artists from Yugoslavia were invited to deal with the motif of the sower. IRWIN wrote in the letter of invitation:"[The sower] is a commonly recognizable theme in the memory of European culture, the emblem of sowing and harvesting, sacrificing and giving, the soil and man, fertile matter and moral beauty and power. This is also a national motif which speaks of man's ties with the land, an infinitely picturesque idyll which, nevertheless, contains an existential conflict between the greedy glow of the soil against the extra-temporal, immaculate superiority of the sower's knowledge. The harmony of sowing is a primal picture of thecontact of two instruments joined in the fateful meaning of passage and renovation. A moment stolen from eternity, in which a hand, doomed to the abyss of the earth, unclenches its fist, to fertilize its existence. This is both a reconciliation and a challenge, a climax of the elegance of man's culture, an act of his will, an attitude of his wisdom."(IRWIN. Epistle to the co-authors of the 'Slovenske Atene' project (1985). In: NSK 1991. 140.)
In IRWIN's art the motif of the sower becomes a 'national icon', or, precisely, "a Heimatkunst allegory," which serves "as a symbolic substitute for tradition, and, at the same time, a rejection of the original illusion of its impressionist ideological purity."(Mojca Oblak. Neue Slowenische Kunst and New Slovenian Art. In: Art & Design. London. Profile No. 35 / 1994. Theme: New Art From Eastern Europe: Identity and Conflict. 13.) Through its constant repetition in IRWIN's paintings the motiv of the sower was transformed into a "monumental form" - a process similar to the functioning of ideology: "Ideology (both in politics and art) does not create the original, but through repetition of its own images produces power."(Ibid.)
The creation of the NSK Drzava v casu (NSK State in Time) in 1991 - mainly driven by IRWIN and Eda Cufer - leads away from the hermetic and static entity which NSK defined itself as in the 1980s; away from NSK as a declarative entity using totalitarian emblematics meant to confront the single individual with his or her (own) fantasized partaking of, or participation in power, away from an entity which was analyzing the flux of aesthetic-ideological signs through territories, and away from the body that back then was communicating with the public only through pre-formulated statements, or, non-communication. On the contrary, in the 1990s, the artists' collective, with the declaration of independence of the NSK Drzava v casu (which had already taken shape by the inception of the declaration of independence of Slovenia in 1991) itself becomes an immaterial 'organism', fluctuating through real territories, putting the emphasis on the moment of communication, of open interaction, of exchange of experiences.
The artistic concept of the NSK Drzava v casucomments on concrete political developments in ex-Yugoslavia in a specific way: it represents an alternative to the political fixations on territories, ethnic groups and borders that gained strength since the beginning of the 1990s (not only in ex-Yugoslavia, but certainly therein its most extreme shape).
The NSK Drzava v casu defines itself neither through a concrete geographical territory, nor through an ethnically fixed Staatsnation... For the definition of a proper 'spiritual' territory the concept of NSK emphasizes the notion of time - i.e. the accumulation of individual experiences(Cf. Eda Cufer & IRWIN. Concepts and Relations (1992). In: IRWIN. Zemljopis Vremena / Geography of Time. Catalogue. Umag, 1994.) - as a new productive category for the definition of space. The NSK State is defined as an "abstract organism", as a "suprematist body, installed in a real social and political space as a sculpture comprising the concrete body warmth, spirit and work of its members. NSK confers the status of a state not upon territory but upon the mind, whose borders are in a state of flux, in accordance with the movements and changes of its symbolic and physical collective body..."(Eda Cufer & IRWIN. NSK State in Time (1993). In: IRWIN. Zemljopis Vremena / Geography of Time... Ibid.)
The 'immaterial'NSK Drzava v casu materializes itself in different time intervals under the form of an 'embassy' or a 'consulate' in various places(As an addition to the embassies and consulates, the NSK Drzava v casu issues passports, which are understood as a "confirmation of temporal space" (NSK) and which can be obtained by any person irrespective of citizenship or nationality.)... This means that members of the different NSK groups, as performed for the first time in 1992 during the NSK Embassy Moscow(Neue Slowenische Kunst. NSK Embassy Moscow. How the East sees the East (IRWIN in Collaboration with Apt-Art International and Ridzina Gallery. Moscow May 10 - June 10, 1992). Obalne Galerije Piran / Loža Gallery Koper (eds.). Koper .) in Russia, travel to a certain place together (in Moscow, a private apartment), and then e.g. through lectures of NSK members and participants from Slovenia or ex-Yugoslavia as well as local theoreticians and artists, and discussions with the audience, stimulate an exchange of experiences.
In the 1990s IRWIN/NSK were not the only ones to establish a state. Today many artists are investigating the mechanisms which constitute the political, territorial status quo. In this process, they create subversive orders which function parallel to the status quo, and which are always aimed at a transformation of the territory, that is, at a transformation of the established perception of territorial boundaries. Some examples: KREV, the Kingdom of Elgaland and Vargaland by Michael von Hauswolff and Leiff Elgren; Frank Riepe/AWP's Invisible Embassy of Seborga; Ingo Günther's Refugee Republic, Territoirs Nomades from Canada, etc.(Symptomatically, in the mid-1990s there were several exhibitions organised around that theme; e.g. Art on a Global Scale in Kiel (Germany), Cartographers in Zagreb (Croatia), Map Room in Belgrade (Yugoslavia, Galerija Doma Omladine).) IRWIN stresses that the NSK State in Time is not to be understood merely as an artistic project ("it is not a simulation"), but as a real time project which leaves behind the "field which is normally defined as art" and which can be only effective as such.
The NSK Drzava v casu and especially the 1996 Transnacionala project belong to this new category of real time projects... In the summer of 1996 an international group of artists (Alexander Brener, Vadim Fiškin, Yuri Leiderman, Michael Benson, Eda Cufer and the five-member IRWIN group) set out on a one-month Transnacionala journey across the United States. According to Viktor Misiano, after the collapse of all external value systems in the East in the beginning of the 1990s, friendship is the last remaining common denominator among the Russian and Slovenian participants of Transnacionala. The friendship in Transnacionala takes on the form of what Misiano has appropriately called a confidential project(Cf. Viktor Misiano. The Institutionalization of Friendship. In: Transnacionala. Highway collisions between East and West at the Crossroads of Art. Ed. by Eda Cufer. Koda: Ljubljana, 1999. 182-192.) because confidence is the condition of friendly communication.
For several years after the journey IRWIN has been working on the visual representation of the Transnacionalaexperience. According to IRWIN, the formative principles for the installation were following the actual journey's principles, particularly the factor of duration and evolvement. The Transnacionala installations are functioning foremost as passport offices of the NSK Drzava v casu... The work was conceived and implemented in several phases, starting in Hamburg(The installation Transnacionala was premiered in the exhibition discord. sabotage of realities at the Kunstverein Hamburg, November 1996 - January 1997, curated by Inke Arns and Ute Vorkoeper.) in November 1996, then followed by Umag, Cologne, Vienna, Stockholm, Paris, Warsaw, Berlin and Barcelona. Through this period several works were being added to and substituted from the wall, according to the choice of the particular IRWIN member who was authoring the particular show.
IRWIN's declared interest in the 1990s is to partly leave behind the field which is normally defined as art and to directly influence real life. For achieving this it is absolutely important that thesereal time projects do not bear the signature IRWIN anymore. The fact that people from Bosnia who did not possess any official documents during the war in Bosnia crossed international borders with NSK passports is certainly to be counted as an effect of the real time project of the NSK State in Time. Also, IRWIN's already long lasting activity concerning the establishment of art collections has to be counted under the category of real time projects (even if this still takes place within the field of art).
For IRWIN, collections are the best tools to penetrate the logic of supposedly universal modernism. Their latest project in this respect is Total Recall (2002) which was premiered in the exhibition Museutopia© - Schritte in andere Welten(Museutopia© - Schritte in andere Welten. Karl-Ernst-Osthaus-Museum, Hagen, Germany. 11 June - 15 October 2002.)at the Karl-Ernst-Osthaus-Museum in Hagen.
Total Recall, or, the East Art Map, which is conceived as a participatory project, aims at critically (re)constructing the history of art in eastern Europe between 1945 and 2002 beyond 'official', ex-Socialist chronicles and fragmented information present in the West: "History is not given. It has to be constructed" (Irwin).
The strategic concept of Eastern Modernism which IRWIN started to employ in the Kapital(IRWIN: Kapital. Exhibition catalogue. Ljubljana 1991.) series (first exhibited inEqurna gallery, Ljubljana, in December 1990) polemically attacks supposedly universal Modernism by stating there was/is an "Eastern Modernism" which in return suggests that Modernism is in fact "Western Modernism", i.e. not universal.. Thus, according to IRWIN "the key territory nowadays is art history." Consequently, with the installation Retroavantgarde(IRWIN for the first time presented Retroavantgarda in the form of three successive exhibitions in the Visconti Fine Art Kolizej gallery in Ljubljana in 1994. The project is documented in the catalogue Retroavangarda. Mladen Stilinovic, Kazimir Malevic, Irwin. Ljubljana, 1994.) (Kunsthalle Wien, 1997) IRWIN now finally realizes what the East was denied to do: it retrospectively and voluntarily constructs the East's own, genuine modernism by propagating a movement called Retroavantgarde. It goes without saying that the artists from all over Yugoslavia included in the installation's diagram(Among them e.g. Mangelos, Mladen Stilinovic (Zagreb), Malevich (Belgrade), Braco Dimitrijevic (Sarajevo) and Laibach Kunst/NSK (Ljubljana).) were never a movement even if they were all appropriating and quoting the historical avant-garde etc. Instead, Retroavantgarde proves to be as voluntarily constructed as Western modernism.