All About Irwin

IRWIN, Golden Smile, 2003, color photography. Photo by Tomaž Gregorič.

By LARA PAN, February 2021 

I am still in the beautiful city of Ljubljana, a place of cultural crossover between east and west, slowly but surely writing a history of contemporary art. Everyone who has visited Ljubljana and belongs to art the community knows about NSK Neue Slowenische Kunst and IRWIN. This is perhaps one of the oldest artist collectives still active today. So, as Irwin asked a while ago, Was ist Kunst? I will try to explain both Was ist NSK, and Was ist IRWIN. 

IRWIN is an artist collective of five painters: Dušan Mandić, Miran Mohar, Andrej Savski, Roman Uranjek and Borut Vogelnik. The group was founded in 1983 in Ljubljana, at a time when Slovenia was still a part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The artists coming from the countercultural punk and graffiti scene first formed an artistic group called Rrose Irwin Sélavy, which was renamed to IRWIN the following year, i.e. after it became a part of the larger collective known as Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK). Acting as the visual department of the newly-established group, they formed a Trinity with the Scipion Nasice Sisters Theatre and multimedia group Laibach. 

One of the most important projects of IRWIN was Was ist Kunst?, which began in April/May 1985. In it they presented “hundreds of oil paintings, in which scenes from socialist-realist paintings and quotations from Slovene modernism of the 1960s [have been] intertwined according to the principle of montage. To this were added some LAIBACH KUNST> motifs, such as a miner, a deer, deer antlers, a sickle and a hammer, a cup of coffee, a cogwheel and Malevich's black cross. They used unusual, specific materials – blood, tar, animal skin, coal, wood and gold leaf – and framed the paintings in massive frames.” It’s clear from this work that the political and ideological aspect of art was at the forefront of their inquiry, and their eclectic approach enabled the collective to playfully expose unspoken or hidden assumptions in specific contexts. 

IRWIN (as part of NSK) is probably one of the longest lasting artistic collectives in the world. We can point out many different reasons for this truly outstanding accomplishment, among which is their emphasis on self-organized initiatives outside the framework of official institutions, their focus on the collective (there is no leader of the group, all decisions are taken and reviewed by the group, and even the works themselves had no individual author until 2004), and perhaps most importantly, their artistic practice as a total work of art. “Employing the philosophical language of Alain Badiou, we could say that the NSK Gesamtkunstwerk was an event that ruptured with the established order of things. Every NSK event was a monolith with multiple meanings, new projects, and references stemming out of it,” and this incredible flexibility and creativity through different mediums and scales enabled them to become a household name in Slovenia and beyond. We could say that their institutional recuperation is another ideological shift on their artistic journey.

IRWIN, Kapital, Reina Sofia, 2017, installation view. Photo by Reina Sofia archive.

LARA PAN: I’m curious about how IRWIN as a collective has survived for such a long period of time. And don’t tell me that the only reason that you guys still have a beautiful active career is because there is no leader in the group (laughter). There must be some other reasons.

Miran Mohar: There are some reasons why IRWIN has lasted for a such long time. From the start of the group's formation we always had some personal space besides collective projects, which allowed us to also work on individual paintings and icons. Not using our personal names during the first years of Irwin gave us the possibility of not allowing external viewers and media to interfere with our personal communication. Also, we have never practiced the division of work or specialization within the group. Anyone could propose a new work or project, which was then accepted or rejected at the group's meeting(s). When we had disagreements, we tried to openly discuss them and find agreements. We very rarely voted in cases we could not find a consensus. We have never argued seriously about the distribution of money among the members and it seems that none of us had a need for his personal career in visual arts. The fact is that we have worked on the economic model of the group, which has also helped us to work and exist for such a long time. 

Borut Vogelnik: You’re right, it is definitely not the only reason, our modus operandi, or the mode of organizing our work, cannot replace actual artwork. After all, it is always necessary, with every artwork or project, to conceive it, produce it or carry it out, decide about exhibiting it… regardless of whether one is working on one’s own or in a group. It is true, however, that working in a group entails, on top of everything else, organizing the manner in which the group operates. And that is no easy task, as we can see from the history of art groups. In most cases it was one of three things: either the group was quite loosely tied, or it worked only for a short period of time, or there was a clearly defined decision-making hierarchy in it, with a leader that often embodied the group. By the way, the last was also the case with Irwin’s sister groups, with which we co-founded NSK. This is not just a matter of artists’ ego; it is also the expectations of the environment that push for identifying a leader. I think it’s safe to say that groups of five people working together in the field of art for 38 years without interruption are rare. So, although it is true that the mode of organizing the work cannot replace actual work, we believe that it nonetheless has a significant impact on the work: the mode of production importantly defines the production. And while not the only reason, it is a highly specific reason for our continued collaboration.

You are all based in Slovenia/Ljubljana. 2025 will mark the 40-year anniversary of your guys’ active career. How do you view your beginnings in comparison to where you are at the present moment?

Roman Uranjek: Initially, a loud scream is needed if you want to draw attention to yourself and to the statement you make. Our statement was enhanced eclecticism as a platform of national authenticity. We claimed that Slovenian culture is eclectic, as it has been influenced by German, Italian and French culture, never vice-versa. This is a minus. From two minuses, in mathematics, plus is derived. Now, we have done the same with eclecticism of Slovenian culture, as we enhanced it in the sense of appropriation of images taken from the world culture, and we have used visually recognisable form to work with it. This was our beginning which – through 37 years of activity – evolved in various projects and in IRWIN poetics. In interviews too, we have abandoned the collective answer, containing ideological standpoint, to a particular question. We have replaced it with individual answering, with more answers to the same question, introducing thereby the dynamics and personal position of each of us.

Andrej Savski: Well, now that you made me think of it, rather nostalgically. 40 years is a long period. Many things have happened in between, many things have changed. At the time we started it was difficult to get a stationery telephone. Fax machines were just coming into use. VHS videos. Photocopiers. Vinyl records. One party system. Yugoslavia.  

We had the opportunity to work with many remarkable people. We were able to make projects the way we wanted them to be. I believe we established a line of work that stands autonomously within the developments in the art of the last decades. We had the chance to exhibit them around the world in extremely different places, from alternative to highly prestigious venues. Our works are at some of the most important collections. So yes, we have come a long way, especially when you consider that we are operating from the periphery and not from the centers of art power.

IRWIN, Rekapitulacija, In cooperation with Michelangelo Pistoletto and the Department for, Pure and Applied Philosophy of NSK, mixed media, 320 x 200 x 100 cm, 2000. Museum Ostdeutsche Galerie, Regensburg (2002). Photo by Artist archive.

Symbolism and appropriation both take an important role in your work. How will you introduce IRWIN to a younger generation of artists and curators who are not familiar with your work? What will they need to know to understand IRWIN?

Andrej Savski: I may be wrong, but I think that the new generations are more apt to understand the copy/paste logic of retro principle at least on the discursive/formal level. It is more questionable how they may be able to grasp the contexts that influenced these moves/forms.

Borut Vogelnik: I believe our reasons for appropriating certain motifs are just as important as the motifs themselves, as is our manner of selecting from among them the ones we use the most. But my answer to the question is: intricacy and complexity. Irwin has a complicated and complex structure that is directly related to the way the functioning of the group is organized. We have managed to preserve a subtle balance between individual autonomy and the functioning of the group. Every member of the group is entitled to work independently and to propose concepts for collective projects that may be accepted or not. This approach to organizing our production has resulted in a great number of artworks and projects that have been organized, over almost forty years of work by five artists, into interrelated or even intertwining series. What has been as important as the production of artefacts for us from the very start is the regulation of intersubjective relations, formulating collective decisions, and influencing the structural conditions of artistic production in the space we operate in. The last has been possible only due to the disintegration of late-period socialism in Yugoslavia in the 1980s and the long period of transition to capitalism.

There are many books and publications about the group. Is there one that is particularly dear to you?

Andrej Savski: When you say dear, I can’t but think of the books that came about as part of the projects, like Moscow Embassy or Transnacionala. Or Kapital before them. Then I very much like the two books that came out of the East Art Map project, although they are not about us but about the Eastern European artists’ condition. 

From the point of view of getting to know about Irwin, the most comprehensive is probably the Retroprincip book/catalogue.  

Miran Mohar: The East Art Map book (edited by IRWIN) was a result of a complex research on East European modern and contemporary art from 1945 till early 2002. Because of MIT's international distribution and in the absence of other publications in this field, it still serves as an orientation tool to East European art until the early 2000s. 

Dušan Mandić: In our years long career, which spans almost four decades, he has accumulated many books and catalogs of IRWIN projects, as well as books by other authors about IRWIN and NSK. Because we were tied to home for a few months during the Corona- 19 crisis, we had more time to read. I was very pleased with the book Heritage and Debt, The MIT Press, 2020, by David Joselit, which discusses, among other things, the work of the IRWIN group in relation to  globalism and global art. He write about how global contemporary art reanimates the past as a resource for the present, combating modern art's legacy of Eurocentrism. 

Joselit traces three distinct forms of modernism that developed outside the West, in opposition to Euro-American modernism: postcolonial, socialist realism, and the underground. He argues that these modern genealogies are synchronized with one another and with Western modernism to produce global contemporary art. Joselit discusses curation and what he terms “the curatorial episteme,” which, through its acts of framing or curating, can become a means of recalibrating hierarchies of knowledge—and can contribute to the dual projects of decolonization and deimperialization.

Collaborations are also a very important part for the group. Do you have a favourite one?

Roman Uranjek: In 2002 Michelangelo Pistoleto held a lecture at Modern Gallery in Ljubljana. After the lecture we gathered together and then he suggested we should make an artwork in collaboration with him; so he invited us to Vienna, where at that time he worked as Academy professor. Few weeks later we had dinner together and we discussed our specific, individual traits and iconography. Michelangelo was preoccupied with the sign for human figure, with a kind of abstract ideogram (according to Leonardo). We talked about our paintings/icons, in which we display just six motifs (as antithesis to Western art, where one can always detect a drive toward something new, original, never seen before) – similar to Orthodox icons, depicting the same religious scenes all the time (such as Saint George as a horseman, destroying the dragon). In the course of our dinner we outlined a project, where he would construct a base for the altar, with his abstract image materializing itself in the mirror and in the volcanic stone, while on this altar, our six pictures with iconic IRWIN motifs would stand. By the altar we placed the video screen, transmitting speeches about IRWIN and Neue Slowenische Kunst, written by Peter Mlakar, the member of the Department for pure and applied philosophy.             

Miran Mohar: The most intense collaboration was and it is still going on between the members of the IRWIN group. For me, the most profound and important collaboration outside the group was with dramaturg Eda Čufer (also a member of NSK and Scipion Nasice Sisters Theatre). With Eda we had a long-lasting and productive collaboration on many projects, books and texts since the end of the 1980s.

And can you tell me about any new projects and collaborations you have coming up in the future, or are they secret?

Dušan Mandić: In February this year, we will participate in the exhibition “Bigger than Myself. Heroic Voices from exYugoslavia ”, curated by Zdenka Badovinacv at the MAXXI Museum in Rome. We will present the project: Was ist Kunst Bosnia and Herzegovina / Heroes 1941-1945. It is a project related to a series of works in which IRWIN in its characteristic black tar frames presents individual works of art by other authors (eg Was ist Kunst F. Stella, 2002) or a series of different works / concepts (eg Was ist Kunst Slovenia , 2001). This project e.g. presents 12 works of art by national authors, covering an entire twentieth century. Artists and art styles from the time of Impressionism, Expressionism, the avant-garde of the 1920s to socialist realism and conceptual painting of the late 1970s and 1980s in Slovenia are presented.

The effect of the gaze is lost between the two pieces of information (frame and image), so the end result is that the viewer is not entirely sure what he is seeing. This time it is a presentation of 87 oil paintings of a smaller format of the same size in our frames, which depict the heroes of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Sixteen domestic authors painted these works in the style of social realism after the Second World War. This style was politically delegated by the state, but abolished after Tito's conflict with Stalin in 1948. The paintings will be placed on the walls of the museum in a minimalist style, on two levels, one after the other. 

It is an encounter with some distant time. The paintings were stored in the depots of the Historical Museum in Sarajevo and are again present in the gallery space after seven decades. At another time they ask us the question Was ist Kunst. At the same time, it is a question of what the word Hero means in our society today. Who are the heroes of today?

I remember one of my favourite projects of yours, the NSK state in time and the passports that you produced. Maybe we will need new passports in order to travel the world now that the global pandemic has reduced travel to a minimum. Any thoughts that you’d like to wrap up with?

Borut Vogelnik: That type of problem cannot be tackled, much less solved, by simply issuing a passport, even if it is produced as well as ours. However, back in 2007, we started receiving applications for NSK passports from Nigeria, first just a few, then the numbers grew. It was clear that interest in art was not the reason, and that the applicants were no art collectors. So in 2010 we found a way to travel to Lagos, where we got in contact with the people interested in becoming NSK citizens, and we learned about the particular circumstances under which an artefact transformed into a useful object. But I remember well an older gentleman asking us what law our passports were based on. WM

Lara Pan

Lara Pan is an independent curator,writer and researcher based in New York. Her research focuses on the intersection between art, science, technology and paranormal phenomena.

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