On the exhibition




On the Exhibition

The five-person painters’ collective Irwin today occupies one of the most important positions in the contemporary art of Eastern Europe. Irwin, whose art represents a controversial debate on historical experience and commonly accepted narratives of art history, can now look back on a twenty-year body of work.

Irwin, along with the music group Laibach (*1980), the performance group Gledališce Sester Scipion Nasice (* 1983), today known as the Kozmokineticni Kabinet Noordung, and the design department Novi Kolektivizem, comprises one of the core groups within the artists’ collective Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK), established in 1984 in the Slovenian republic of the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. Influenced by the theories of the Slovenian Lacan School, which developed in the 1980s around the philosopher Slavoj Žižek, NSK became an important part of the subculture scene of Ljubljana.

As with the other groups within NSK, Irwin is committed to the so-called ‘retro-principle’. This retro-principle is “not a style or an art trend but a principle of thought, a way of behaving and acting.” (Irwin) This means, to be more specific, that the visual language developed by Irwin in the 1980s consists almost exclusively of visual elements quoted from Western and Eastern European art of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Irwin employs motifs from Socialist Realism and the art of the “Third Reich”, from the various politically-engaged European avant-garde movements including German Dadaism – in particular the artist John Heartfield –, Italian Futurism and Soviet-Russian Constructivism, as well as from religious art and Slovenian art of the 19th century. These elements are then combined with the Laibach leitmotifs: eagle, stag, sower, little drummer, and the black cross of the Russian Suprematist Kazimir Malevich. Irwin assembles these motifs from such varied origins in complex and multi-layered oil paintings in heavy frames.

Since its inception, the group Irwin has been involving itself extensively with the art history of Eastern Europe in its artistic projects, in particular with the ambivalent inheritance of the historical Russian, but also southern Slavic avant-garde and its totalitarian successors, and thus with the dialectic of avant-garde and totalitarianism. Following the creation of an individual visual language in their appropriation projects of the 1980s, the group has been concentrating since the 1990s on a critical examination of the art history of “Western Modernism,” countering it with the “retro-avant-garde” of a fictive “Eastern Modernism” which, in its own obvious artificiality, points to the artificiality of Western art historical structures that continue to exclude contemporary Eastern European art to this day.

Irwin: Retroprincip 1983–2003 marks the 20-year existence of the group Irwin; at the same time, it’s the group’s first large solo exhibition in Berlin, 15 years after their debut exhibition in Germany at the Städtische Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf in early 1989 curated by Jürgen Harten. 15 years have passed in which the group Irwin – not least driven by the political changes and upheavals following 1989 – has redefined its concepts from the 1980s (“retro-garde,” “over-identification”) and developed important new projects and concepts for the 1990s and 2000s.
Through a combination of projects from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, and supplemented by a film and video program on Irwin and Neue Slowenische Kunst, the exhibition Irwin: Retroprincip 1983–2003 unites Irwin’s most important work complexes and offers a comprehensive representation of a body of work rich in change and highly complex in terms of subject material. Thus, it marks a premiere not only for Berlin, but for all of Germany and the rest of Europe, as well.


Irwin: NSK Konsulat Umag (1994) Photo: Franci Virant