The present is a seed of the past: in conversation...

The present is a seed of the past: in conversation with IRWIN

IRWIN is a Slovenian group founded in Ljubljana in 1983. The members are: Dusan Mandic (Ljubljana, 1954), Miran Mohar (Novo Mesto, 1958), Andrej Savski (Ljubljana, 1961), Roman Uranjek (Trboylje, 1961) and Borut Vogelnink (Kranj, 1959). Their strongly eclectic works testify to the climate of cultural development that took place in the territories of the former Yugoslavia starting from the 80s of the twentieth century.

IRWIN, Retroavantgarda, 120 x 200 cm, mixed media, 1996, courtesy by IRWIN and Galerija Gregor Podnar, Vienna

Felicienne Lauro: Your art is for me an example of how art and culture can be used to express to others an unknown reality, that is usually seen only trough media and news. Do you feel that the Ethnic Wars have been miscommunicated from news by foreign news?
Borut Vogelnik: I did have personal experience with one war only, the war in former Yugoslavia that ended nearly thirty years ago. As far as I remember the war itself was covered in very detailed manner on everyday basis from journalists from all over Europe and wider and the way the events were communicated by Slovene press did not differ much from the view of the western press. It was very different when for instance Serbia is in question.  The interest did not came as surprise thou, it was the biggest war going on in Europe after the second world war in which different republics of the former Yugoslavia took different stands that were supported by different countries.

IRWIN, Namepickers, in collaboration with Marina Abramović, photo Bojan Brecelj, 1999. A series of three identical photos, each of them signed by one of the participants (Marina Abramović, Bojan Brecelj, Irwin), courtesy by IRWIN and Galerija Gregor Podnar, Vienna

Did the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia restrict the freedom of artists?
Borut Vogelnik: Question is what is meant by restricting. If you have in mind prohibitive or even punitive sanctions, this was not the case in eighties anymore. It happened before thou, but only if authorities would be directly under attack. Regarding formal aspects of the art production in socialist Yugoslavia is necessary to stress that after the break with Russia, in early fifties, modernist stile exchanged social realism and Yugoslav art production was presented as integral part of international art production. So the difference between being an artist in former Yugoslavia or in Italy, for instance, cannot be judged on the base of formal aspects but the conditions of the art production. When the question was raised why Slovenian artists so seldom participated in international exhibitions, and then only through the involvement of the state, the answer would typically be that Slovenia was simply small. We felt that the lack of communication between the Slovenian and international art space could not be attributed solely to Slovenia’s smallness. We believed that the difference between the Yugoslav and international spaces was not quantitative but dialectical, and that successfully adapting to the practices and principles of the former obstructed communication with the latter.

IRWIN, In the Name of Mother, set design for theater, produced by Slovene National Theatre, Ljubljana, 2018, courtesy by IRWIN

There are two things that need to be taken into consideration here; due to Slovenia’s small size it was much easier to get even the highest functionaries involved than in most other countries, and if only a few years earlier, still in the 1970’s, the then political system would have most probably quickly put paid to any such activities, this did not happen in eighties anymore. The situation was new for both sides, us and the political authorities. The latter were slowly loosing their grip and were themselves unsure where the boundaries not allow to be crossed were supposed to lay at that time. Although no concrete actions were taken in most cases, the authorities did react by publicly condemning actions deemed undesirable. It was exactly the fact that was still possible in the 1980’s to provoke the authorities to get into public communication about art production that made the situation unique. We did not understand it as a problem any more but as a quality.

NSK State Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale, 2017, photo: Jaka Babnik, courtesy by IRWIN

Did you see any difference in working before and after Slovenian independence in 1991?
Borut Vogelnik: Definitely, it happened on all levels. The political system changed, the state changed and the conditions of art production that we got used to during 1980’s changed as well. The world we knew was not there anymore. Slovenia has become like the rest of Europe in that it would be hard to provoke such extensive feedback through artistic activities as we did relatively effortlessly in the final stage of the socialist period. Irwin went to Moscow in 1992, where we established NSK Embassy with the ambition to find our counterparts with whose help we could clear up the view on the complexity of the tectonic shifts in the midst of which we had found ourselves.

First NSK Citizens’ Congress, Berlin, October 2010, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, courtesy by IRWIN

In 1987 on the occasion of Youth Day, the anniversary of Tito’s birth, you were involved in the “Poster Scandal”, for which you proposed a poster based on Richard Klein’s “The Third Reich. Allegory of Heroism” (1936), a Nazi-propaganda painting. This action remarks the “retro-princip”, in which IRWIN was committed to, for which “The past is a seed of the present” (statement made by the group in 1987). Does IRWIN members still believe in this concept? How much does our past influences our present?
Miran Mohar: The Youth Day poster was made by the design studio of NSK New Collectivism, not by Irwin. Irwin members Roman Uranjek and I (as members of New Collectivism) were co-authors of the poster.  You are right to say that the “retro-principle” was used in that poster. The poster was a critique of the cult of personality that was taking place in Yugoslavia, with the extreme glorification of Tito’s personality during his life and after his death. For us, such a cult was unacceptable, especially on the left side of the political spectrum, where egalitarianism should be a standard. That is why we decided to redesign the painting from Germany’s totalitarian past, replacing Nazi symbols with socialist ones. In the case of Yugoslavia, it is clear how it became a victim of the phantoms of the past. I believe that we can learn a lot from history about how to live in the present, and therefore the “retro-principle” is still a productive method for me.

IRWIN, NSK Panorama, 1997, photo Michael Shuster, courtesy by IRWIN and Galerija Gregor Podnar, Vienna

What is the purpose of your art today? Has it changed since the formation of the group in 1983?
Borut Vogelnik: It is a question how to define the purpose that our art production did have at certain points in time. By speaking about changes it is necessary to stress the specificity of the group work in the field of visual art and the difficulties regarding the control of the process.  Even if you work alone and insist doing the same thing over and over again, your work would probably change during so long period as 40 years are. But if you work in a group of five people instead, and it did not happen that somebody would succeed to overtake the command but you have to collaborate with independent peers, you alone are hardly in complete control of any project let alone the entire forty years period. It functions like a chance machine. There is additional complication to it. Beside other projects we are continuously working on series of paintings from 1985 till today, first under the title “Was ist Kunst” that in middle of nineties changed to “Irwin Icons”.

IRWIN, installation view of Rrose Sélavy: Back to the USA, ŠKUC Gallery, Ljubljana, 1984, photo: Barbara Borčić, courtesy by IRWIN and Galerija Gregor Podnar, Vienna

Formal aspects were of big importance for us from the beginning and best paintings from the series would deserve to be called dialectical paintings. It is important to stress that painting production is not just parallel to other Irwin projects but is closely interweaved with them. Majority of the other projects, done from 1990 on, are listed in the chart named Construction of the Context. The missing context was constructed around and for the paintings, and the other way around, paintings were the pretext for the construction of the context. There was not one purpose only that we followed with each project but at list two of them. Now we are intending to check out the trajectory drawn by this intertwined multipurpose collaboration to find out what it is. We are going to analyze and present the highly specific production mode, developed for a collaborative experiment that got transformed into long term project and was, on the base of experiences gained from it and as the respond to profound changes that we went through, modified along the way.

Felicienne Lauro



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