I met with two of the five members of Irwin when I was in Ljubljana. At the last minute, one was called away, and replaced by a different member – but that’s the beauty of working in a collective; it’s always possible to meet with someone. Irwin is a group of five visual artists working together as a collective. But their work goes far beyond the realm of visual arts, into art history, theory and even philosophy. Although Irwin is not a performance art group, they have done a few performances, and I write about them here because it is impossible to write about contemporary Slovenian art, not to mention contemporary East European art, without mentioning Irwin.
In 1992, together with several other participants Irwin performed an action in Moscow. On Red Square, they unfurled a 73 X 73 foot square of black fabric. The piece confronts one totalitarian system with another – Red Square, which was the focal point for the government and military of the USSR, and Malevich’s Black Square, a symbol for a new all-encompassing approach to art that would be fully integrated into life.
The appearance of the Black Square is not unique in Irwin’s oeuvre. The group employ the principle of “retro avant-garde” in their work, which is an orientation toward the future through the past. In their paintings and artworks they employ a variety of different symbols and layer them in order to bring them into dialogue with one another. Effectively one could call their approach to visual art as performative, insofar as their work aims to create a discourse. Not only is this a discourse among the symbols and elements in the works of art themselves, but their work, in fact, creates and enables a discourse within the discipline of art history. In fact, their book East Art Map, aims to create a written history of Eastern European contemporary art where there previously was none.
In their exhibition Irwin – Live, Irwin’s paintings are installed on the ceiling of the exhibition hall. During the opening, the artists hung by wires, suspended in mid-air, gazing up at their paintings. After the opening, the artists’ bodies were replaced by mannequins that hung there in the same stance, for the remainder of the show. In many ways this performance epitomizes this retro-principle involved in their work – they literally gaze up at the future, through their own paintings, which contain symbols from the past. They have also, through their pioneering work in art and art history, turned these disciplines quite literally on their heads.