IRWIN is the name of a collective of Slovenian artists founded in 1983. The group formed part of a larger movement including the band Laibach, and the Scipion Nasice Theatre which called itself NSK, an acronym for Neue Slowenische Kunst — New Slovenian Art in English. The aim of the group was to create a constantly evolving aesthetic project where ideas would cross-fertilize and produce interesting hybridities. A retrospective of the collective’s continuing provocations and conceptual adventures is in progress at Calvert 22 Gallery in Shoreditch.
IRWIN took its name from that of an alter ego of Marcel Duchamp, the glamourous femme fatale, Rrose Irwin Sélavy, and having grown up in the twilight of the reign of Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia, the group’s frequently politicised subversions faced the most constant of challenges of life in a state run by cult-of-personality: keeping up with the surrealism of the regime itself.
While Duchamp’s Dadaist perspective is certainly present in many of IRWIN’s works, the sleek geometries of Suprematism plays a key role in understanding their work as well, as does the eternal influence of Communist era aesthetics and ideology. Footage from IRWIN’s famous performance, Black Square on the Red Square in which the group came to Red Square in 1992 and placed a large, black, Suprematist-referencing square in the centre most hallowed location in the political life of the Soviet Empire is on show at Calvert 22. That they managed this in sight of the intelligence officials and soldiers on duty at the time, and, indeed managed to get a fairly lively discussion going among the people passing by is a testament to not only their own audaciousness, but to the power of performance as an artistic medium.
In the present retrospective, there is a bit of a “greatest hits” feel to the layout. It’s a lot to take in — possibly too much. There are a number of interesting videos in the ground floor gallery in which the members of IRWIN, the NSK and other artists meet at various conferences and on road trips and discuss the social and political implications of their art. It would take all day to experience each of the videos and it’s probably best to simply pick one and listen deeply rather than trying to engage them all.
It’s a show that repays revisiting, not least because there will be an opportunity to become a citizen of the state created by the NSK artists, appositely known as the NSK State. That a state could exist entirely without the geographical reality that defines most borders neatly reverses the classic “nation/state” dynamic familiar from undergraduate political science lectures. For a small fee, you can become a citizen of the NSK State, passport and everything.
At first I thought this was kind of a silly gimmick, but hearing about the creation of the NSK Embassy in Moscow during a performance in the early 1990s, and listening to NSK “citizen”, and sometime news broadcaster, Christian Matzke discuss using his passport when he travelled, I began to think it was an impressively durable idea which allowed interested people—both artists and normals—to explore their own understanding of citizenship in creative ways. Matzke’s video is particularly interesting when he discusses his relationship to his passport when confronted by the immigration services of his country of birth, the USA. Calvert 22 does a good job of giving an in-the-round perspective on IRWIN and NSK, but a show like this can only be an introduction, fortunately it’s a good, immersive one.
IRWIN — Time For a New State and NSK Folk Art closes this weekend
For more information on upcoming exhibitions, visit Calvert22.org