Monday, January 3, 2011

Archive Fever and the East, Part 2

The first project that I want to bring into focus is East Art Map (which I will thereafter refer to as EAM); aimed at “horizontalization,” this communal endeavor was initiated by the Slovenian collective IRWIN[1] in 2001. I will take EAM to represent not just the survey first published in 2006, but conceptualize it as an artistic platform aimed at negotiating discourses and collecting information - therefore a non-conventional archive. In concrete terms, this means that I will situate it in the context of the exhibitions and symposia it spurred and also consider the website associated with it, available at The latter takes the form of a cyber-archive in which the viewer is involved in the constant process of negotiating the names of artists and art collectives it accumulates.

To understand the nature, claims and consequences of IRWIN and the EAM volume, let me begin by situating the art collective, emerging from the particular socio-cultural-political events in 1980s Slovenia. This was the time right after the death of Marshall Josip Brosz Tito[2], which spurred a period of uncertainty, resulting in power struggles between staunch Stalinists and more liberal politicians, a period marked by violent conflicts between the different republics constituting Yugoslavia.

This decade was also framed , as Marina Grižnić describes,[3] by the Lubjliana sub-cultural movements: the formation and dissemination of the multifarious texts, artworks, interventions of NSK together with projects of a young generation of painters, sculptures, photographers, video artists and philosophers[4]. The latter group, especially aesthetic philosophers, brought the histories of the avant-garde to the fore in the Slovenian and Serbo-Croatian languages, a process that was unfolding parallel to the global redefinition of historic avant-gardes. Founded on the work of the Student Cultural and Artistic center in Lubjliana (ŠKUC) the Ljubljliana subculture[5] created unique productions and cultural organization forms, which demonstrated the closely knit nature of culture and politics. In their 2003 “Retro-avantgarde” diagram[6] , IRWIN presented the retro-principle way of working in aesthetics, by constructing context.[7] At the nexus of art, politics and writing history, IRWIN posited the existence of “retro-avant-garde” of a (fictive)“Eastern Modernism,” that was nonetheless substantiated by making artificial connections between existing Slovenian artists. The group thus polemically attacked modernism(s) as constructed by Afred Barr’s[8] and Clement Greenberg’s[9], who put forward their models as universally valid. By adding the Eastern dimension to the concept , Irwin indirectly suggests that modernism is actually a “Western Modernism” as is therefore not universal. But “Eastern Modernism” and the principle of the “retro-avant-garde” evolved into much more than a critique of Western historiographies. As described by IRWIN, three imbricated conceptual fields frame the collective’s activities: “geopolitics” -projects likeNSK Embassy” in Moscow and Ghent, Belgium(1993), “NSK Consulates” in Florence, Italy (1993) and Umag, Croatia (1994), “Transnacionala- A Journey from the East to the West” (1996)East Art Map”(1999); “politics of the artificial person” – founding the collective Neue Slowenische Kunst(1984), “NSK State-in-time,” (1993) “Retroavantgarde—Ready-made avant-garde” (1997-2005); and “instrumental politics” - IRWIN’s involvement in introducing works by Eastern European artists into several international collections andEast Art Map”.[10]

Never asserting that theirs was the all encompassing, definitive narrative, IRWIN’s aim was to provide a research tool, on which a multiplicity of subjective analyses and voices of distinct generations and opposing aesthetic visions could be presented into an unconventional art history. That platform became East Art Map, as it was theoretized around 1999. As part of the project, IRWIN invited twenty-five artists, art historians, curators from Eastern Europe to their project, assigning them the task to propose different ways of thinking about the cultural narratives informing the art history of the regions they came from. The selectors were also given the task of choosing ten artists from their respective contexts that they considered the most crucial for the development of contemporary art in Eastern Europe. By doing so overall, IRWIN’s publication removed artists from national frames and the context of local mythologies about art and artists who were opposed to the official art world. Instead, the Slovenian collective proposed a work-in-progress, referential and transparent system. This matrix’s aim is two-fold: that it may be accepted and respected outside the borders of a particular region and to undermine the foundations of the Western Grand Narratives of Art.

An important part of the project was the symposium “Mind the Map,” in which young researchers from Eastern and Western Europe were brought together to discuss the topics related to art from the former Eastern bloc. The symposium, which took place in Leipzig in 2005, was prepared by Marina Gržinić, Veronika Darian and Günther Heeg.[11] This forum’s larger theme, informed by the premises of the EAM publication, was to negotiate the interpretation and presentation of art works and cultural processes emerging from the territories of Eastern Europe over the past 50 years. The symposium was another instantiation of IRWIN’s direct engagement to construct a theoretical matrix through which to discuss and disseminate these artistic practices and socio-cultural realities distinctive in the region. Namely, the fissures between national cultures of Eastern and Western Europe, the conflicts between historical and neo-avantgardes, and the inter-relatedness of social movements, artistic communities and the theoretical framework of the humanities.

Furthermore, in 2005, the “East Art Museum”[12] exhibition of works took place at Karl Ernst Osthaus Museum in Hagen, Germany. IRWIN curated this exhibition as a proposal to establish a Museum of East European Art, comprising of seminal works of art from these territories, created between 1950 and 2002 and selected from the EAM archive. Clearly modeled and intended as the Eastern counter-model to a Western Museum of Modern Art, this inviting platform was not merely a critique of the institutionalization and commodification of art in the West: its explicit goal was to facilitate the creation of an art-historical cannon and its corresponding institutional shell in the East.[13]

The online version of EAM is yet another facet of the complex conceptual project-archive to establish a cannon reflective of the interrelationships between eastern and western Europe, as well as transnational exchanges in the former. Through the virtual portal “”, the proposals of the scholars who drew the directions of the collections of art histories on the map of Eastern Europe are subjected to constant negotiations. Using forums and online submission, academics, artists and the general public can bid to supplement, add, delete or replace proposed artists by new ones. This is of course conditioned by argumentation and presenting evidence for the data of work to be included or excluded, which is then considered by an international committee of around 5 artists and scholars.[14] Under the imperative “History is not given, please help us construct it!” the design and function of the online portal emphasizes the temporary character of historical narration, revealing the mechanisms of its creation.

As IRWIN have emphasized, these Eastern cultural phenomena cannot be explained or subsumed in homogenous, progressive and linear constructions from the past to the present, or from abstract art to conceptual art. As in the case of the EAM book itself, the symposium and the museum proposal, the website is not merely a rejection of the established map of Western Art History, but a productive projection of a related but non-identical structure of a history of art.

[1] Irwin was founded in Ljubljana, acting within the NSK movement(together with the rock group Laibach, the design group New Collectivism and the theater group Scipion Nascice Sisters) around 1984. The IRWIN group consists of Dušan Mandic (b. Ljubljana, 1954), Miran Mohar (b. Novo Mesto, 1958), Andrej Savski (b. Ljubljana, 1961), Roman Uranjek (b. Trbovlje, 1961) and Borut Vogelnik (b. Kranj, 1959). IRWIN’s work is based on the "retro-principle," enacting a syncretic coexistence of various artistic styles ranging from national tradition of the historical avantgardes, to popular national imagery, to the visual production of the totalitarian regimes. Together with NSK, Irwin established the “NSK State in Time" in 1992, with embassies and consulates in Moscow, Gent and Florence. This conceptual state transcends a physical geographical location or a defined statehood within a prescribed ethnic, cultural or religious belief, providing what a form of identification for individuals from diverse nationalities. Another germinal project is “Transnacionala” (Journey from East to West Coast) in 1996. Irwin have exhibited widely in Europe and the USA, including Manifesta in Rotterdam(1996) and Ljubljana(2000), several Venice Bienniales and “After the Wall: Art and Culture in Post-Communist Europe” (1999) at the Ludwig Museum in Budapest.

[2] Tito died in May 1980.

[3] Marina Grižnić, “Neue Slowenische Kunst,” Dubravka Djurić and Miško Šuvaković eds. , Impossible Histories, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), pg. 246-248.

[4] One of the most important was the Lacanian school, spearheaded by Slavoj Žižek. The Slovenian cultural theorist was one of the first scholars to theorize the practices of Laibach (and later NSK) as over-identification. In interviews, IRWIN has also recognized that they were influenced by attending lectures of the Slovenian Lacanian School in the early 1980s. See Mojca Oblak, “Neue Slowenische Kunst and new Slovenian art”, in New Art from Eastern Europe: Identity and Conflict, March-April 1994, Vol.9, No. 3/4, pg. 8-17.

[5] The Ljubljana subculture is also referred to as “The Art of the Eighties.”

[6] IRWIN, with the theoretical input of Marina Gržinić, produced the mixed-media montage Retroavantgarda in 2000. It included the following works: Irwin, Was ist Kunst, (1984-1998); Dimitrij Bašićević Mangelos, Tabula rasa, m. 5, 1951-1956; Avgust Černigoj,Construction, 1924; Braco Dimitrijević, Triptychos Post Historicus, 1985 (reproduction); Laibach, Ausstellung Laibach Kunst, 1983 (exhibition poster); Kasimir Malevich (Belgrade), Paintings, 1985; Gledališče Sester Scipion Nasice, Krst pod Triglavom (Baptism under the Triglav), 1985; Jossip Seissel, Balkanite Stand at Attention, 1922 (reproduction); Mladen Stilinović, Exploitation of the Dead, 1980.

[7] The term “retro-avantgarde” was coined by NSK and Marina Gržinić in 1994, with the occasion of the exhibition “Retroavantgarda” at Moderna Galerija Ljubljana. The term was employed as a strategy for charting out the Yugoslav avant-garde, from the present to the past, thus from the neo-avant-garde to the historical avant-garde. Therefore this term is intimately linked with NSK’s art practices and their particular use of signs from the art historical modern cannon, including: the historical avant-garde, national symbols, religious icons, totalitarian symbols , as well as the texts and manifestos associated with these movements.

[8] I am referring to Alfred H. Barr’s “Diagram of Stylistic Evolution from 1890 until 1935.”This diagram, central to the definition and derivation of modernism was developed in 1936 by the founding director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It lists the European avant-garde movements as precursors of the abstract art of modernism. Irwin transferred this scheme onto Yugoslavia, in the form of a inverted family tree of the “retro-avant-garde,” which extends from the neo-avant-garde of the present back to the period of the historical avant-garde.

[9] Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Partisan Review, Vol. 6, No. 5, 1939, pg. 34-49.

[10] Inke Arns, “Irwin Navigator: Retroprincip 1983–2003,” in Inke Arns, IrwinRetroprincip (Frankfurt: Revolver, 2003), pg.14-16.

[11] See Marina Grzinic, Günther Heeg & Veronika Darian, eds., Mind the Map! - History is Not Given (A critical anthology based on the Symposium) (Frankfurt: Revolver, 2006).

[12] This project was initiated by Michael Fehr. Also see Michael Fehr, “Constructing History with the Museum: A Proposal for an East Art Museum,” East Art Map: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe, IRWIN eds., (London: AfterAll, 2006), pg. 466-471.

[13] See East Art Map Newsletter, No. 6, March 9th, 2005, available on-line:

[14] Although this committee has fluctuated over time, according to the present version of the EAM website they are: Jesa Denegri (former Yugoslavia), Lia Perjovschi (Romania), Anda Rottenberg (Poland), Georg Schöllhammer (Austria) and Christoph Tannert (Germany).

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