IRWIN: The Rye of the State
The Israel Center for Digital Art Holon
6 February to 10 April
Israel and the NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst), the quasi-fictional Slovenian artist state, running joke, political-historical mythology and branding operation, enjoy an intimate relationship. Both began life as fin de siecle European visions, roughly 100 years apart. In different ways, both exhibit what vision can do. With a famous line delivered from a balcony in Basel, the prophet Herzl stated that the vision could be willed, and willed it was. Later, as communism crumbled in Europe, the NSK manifested as a kind of cracked mirror, associating different art groups through an umbrella identity. Laibach, the rock band, was always the power; IRWIN, initially a collective of painters, became something more: tacticians, designers, diplomats, archivists, bureaucrats and, finally, the agency for distributing NSK passports.
IRWIN was greeted in February on the opening of 'The Eye of the State' with an action by the Israeli group Public Movement. In collaboration with a local scout troop, Public Movement raised the Israeli flag and sang the national anthem before setting fire to wooden effigies of the Star of David and the NSK emblem Black Cross. The action, Opening Ceremony for the Embassy of the NSK State in Israel, 2010, seemed intended as a variation on the theme of over-identification, or the idea that it is more politically positive to play with the symbols of power rather than stand back and criticise them. In the radical setting of the Center for Digital Art, a markedly anti-Zionist institution recently responsible for a poster exhibition commemorating the Geneva Convention, there was real subversion here in the form of institutional critique. Perhaps, since critical-leftist identity can operate as an alibi--especially in artistic and intellectual circles--t might be better if we identified with our enemies?
In the event, the audience (and also IRWIN) seemed mostly baffled, and the proposition remained largely obscure. Here is a theme which has also always accompanied IRWIN. Practices of over-identification animated the group from the start, often in the form of flirtations with (the aesthetics of) fascism and at other times taking on mystical cadences. Throughout IRWIN's practice, however, it has remained hard to discern the deep claim: an early action consisted of an entry, centred on a modified Nazi emblem to a poster competition for a Yugoslavian national sports day. The entry won first prize, resulting in the sports day being cancelled. Still more enigmatic was the laying of the Black Square on the Red Square in Moscow in 1991. What did it mean, now and then? In my opinion, and despite a determined essay by the curator Avi Pitchon outlining the counter-case, what this show strongly clarifies is that the agenda was always more formal than ideological, more ambivalent than militant. IRWIN never was activist, at least not in any conventional or normative sense. The group was interested in art not politics, and, rather than engaging, it withdrew. This was IRWIN's power.
Besides the new passports which were sold on the opening night--clearly IRWIN's major work--pieces on display in 'The Eye of the State' included a set of heavy-framed icons (from the 1980s series 'Was Ist Kunst?') and the ingenious diagram Retroavantgarda, 2002, which, partly inspired by Peter Weibel, mapped the connections between the NSK's different subgroups. One room was devoted to a gallery of travelogue photoops-taken with various armies and in a single case, inexplicably--four Japanese salarymen. Another room presented bureaucratic-demographic material on NSK citizens, arranged in the format of attractive graphs. The most arresting single series, though, was the four films of interviews conducted with NSK passport holders in four different cities. In Taipei, Ljubljana and Vienna, educated respondents spoke fluently about dialectics and discourse. In London, immigrant Africans with their faces blacked out were told repeatedly that NSK passports do not confer Slovenian citizenship. 'It is an artist state,' IRWIN points out, trying to make sure the passport project is understood, and not succeeding.
The key fact is that the NSK has seen a sharp rise in passport requests from Nigeria. In effect, after years of creatively mining symbols, IRWIN is now experiencing the revenge of the real in the form of an immigration crisis. Israel is currently experiencing the same issue. The liveliest neighbourhood in Tel Aviv is New Barcelona, the area around the bus station inhabited by a population of itinerant, exploited workers. Handsome Africans play football, wiry Chinese chop fishheads, and sex-workers, glassy-eyed, observe the scene. The new Jews. -- DANIEL MILLER, 2010