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Boris Groys on Irwin and NSK


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The November issue of e-flux journal was rolled out this week, and it includes an essay by Boris Groys on Irwin and NSK, marking the thirtieth anniversary of the groundbreaking Slovenian art group and movement. Groys proposes a revised understanding of the twentieth-century European avant-garde and underscores the startling originality of Irwin. Here’s an excerpt:

The goal of national reconstruction was explicitly formulated by the Irwin group at the beginning of its activities. It’s no accident that the word “retro-avant-garde” has been used to characterize Irwin’s practice and, more generally, NSK’s practice. “Avant-garde” here is basically constructivism. Reconstruction is the construction of the past for the future, and at the same time the construction of the future as work on the past. Retrospectively, one can say that Irwin and NSK did this work of reconstruction better than any other Eastern European artists or artist groups. There are different possible explanations for this. It may have been because Slovenian identity was broken at different places and along different lines; there was not only the Socialist, Yugoslavian past, but also the Nazi past, which could not simply be ignored: the Nazi past was related to a certain more traditional Germanness in Slovenian identity. It may have also resulted from the fact that the level of theoretical reflection and philosophical awareness was much higher in Slovenia than in other late- and post-Socialist countries. Whatever the reason, the Irwin group found a better solution to the problem of broken identity than many other artists and art theoreticians—in fact, the only possible solution. This solution was, like any true solution, very simple. Instead of trying to repair the broken identity, Irwin integrated into this identity the forces that were supposed to have broken it: the radical avant-garde, Socialist Realism, and Nazism. All these forces that had denied a separate identity to Slovenian art were interpreted by Irwin and NSK as forces that had modernized this identity. A certain combination of the revolutionary Russian avant-garde, Socialist Realism, and Nazi art retroactively became the image of the Slovenian avant-garde. Could one say that this Slovenian avant-garde never existed, that it was simply a later invention, a construction of the NSK? Yes and no. Yes, because all these phenomena were imposed on Slovenian cultural identity and not historically produced by it. And no, because even if all these ideological and artistic attitudes came from abroad, their particular combination was characteristic only of Slovenia, and not of any other place on Earth. So it is enough to reevaluate this combination, to perceive it as authentic, as being an integral part of the genuine historical fate of the Slovenian nation instead of being imposed from outside, to be able to reconstruct and not merely to construct the Slovenian avant-garde as a part of Slovenian cultural identity. And that is precisely what NSK did.

Image: Installation view of one of the NSK department rooms at the exhibition NSK from Kapital to Capital, Moderna galerija, Ljubljana, 2015. Via e-flux journal.