Icons by Irwin

Igor Zabel

Right from the start, Irwin established three main criteria for its work (especially in the series Was ist Kunst): programmatic eclecticism, the primacy of the group identity over personal identity, and affirmation of the local and the national. These criteria may be understood as strategic measures that enabled Irwin to create a frame for its work and, in so doing, to clear a space for creativity. What may at first seem to be the renunciation of originality and personality is, in fact, liberation from the pressure that requires the artist to be always producing original, innovative, and profound statements and formal solutions. Paradoxically, as soon as the artists freed themselves from such pressure, a space opened up for unfettered creativity. This creativity now found expression in the free use of motifs, techniques, and styles (rather than in the effort it took to think these things up) and in the interaction of the group (which compensated for the menacing weight of personal decisions). This does not mean that the Irwin group considers this fundamental eclecticism to be entirely without obligation, an irresponsible game, so to speak; indeed, the artists like to stress the extreme responsibility of their eclecticism. It is regulated by what they call the retroprincip—the “retroprinciple”—which is the basic principle of their work or, as they termed it in “The Program of the Irwin Group” (1984), the “regulatory matrix” of their working process. If we were to define the retroprinciple in a nutshell, we might say it refers to an eclecticism and a utilization of works by other artists as a way of reinterpreting and, at the same time, reactualizing them. Each time, however, the process reestablishes itself on the basis of a concrete task and new reflection. The retroprinciple is, then, the endless process of reestablishing one’s own position by reinterpreting, rejuvenating, and transforming both the tradition and one’s own work.

Malevich Between the Two Wars, one of Irwin’s key paintings, presents a direct analysis of Malevich’s suprematism and is a typical example of Irwin’s retroprinciple. The picture brings together traditional academic portraiture, a Malevich suprematist painting (one of the variations on the cross motif), and Nazi sculpture. The suprematist painting, as “pure abstraction,” is placed in a context that compels us to read it in an entirely new way. This placement is not as arbitrary or forced as it might seem at first glance. Malevich’s paintings are all painted on a white background, from which there first emerges a black square, which then splits into other shapes (and colors) and their various combinations, until the whole process eventually returns, in a white suprematism (white images on a white background), to the whiteness from which it came. But somewhere the Irwins say, conversely, “There exists a foundation on which concepts and objects are constituted; there is no empty square.” But this also means that Malevich’s painting, its white background included, is itself constituted against a certain background. Irwin’s painting demonstrates this by means of the tension between traditional bourgeois painting, modernism, and totalitarian art. In the series Was ist Kunst, one can, from the very beginning, find a number of references that link the series to the concept of the icon. Thus, the manner of hanging these pictures (which, to be sure, alludes also to the traditional way of hanging pictures in private, as well as semiprivate and public, rooms) is a direct allusion to the way suprematist paintings were presented at The Last Futurist Exhibition 0.10 in 1915. And there, the placement of the suprematist paintings suggested the way icons were hung; this was especially true for Malevich’s Black Square, which was, with total explicitness, presented as an icon, or rather, in the position of an icon. There have been various explanations offered for why Malevich did this, and perhaps it was, in truth, an act of ambivalence. One possible explanation is that the artist intended for Black Square to take the place of the icon and so use suprematist radicalism to demolish the authority of religion. Another view, however, points to the possibility of an actual parallelism between icon painting and Malevich’s suprematism, arguing that Black Square did not supplant the icon but, rather, is itself, in essence, a modern icon. An important aspect of such parallelism between Malevich’s painting and the traditional icon is that Black Square signifies a rejection of the post-medieval principle of the picture as a gaze onto an apparent reality; instead, Malevich’s work returns truth to the picture itself (as Malevich explicitly stressed). In Black Square, this is achieved by the total reduction of the painting to its fundamental stipulations, to that which is actually given in the picture and therefore is true. Precisely because the black square in the picture is only that, and not a representation, symbol, or anything else, Malevich has with this painting achieved, as he said, “zero image.” But this zero is, at the same time, the unmediated givenness of truth. In this, the parallelism between Black Square and the icon is clear. Just like icon painting, suprematism, too, constitutes itself as an unbroken line that runs from Black Square to other basic shapes (the circle, the cross) and then to more complex suprematist structures.

Of course, there are also interpretations that link Malevich with the tradition of Russian mysticism (which, perhaps, is not altogether unfounded) and ascribe a religious, or at least a spiritual, content to Black Square. Such interpretations are only a step away from the notion of icon painting as a typical expression of the Russian (or East European) artistic, spiritual, and cultural traditions and of Malevich as a representative of such traditions. Such notions, for example, surrounded the fashionable interest in East European—and especially Russian—art in the 1980s, an interest that, in particular, looked for such exotic aspects of this art and culture as those represented by the mixing of socialist-realist iconography (an expression of the exotic world on the other side of the Berlin Wall) and references to icon painting (the most characteristic expression of the specific tradition of the East—its archaism, wisdom, and metaphysical spirituality). One could, in fact, demonstrate that a number of artists tried to take advantage of this curiosity and adapt themselves to it by starting to produce just the sort of mish-mash the Western market expected of them. I think there is something of this, too, covertly present in Irwin’s work, namely, as an ironic response to the expectations of the Western public. It is as though the series Was ist Kunst is saying, among other things, something like: “You expect, and require, us East European artists to give you East European motifs and forms; so here you have them.” But what is much more important, perhaps, is for us to link the process by which the Was ist Kunst series transforms into the idea of the icon with Irwin’s strategic procedures—and particularly, the retroprinciple—and to understand this as a new level of “framing.” But this is something that takes shape only retroactively, over the many years of the entire production of Was ist Kunst (and thus, to be sure, defines a new point of departure for Irwin’s painting practice). The reconstitution of the notion of the icon represents, then, a reflection of the group’s own practice and development as painters, a redefinition of the icon, and the establishment of a frame that delineates in a new way the territory of the icon.

The essential question, of course, is, how do we understand the notion of the icon? Analyses of icon painting have revealed a very specific semantic structure, which is in essential ways very different from the post-medieval concept of a painting as a gaze onto a particular scene. In post-medieval painting, this gaze is defined by the spectator’s point of view, while the painting itself is understood (often literally) as a kind of window through which the spectator views a person or event. The icon, on the other hand, is not the construction of an appearance of reality for the sake of the spectator’s gaze, but rather a semantic whole constructed according to strict precepts. Compliance with these rules ensures the actual presence of something holy in the icon. That is to say, these rules guarantee an unbroken linkage between the icon as figural image and the original, since they repeat the structure of the first icon, which is itself the transferal of the original (the saint) into the image. Of course, transformations and alterations do occur, just an original text (the text of the holy presence) might, in its essence, be preserved unchanged through a succession of translations and slightly varying repetitions. Indeed, the fact that the original text remains essentially intact is ensured precisely because of this unbroken chain of copying and recopying.

Analyses have also shown that certain typical features of icon painting, such as, in particular, reverse perspective, do not indicate any sort of incompetence on the part of the painters—as if they “did not know how” to paint perspectivally correct pictures—but rather are based on a special understanding of the relations between the image, that which is represented, and the viewer. To look at an icon does not, then, mean to look through a “window” at an apparent reality, but rather to look at a holy presence as such. Representational systems are thus adapted to this presence; reverse perspective shows that the picture is structured not from the viewer toward the scene, but from the picture outward.

The Was ist Kunst pictures always dealt with questions of the image as a semantic structure. In its use of images from various levels of the cultural and artistic tradition, Irwin’s programmatic eclecticism is inherently linked to semantic transformations brought about by the displacement of the image, symbol, or fragment from one context to another and their combination with other similarly displaced images or signs. Irwin continually operates on the basis that no figure, image, or sign conveys meaning in and of itself; rather, its meaning can be determined only when there is a context in which it is placed and in which we view it. For Irwin’s work it is, after all, essential that semantic questions be presented as questions about power and strategies of power. In saying this, we should note that, for Irwin, discussion of the relationship between (political, economic, military, ideological) authority and image systems has never been merely academic but, rather, has affected their own position, among other things. Just as with icons, the Was ist Kunst pictures are in no way merely a representation of the subjective gaze or an illusion of appearance; instead, the images that appear in the pictures are always able to acquire their own autonomous power, as well. But this power is no longer linked to the presence of something holy but rather to systems of social power, which themselves take on certain attributes of the sacred. The reverse perspective of icons well suits the power of these images, which can have a strong impact on the viewer, inviting, provoking, threatening, and, as Althusser says, “interpellating” him “into the subject.” The Was ist Kunst series may also, in this way, be considered an ongoing experimental analysis of the migration of signs and symbols as they move from one system to another and, in doing so, change their meaning and function, even while retaining their original referential context (sometimes covertly, sometimes overtly). Pure forms can, if they are politically instrumentalized, acquire not only a direct political function; they can also receive a new semantic structure (for example, an abstract form can suddenly be read as a symbol or metaphor for such ideological values as freedom, zeal, power, etc.). Ideological works, conversely, when “purified” of their original context, are transformed into purely aesthetic phenomena, or even into pure form.

Was ist Kunst, then, demonstrates the endless oscillation of various forms and discourses, back and forth, between an ideological semantic content and an entirely formal, “emptied” manifestation. At the same time, the elements from these various systems and discourses are interwoven, fragmented, redirected, and so on. This dialectic between meaning and form, functionality and emptiness, remains in ceaseless motion, even in a single work. This can be considered one of the fundamental characteristics of the Was ist Kunst series. This ceaseless motion is, of course, inherently connected with the process of circulating individual elements among a group, as group members appropriate elements from their colleagues, transform them, give them an additional semantic charge, and return them to the circulation process. It is this same process that also forms a foundation for introducing the notion of the icon. Irwin understands the circulation and reinterpretation of individual motifs as equivalent to the chain of copying and recopying that imbues the icon with the immediate presence of the original.

The way in which Irwin’s pictures developed into icons is, however—at least in one perspective—essentially different from the traditional concept based on the notion of an uninterrupted chain stretching all the way back to an original source. With Irwin’s icons, the initial original source simply does not exist. The series of images does, of course, have a beginning, but this is, in itself, of no real importance and is often merely incidental. For a motif, to be sure, obtains meaning not from its linkage to that beginning but rather from the long process of group work, in which the starting impulse has affirmed its vitality only insofar as it began to circulate among the members of the group, who took it up, modified it, added to it, and returned it to the circular flow. In this way, the motif develops an ever more complex meaning and function within the entire group process. What is more, as a certain motif gains an ever-greater conceptual and semantic charge, this exerts an influence on older works, which then, retrospectively, acquire additional semantic layers and connections. Developed in such a way, the motif’s meaning is, therefore, the result of a certain process or work that could be described in psychoanalytic terms as the work of condensation, transference, and symbolization.

This does not mean, however, that Irwin’s icons are devoid of the kind of original, ideal presence that inhabits the traditional icon as the result of an uninterrupted sequence of copies. Each one of Irwin’s icons is, in fact, the manifestation of a general or even ideal motif, which exceeds the individual realization and is itself an entity of a higher degree. (Here we might point out a direct parallelism with the relationship between the identity of the individual artist—the group member—and the identity of the group. The group identity is something more than the sum or average of the individual identities and energies; it originates in their interactions as a new being of a different order. This is not merely one of the fundamental principles behind the functioning of the Irwin group and the NSK movement; it is also, at the same time, a primary principle of their political theory, which we could, of course, link to the role of the notion of the state in Irwin’s work and in the activities of the NSK as a whole.) There does exist, then, an “original” for Irwin’s icons or, better yet, their ideal archetypal image, which is present in individual realizations. This archetypal image, however, does not stand at the beginning of the line, but rather at its end, as an ideal form that derives from all of the given realizations and variations. Each new realization, of course, must now necessarily reference the archetypal image and at the same time change and establish it anew. As an interesting analogy to this process, we might mention a certain musical work based on the form of the variation, namely, Gian Francesco Malipiero’s Variations Without a Theme, composed in 1924. As the title states, no theme can be heard in this work; one can only assess the variations in terms of other variations, and only then can one imagine (but only imagine) the theme, as well. For here the theme does not exist as a relatively simple basic motif that is then developed in a series of variations exploiting its musical and emotional potential; instead, it exists as a form of a higher degree, as an idea that is constituted only in the mutual referentiality of all the individual variations in the series.

This two-directional process of developing a motif and, conversely, (re)interpreting it acquired, in Irwin’s project, the visible image of a classification grid in which works from the Was ist Kunst series were placed and, through such emplacement, gained the status of icons. This grid exhibits six basic motifs, that is, six primary iconic lines. We can understand the grid as a direct reference to structuralism; thus, we can read it as the establishment of a system of differences, which are arranged in such a way that they themselves constitute a common, generic concept—which is, in fact, the ideal archetypal image. In such a scheme, there are two simultaneous lines of difference. The variations along the vertical axis are differences within the common generic concept; in other words, in their mutual relationships and differences, they constitute an ideal fundamental pattern. Meanwhile, the differences along the horizontal axis are differences among the generic concepts.