Retroavangarde: Vertiginous Forms of Representation

Juliane Debeusscher

In 1994, the Visconti Fine Arts Kolizej gallery in Ljubljana presented the three parts of an exhibition entitled, Retroavantgarde. It brought together the work of the Irwin group, the Croat artist, Mladen Stilinović, and a certain Kazimir Malevich from Belgrade. In the text she wrote as an introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Marina Gržinić noted that “to produce visions and embody the topography of the time loop of the present as ‘the tomorrow’s past’ is the essence of the presentation of the triad composed of Irwin, Kazimir Malevich and Mladen Stilinović”. The idea of turning a presentation of these three approaches into the subject of all-embracing deliberations made its first appearance there and would give rise to a series of extensions, both theoretical and artistic.

That same triad is again central to Irwin’s project, Retroavantgarde, exhibited for the first time in 1997 at the Kunsthalle in Vienna and subsequently modified and shown in several variants. Retroavantgarde consists of a large-sized panel on which visual and textual elements of different kinds are affixed. Apart from the direct references to their own artistic projects and those of Neue Slowenische Kunst (a movement co-founded by Irwin, the Laibach group and the Scipion Nasice Theatre of Sisters in 1984), Mladen Stilinović and Malevich (Belgrade), Irwin reviews a series of artistic approaches developed on Yugoslavian territory between 1910-20 and the 1980s. The group views these as the roots of the Retroavantgarde, and suggests that they perhaps anticipated some of the ideas put into operation in the 1980s by its three protagonists (Irwin, Mladen Stilinović and Malevich of Belgrade). Thus, at the very start, we find Zenithism, a movement founded by the Croat poet, Ljubomir Micić, in the early 1920s, the magazine Tank, close to the Slovene Constructivist artists (Ljubljana, 1927), as well as the Der Sturm gallery in Berlin and the magazine of the same name, known for having given considerable support at that same period to the Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke Expressionist artists. The experimental work of Dimitrije Bašičević Mangelos (1921-1987) and Braco Dimitrijević (active in Zagreb from 1968-69) is also quoted, linked on the one hand to the notions of disappearance, effacement and death, on the other to criticism, or even negation of the historical process.

Irwin has inscribed all of these references within a unique presentational device: Retroavantgarde in fact serves as a surround or overall support for this heterogeneous assemblage. The personalities and artistic movements mentioned above are featured in it through one or several works, which may be real (originals), reproduced, or even documented when it comes to a performance, as in the case of the Scipion Nasice Theatre of Sisters. Thus different levels of representation share the same space: on the one hand original works of art, regarded as authentic and inserted into the general composition as ‘pictures within a picture’; on the other the mechanical reproduction of such works. Furthermore, each artefact is placed within a chronological line and identified by a caption, which gives the name of its author or of the movement behind it, as well as its geographical provenance.

Finally, to complete this description of the constituent elements of Retroavantgarde, we may point out the presence, at the bottom right of the ‘panel’ or picture, of a critical text written by Marina Gržinić. This brief intervention offers a didactic supplement to the work, by mentioning again the emergence of a Retroavantgarde, devised as an artistic movement established a posteriori and interpreted by both artists and theorists as “the new ‘-ism’ of the East”. Completing an already very heterogeneous composition, Gržinić’s text can be viewed as a tool for decoding Retroavantgarde as an object. Nevertheless, it should be noted that unlike the explanatory labels traditionally affixed beside works of art at an exhibition, this text belongs within the actual space of the representation. It is literally embedded in Retroavantgarde. This characteristic endows the theoretical explanation with a value equivalent to the rest of the composition. Indeed, the real works and the reproductions, the spatial and temporal information and the theoretical commentary are all given an identical right to be there and are consequently put on the same level, literally “squashed” into the representational space of Retroavantgarde.

Faced with such a variety of contents, all distinct from one another in nature, we inevitably ask what is the precise status of Retroavantgarde? Is it a work of art, a document relating to the history of art, a museographical device intended to provide visitors with supplementary information, such as can often be found at major museum events? Retroavantgarde in fact functions as a surface towards which different artistic and extra-artistic referents converge, structured with the objective of offering a story, composing a specific narrative outline. A device such as this allows the relationships between the artists who are Retroavantgarde protagonists to be made visible. If we wonder what existing object operates according to similar principles, combining spatial and temporal data within one and the same visual structure, we have to turn to a term favoured by Irwin to describe their project: “map”. Cartography or mapping entails trying to make information accessible to other people and structuring one’s own thoughts in order to disseminate them effectively. Retroavantgarde does in fact demonstrate this programmatic undertaking: mapping entails extracting meaning from a mass of information, as well as the collective intelligence of the contributors. Here, not only do Irwin appropriate a non-artistic system of representation to convey a quantity of information, but they transpose artefacts into a purely documentary substance to ‘self-theorise’ their own working method.

The map makes it possible to question an artistic language that has appeared locally without falling into an essentialist vision stigmatising Yugoslavian or East European art, or reproducing a monosemic interpretation grid. The cartographic format is ideal in that it determines the standpoint of an outside observer who, while being affected by what he is looking at, remains relatively detached from it. By resorting to this representational device, Irwin maintains a mediating position and can move around inside local and international artistic spheres while keeping a certain distance.

Thus we are confronting a visual offer which paradoxically borrows scientific tools – cartography, the systematic measuring of a territory, the act of indexing – in order to formulate an open hypothetical discourse. The format chosen by Irwin to make Retroavantgarde is misleading insofar as it suggests the existence of correct, incontrovertible data. Playing on this simulative character, which involves the creation of a forgery through the recovery of different artistic discourses so as to form an artificial movement from them, the Slovenian collective raises the problem of the classification of artistic forms and the credibility of such classifications.

Construction of the context
It is appropriate to place the project in the context of the experimentation Irwin embarked on in the early 1990s when transformations on the European geopolitical and social chessboard – and a fortiori on the world stage – affected the group’s artistic output and steered them towards a more ‘relational’ view of art, quick to extract itself from the simple artistic category in order to act more directly on the social and political fabric. Thus, although the notions of collective action and practices shared by the same group were intrinsically associated with Irwin‘s approach from its beginnings – for reasons linked both to the configuration of the group and their adherence to an organization like Neue Slowenische Kunst –, the 1990s were characterised by an expansion of this form of collective action and by the need to inscribe it in a more all-embracing and global artistic constellation. Conscious of the fact that the type of experiment set in motion by the artists attached to the Retroavantgarde was closely linked to a given socio-political context, now in the process of disappearing or threatened by that “complicity of oblivion” (Groys) which affected individuals in post-Communist societies, the members of Irwin deemed it necessary to seize hold of scraps of that Yugoslavian artistic history in order to preserve it, fix it in a configuration which, while remaining overtly artificial, has the merit of setting down the milestones of a self-produced theory of art in Eastern Europe.

Thus, in parallel with a still active artistic output – as evidenced by the recent series of Icons, or again major installations like, The Heart of Transcentrala or Interior of the Planit (Budapest, Glasgow, 1996-97) –, Irwin have devoted themselves to a ‘context-building’ activity, intended not to compensate for the absence of an art market and art system on Yugoslavian and more generally East European territory, but rather to form a parallel system, growing according to ways and means specific to it. The consequences of such initiatives are measured over the longer term, at a transnational social and cultural level. Retroavantgarde occupies a special position among such initiatives, clearly identifiable through another cartographic categorization established by the group in 2001. This is a diagram that brings together the various projects carried out by Irwin in the course of the 1990s, under the title, “Retroprinciple – Construction of the context”. The projects are divided into three specific branches or fields of action: the first space of intervention groups together “Geopolitics” initiatives, the second is dedicated to the “Politics of the artificial person”, while the final one assembles “Instrumental politics”. Retroavantgarde falls into the “Politics of the artificial person” group. Starting from an empty nucleus occupied by the fantasized existence of a supposedly specific East European movement, Irwin has created a new artistic genealogy from start to finish and declared its existence. There we have subsequent proof of the fictional, simulated nature of this East European movement, but it is nonetheless true that many theories and artistic productions have emerged from this formulation of the Retroavantgarde that have made it possible for it to become more ‘material’ and visible on the international art scene.

Consequently, Retroavantgarde has enabled a series of questions to be raised: how, at a time when all global geopolitical data are in the process of being reformulated, can a set of artistic practices that had previously remained marginal and never been historicised be made visible and comprehensible? What use can be made of that artistic memory, and how can such a language be exploited to formulate a critical view of the art system? To what extent is the artist’s traditional status adapted to this undertaking? In other words, what implications does the action of ‘displaying’ works that are not their own have for artists, what purpose does it serve?

Modernism of the East and the dynamics of exclusion
As will have become clear, for Irwin it is in no way a question of reflecting the state of an artistic movement that really exists, but more of bringing to light a series of links likely to compose a ‘modernism of the East’. “What the artists belonging to the retro-avant-garde have in common is interest in the logic behind the operation of the art system, the awareness of their own exclusion and the articulation of all this through their work.“ By presenting us with the hypothesis of an entirely constructed ‘-ism of the East’, Retroavantgarde questions the validity of this well-known process of the inclusion/exclusion of an artistic approach within the international art system, often undergone by approaches that have come from non-western territories. If an ‘-ism’ implies a movement connected to the western avant-gardes and consequently to a modernist (i.e. universalistic and progressive) conception of art, then the idea of a ‘modernism of the East’ is an absurdity. Not only does that formula deny the allegedly ‘universal’ character of modernism by specifying its geographical origins, but by the very principles of creation underlying it, it frustrates all real modernist progression.

Figures like Mladen Stilinović, Malevich of Belgrade or Irwin and the NSK have developed their work around the notions of copying or reproducing an already existing visual repertory and negating a certain vision of the author as a creative individual regarded as sacred. With these retro-avantgardist practices, we are right in the “post-production” era and the era of the performative reformulation of an already existing discourse. The protagonists of the Retroavantgarde are effecting a shift of the centre of gravity of art and theories about twentieth-century art, through the duplication of the latter and the elaboration of systems of representation that act as so many mirrors held out to a canonical art system. Irwin’s Retroavantgarde goes even further by operating a procedure already used by each of its protagonists as a ‘picture within a picture’ – the act of copying-collaging and reappropriating signs, conceived as a real strategy of resistance.

Viewing machines
The idea of constituting a framework and a specific system for ‘displaying’ the art of the past is a concern in much of the output of the Slovenian group, even before the decisive change of direction in the 1990s. In this respect it is interesting to compare Retroavantgarde to another representational device elaborated by Irwin, the one used in the series, Was ist Kunst, made between 1985 and 1990. The works that constitute that series enclose in one and the same field a multiplicity of signs and artistic languages drawn from the artistic and ideological repertories of the twentieth century and are surrounded by an imposing and substantial wide, tarred frame. It is the massive presence of that frame that interests us here, insofar as it imposes precise conditions on the act of looking at the work. Here the frame is indicative of care devoted to preserving an autonomous representational space, closed on itself. This modus operandi is radically different from the principle on which Retroavantgarde is based; on the contrary, in its physical presentation Retroavantgarde has no spatial constraints or well defined limits. The work-cum-map operates as an open field, an information surface the edges of which have been deliberately blurred: no framing, but a boundless surface.

While in the case of Was ist Kunst the frame immediately fixes the internal space in which every representation is in place and merges with the others, thereby exhibiting a particularly authoritarian character, the device for displaying applied by Retroavantgarde individualises each component part by setting it against a neutral background. Each work and the intellectual reference corresponding to it is placed as an element of a ready-made, but a theoretical ready-made which might possibly refer back to the Warburgian process of constructing a Mnemosyne Atlas.

It is precisely their attachment to sets of problems such as these that has led Irwin to develop on the fringes of art, on a frontier territory that can unhesitatingly be described as meta-artistic. While the group’s approach has often been (mis-)interpreted as an operation involving deconstruction and decontextualisation, Retroavantgarde reaffirms the primarily ‘positive’ nature of the group’s initiatives.

By way of conclusion, I will take the liberty of quoting an observation made by Sarat Maharaj, who stated with regard to the growing diversification of methods of artistic investigation that “we might be able to engage with works, events, spasms, ructions that don’t look like art and don’t count as art, but are somehow electric, energy nodes, attractors, transmitters, conductors of new thinking, new subjectivity and action that visual artwork in the traditional sense is not able to articulate.” Retroavantgarde is in fact one such energy node, nodes of signifiers that contribute towards widening the epistemological field of art and building new structures for devising, consuming and understanding cultural working practices.

1. Marina Gržinić, “U-topia”, in Retroavangarda, exhibition catalogue, Ljubljana: Visconti Fine Arts Kolizej, 1994, pp. 3-4.

2. Gržinić, extract from “Synthesis: Retroavantgarde or Mapping Post-Socialism” (1995). This text was presented as a lecture in the context of the Island project organized in Dubrovnik (Croatia), autumn 1996, before being published in the exhibition catalogue, Museumsquartier, Vienna, 1997.

3. Following on from the general organization chart of Neue Slowenische Kunst (1984), the diagram entitled, “Retroprincip” and sub-titled, “Construction of the context” (2001) goes back over the roles and initiatives that have mapped out Irwin’s activities since 1990. In Inke Arns (ed.), Irwin: Retroprincip 1983-2003, Frankfurt: Revolver, 2003, p. 29.

4. The “retro-avant-garde” has been the subject of various analyses and interpretations. On this see the thoughts of Inke Arns, “Avant-garde in the Rear-View Mirror: From Utopia under General Suspicion to a New Notion of the Utopian”, in 7 Sins Ljubljana-Moscow, exhibition catalogue, Ljubljana: Moderna Galerija, 2004, pp. 15-19; as well as the interpretation formulated by Aleš Erjavec and Miško Šuvaković in Postmodernism and the Postsocialist Condition: Politicized Art under Late Socialism, Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003. Moreover, it is necessary to cite Marina Gržinić’s book, Fiction Reconstructed: Eastern Europe, Post-Socialism and the Retro-Avant-Garde, Vienna: Selene, 2000.

5. Borut Vogelnik (2000), “The Retro-avant-garde”, in The Last Futurist Show, Ljubljana: Maska, 2001, pp. 70-74.

6. On this, see Igor Zabel, “Haven’t we had enough?”, in newsletter 2004 #3, Utrecht: BAK, 2004.

7. Sarat Maharaj, “In other’s words”, conversation with Daniel Birnbaum, in ArtForum, Vol. 40, No. 6, February 2002, pp. 106-110.