BY Emile Rubino in Reviews | 28 APR 21

Julian Irlinger Captures the Continuities of Imperialism

At Damien & The Love Guru, Brussels, the artist's photographs and texts put colonial histories in perspective with the rise of nationalism in Europe

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BY Emile Rubino in Reviews | 28 APR 21

In ‘Europe Divided into its Kingdoms,’ Julian Irlinger’s first solo exhibition in Belgium, eight silver gelatin prints are accompanied by a leaflet with eight short texts, which double as the photographs’ lengthy titles. These extended captions do not, however, align with these pictures of prosaic objects. For instance, Several bridges connect the North and South of Frankfurt. The Main river defines the view of the skyline from the South side. Heading East from the bank towers, it is a thirty-minute walk to the built-in headquarters of the European central bank. The singular and eccentric skyscraper connects all countries of the Eurozone (all works 2021) depicts a glass jar full of worthless pfennigs. This unremarkable reserve of loose change, which might also be one of Irlinger’s strange attempts at a numismatic collection, calls to mind the paper kites made of discarded Notgeld in his 2018 exhibition, ‘Subject of Emergency’, at Galerie Thomas Schulte in Berlin.

Julian Irlinger Several bridges connect the north and south of Frankfurt. The Main river defines the view of the skyline from the south side. Heading east from the bank towers, it is a thirty minute walk to the built-in head-quarters of the European central bank. The singular and eccentric skyscraper connects all countries of the Eurozone. 2021 Gelatine silver print, custom made steel frame 50 x 33,5 cm (print)
Julian Irlinger, Several bridges connect the north and south of Frankfurt. The Main river defines the view of the skyline from the south side. Heading east from the bank towers, it is a thirty minute walk to the built-in head-quarters of the European central bank. The singular and eccentric skyscraper connects all countries of the Eurozone, 2021, gelatin silver print, 50 × 33.5 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Damien & The Love Guru, Brussels; photograph: Kristien Daem

Made with a 1980s Canon T70, which belonged to the artist’s mother, these photographs of pocket knives, money and jigsaw puzzles border on nostalgia, with their coarse grain, subdued tonalities and handcrafted steel frames. In challenging the assumed transparency of language, however, the unsourced affirmations presented in the captions push back against these photographic tropes. They come as a seemingly ‘disinterested “academic” exchange of information’, as Allan Sekula put it in his essay ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’ (1975). In Irlinger’s works, the documentary accuracy historically associated with black and white photography is undermined by texts that direct our attention towards historical and political ramifications, to create a slippage – a liminal third space between image and text. In this regard, Irlinger’s work speaks directly to Sekula’s take on photography’s dependence on external semiotic systems, whereby ‘the majority of messages sent into the “public domain” in advanced industrial society are spoken with the voice of anonymous authority’.

Julian Irlinger, Europe Divided into its Kingdoms, 2021, exhibition view, Damien & the Love Guru, Brussels
Julian Irlinger, 'Europe Divided into its Kingdoms', 2021, exhibition view, Damien & the Love Guru, Brussels. Courtesy: the artist and Damien & The Love Guru, Brussels; photograph: Kristien Daem

A close-up of the signature fly design on the backspring of a Laguiole brand knife, for instance, is paired with facts about the Douk-Douk – a knife made in the same region of France known for its use by the National Liberation Front in Algeria. Such tortuous riddles are established between pictures in a rewarding kind of conceptual ping-pong. The photograph of an Okapi knife engraved with an outline of the eponymous African mammal next to the proud indication ‘Made in Germany’ is paired with an account of the knife’s ties to Germany’s colonial market. On the same wall, a banknote from the Belgian Congo colonial period is coupled with a text that describes how the Okapi was ‘discovered’ by British colonizers searching for a so-called African unicorn.

Julian Irlinger North of the Mngeni River lies Durban‘s Phoenix Industrial Park, in which a division of Southey Holdings houses their production. They purchase their trademark and tooling from a bankrupt manufacturer in Solingen, Germany’s “city of blades”. Originally, the knife is made for Germany’s colonial market, but through trading routes it eventually becomes a symbol of Jamaican rude boy culture. 2021 Gelatine silver print, custom made steel frame 50 x 33,5 cm
Julian Irlinger, North of the Mngeni River lies Durban‘s Phoenix Industrial Park, in which a division of Southey Holdings houses their production. They purchase their trademark and tooling from a bankrupt manufacturer in Solingen, Germany’s “city of blades”. Originally, the knife is made for Germany’s colonial market, but through trading routes it eventually becomes a symbol of Jamaican rude boy culture, 2021, gelatin silver print, 50 × 33.5 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Damien & The Love Guru, Brussels; photograph: Kristien Daem

When receiving a knife as a gift, many people believe that the recipient should give a coin in exchange, so that the blade won’t sever the ties between the two parties. Knives and coins manage boundaries and power relations. In the caption to one of Irlinger’s photographs, depicting an aquarium with a hammer-head shark, the reference to Frontex – the controversial and overfunded European border agency – puts colonial histories in perspective with the ongoing rise of nationalism in Europe. In turn, the exhibition’s three titular works, Europe Divided into its Kingdoms, allegorically show jigsaw puzzles of overlapping hands along with a caption pertaining to the first puzzle ever made: In 1766, British cartographer John Spilsbury used a saw to dissect a map of Europe and create an educational game for wealthy children who would go on to divide borders and rule in foreign countries using blades and money. In the current European political climate, Irlinger’s critique of imperialism is both timely and foreboding.

Julian Irlinger, 'Europe Divided into its Kingdoms' runs at Damien & The Love Guru, Brussels, until 15 May 2021.

Main image: Julian Irlinger, The consistency of the geography doesn‘t seem to be the point. The inaccurate pieces delineate borders, mainly to suggest that certain nations form states or kingdoms. In this manner, the printed map is dissected and named “Europe Divided Into Its Kingdoms“. The preciously crafted board game is marketed as an educational tool for the children of the wealthy. It is used to prepare for the expansion of the Empire. (Fig. 1), 2021, gelatine silver print, 100 × 66 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Damien & the Love Guru, Brussels; photograph: Kristien Daem

Emile Rubino is an artist and writer based in Brussels, Belgium.

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