Before digging with all my passion into following part of my theoretical series with communism, here is a pleasant intermezzo. There was a necessity to change already composed text, since my last confrontation demanded a special approach to the bloody case of Yugoslavia that I am about to publish in following days. Anyway, there is something stunningly impressive Yugoslavian communism has left behind.
From 2006 to 2009, Jan Kempenaers toured around the ex-Yugoslavia region (now Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia) with the help of a 1975 map of memorials, bringing before our eyes a series of melancholic yet striking images. His photos raise a question: can these former monuments (Spomeniks) continue to exist as pure sculptures? On one hand, their physical dilapidated condition and institutional neglect reflect a more general social historical fracturing. And on the other hand, they are still of stunning beauty without any symbolic significances.
In the rugged, mountainous regions of the former Yugoslavia, Spomeniks are everywhere. You will see them on strategic outcrops, lofty passes and sweeping plateaus: gigantic sculptures, firmly anchored to the rocks. They are objects of stunning beauty. Their abstract geometric shapes recall macro views of viruses, flower-petal goblets, crystals. They are built of indestructible materials like reinforced concrete, steel and granite. Some are solid, others hollow. The largest Spomeniks even afford access to the public, teetering on the boundary where sculpture becomes architecture.
Hardly anyone outside of the former Yugoslavia is aware of their existence, and within the present ex-Yugoslavia, no one really wants to be reminded that they are there. Twentyfive years ago there were thousands of them, of every conceivable size, shape and description, but in the early 1990s the majority of them were destroyed, dismantled or in the best case, abandoned to the natural elements. Only those large and heavy enough to thwart vandals are still standing today, derelict and forsaken. Yet these objects were built just a single generation ago, in the 1960s and 70s, as memorials to the Second World War. Those who commissioned them have since passed away, but their architects and sculptors are still living. In the 1980s the monuments still attracted millions of visitors, but a decade later their appeal vanished. They have become submerged in a new age, rendered unintelligible to the current generation. Their symbolism has been lost in translation as the visual language has changed, their signals muffled by a shifted worldview. The monuments have been the objects of blind fury, and now of indifference. What remains is pure sculpture in a desolate landscape.
In their dilapidated condition, they are no longer symbols of victory, but for the first time, true symbols of a newfound mourning. They seem to grieve for the horrors that took place where they stand, 70 years ago. Perhaps this makes them richer, more seasoned, beautiful and effective now. They no longer charm with their pristine beauty, but their gritty countenance commands respect. That is the conjurors’ trick of the Spomeniks, which Kempenaers masterfully reveals in his photographs.
Although some may see them as defacing the disconcertingly beautiful countryside where these lonely World War II clashes and massacres took place, still, Spomeniks are quite a collection – the fact that they are now mostly disintegrating or neglected does give them a new and rather improved ‘organic’ quality. Judge for yourself.