James Thompson discusses the decline of spomeniks, renowned Yugoslavian concrete structures, and their commemoration at the new V&A Photography Centre.
The first thing that comes to mind when you come across a spomenik – meaning monument in Serbo-Croatian – is that it must be unhuman, from an alien land, a UFO perhaps. Whilst their abstract design may appear extra-terrestrial, they bear the weight of a tumultuous period of human history. Over the course of the mid-to-late-twentieth century, the barren tracts of former Yugoslavia were to be populated by these huge concrete structures. Unique as they are, the spomenik is a dying breed, with numbers falling precipitously since the fall of Yugoslavia. Thankfully, the new Photography Centre at London’s V&A features the work of Belgian photographer, Jan Kempenaers, who has provided the best account yet of the superstructures before their inevitable extinction.
History tells us that the twentieth century was not too kind to the Balkan region. The end of the Second World War saw the establishment of a Socialist Republic that would preside over the region for 45 years. Under the direction of Josep Tito, Yugoslavia inherited much more than a united people, it was one characterised by jingoism and loyalties to their former homeland. Faced with the already challenging enough prospect of commemorating the events of the last 45 years – involving, to name a few events, two world wars, partisan battles, mutiny, and genocide – Tito had the remarkably difficult task of reconciling those who had been victims and those who had been victors, without allowing tempers to flare.
Departing from the socialist-realism which was the fashion in the Soviet satellite states, the Republic was quick to adopt a new aesthetic, influenced by the art scene in the Slavic and Jewish diaspora communities in the United Sates. The abstract-expressionism of David Smith and Mark Rothko soon enough became a hallmark of Yugoslavian identity. The spomenik project in many ways rejected the canonical features of the western World War memorials: a symbolic cross or quote in the iconic block capital typeface, the names of those remembered, and, most crucially, a distinct clarity of purpose. Spomeniks, by contrast, had one particular function beyond remembrance: ambiguity.
True to form, even this asset is deceiving, as they held a much stronger political and historical purpose. The unintelligible concrete designs offered a resolution, and an individual experience to those who had been involved in the recent conflicts and were now coexisting with their former rivals. Plainly, it was a unapologetic attempt to promote regional harmony and national solidarity, as opposed to a partial memorial, possibly rekindling the political extremes of the last half-century. Dismissing the official meaning of the memorials, people could take away their own message. Although, finding an individual willing enough to scale the challenging terrain of the region to find a spomenik, and who ignored the official event being commemorated, would be hard to find.
They did find a role in education, however, as many spomeniks were equipped with amphitheatres for education programmes. Initiatives taking place in these spaces engaged with the atrocities that occurred in the region through a humanitarian perspective. Jordan and Iskra Grabul’s almost 45 year-old Kruševo memorial (Spomenik #5) which can be likened to a squashed white balloon-shaped structure, and featuring a long concrete bridge extending to the surface, offered a sizeable amphitheatre, post-modernist in nature and capable of hosting lectures and workshops. It’s a structure which would be more suited to the surreal set of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, than the Yugoslavian wilderness.
Recent public attention to the spomeniks has largely been confined to the domain of Tumblr posts, and their ham-fisted categorisation into ‘Brutalism’ – and by virtue of this, some associated Instagram pages. Their true purpose is not realised, they are as Owen Hatherley noted, ‘concrete clickbait’. This resurgence is partly the result of Kempenaers, who toured the former Yugoslav Balkan region between 2006 and 2009 photographing particular monuments. Accused by some of popularising them on a superficial level, I think this is harsh. The photographs are documentary evidence of the spomeniks decline: their apparent destruction (such as in the case of the Makljen spomenik – Spomenik #15), the surprisingly frequent graffiti, and the harsh surroundings and unkept shrubbery. Aspects which, when considered alongside the purpose of the spomeniks, contribute to the history of Yugoslavia as a failed state.
Perhaps then it is rational to leave the memorials to the elements, they are now of little meaning to most. Commemoration has been localised and repatriated, they are nostalgic reminders of a state that no longer exists. If they are preserved it should be on account of their artistic significance and profound beauty. Luckily for us, whatever happens, Kempenaers got there before it was too late.
A number of images from Kempenaers Spomenik series can be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 2022.