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How did spomeniks become clickbait?


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“Spomenik #1 (Podgarić)”. Image: Breese Little Gallery, London

Writing for Calvert Journal, Owen Hatherly asks how and why spomeniks, war monuments from the former Yugoslavia, have become stuff of internet clickbait and Tumblr fodder. Read Hatherly in partial below, in full via Calvert Journal.

Put the Serbo-Croatian word spomenik into Google Images, and you’ll find dozens of photos of large, seemingly abstract sculptures, of architectural scale, placed in fields, on mountains, and in woods. These are photographs – each of them numbered, thusly – “Spomenik #1”, “Spomenik #2”, and so forth, with locations, but nothing else – by the Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers. They have been published in a book – of course, called Spomenik – and exhibited around the world.

Recently, in the Guardian, Joshua Surtees described them as follows. “Erected in tranquil fields in the middle of nowhere, Spomeniks – which means monuments in Serbo-Croatian – look like alien landings, crop circles or Pink Floyd album covers.” He continues: “Commissioned by Tito to commemorate Second World War battle sites, they tear down traditional ideas of what a war memorial should be. Tito asked leading architects of the Yugoslav cultural movement, such as Dušan Džamonja, to design them – the British equivalent would be Harold Wilson commissioning Henry Moore to create war memorials and dotting them all over Britain in the least-visited places.” Spomeniks have become a successful brand. However, almost none of the statements made above are true. And in several exhibitions, publications and actions, architects, artists and activists in the countries that once made up the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia have started to answer back.

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“Spomenik #2 (Petrova Gora)”. Image: Breese Little Gallery, London

There was no specific call or commission by Tito or the Yugoslav government for monumental sculptures, nor for abstract ones, nor were they all Second World War memorials as such. The sculptures that Kempenaers photographed – and which have since gone into circulation as abstracted images – commemorate a variety of different events. “Spomenik #2 (Petrova Gora)”, of a curved, metal sculpture with several pieces missing, is the “Monument to the uprising of the people of Kordun and Banija”, designed by Vojin Bakic and finished in 1981. It stands on the site where 300 barely armed local peasants were killed fighting against the ferociously violent fascist Ustaše militia in 1942. “Spomenik #5 (Kruševo)”, a bulbous white concrete structure with a walkway through the middle, is the Ilinden Monument in Macedonia, which is dedicated both to the Ilinden Uprising of 1903 against the Ottoman Empire (it contains the remains of one of its leaders) and to local partisan battles in 1941-44; it was designed by Iskra Grabuloska and Jordan Grabuloski in 1974. “Spomenik #6 (Kozara)”, a twisting, tubular concrete sculpture designed by Dusan Džamonja in 1969, is the Monument to the Revolution in Mrakovica, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and is specifically dedicated to the Partisans and civilians – around 70,000 – killed or deported to concentration camps in the area in June and July 1942.

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“Spomenik #5 (Kruševo)”. Image: Breese Little Gallery, London

One could continue. “Spomenik #11 (Niš)”, identifiable as three angular raised fists, is the Bubanj Memorial Park in Niš, Serbia, and was designed by Ivan Sabolic, in 1963. It is on the site where over 10,000 Serbs, Jews and Romani were killed by German execution squads. “Spomenik #8 (Jasenovac)”, is “Stone Flower”, by Bogdan Bogdanovic, designed in 1966. It is the central memorial at the largest Ustaše death camp, and was intended as an abstracted, sculptural flower of remembrance. Recently, some of these monuments featured in a project called Totally Lost, which invited contributions of photographs of monuments built by “20th century totalitarian regimes”. Monuments built by the Nazis stand alongside those built by and for their victims. It is comparable to placing a photo of Yad Vashem alongside images of Albert Speer’s Zeppelinfeld, as if they were the same thing.

How have these places managed to transform from monuments to atrocity and resistance into concrete clickbait? The story told by Spomenik is that these strange structures must have just been dropped onto these rural areas, most likely by the Big Man, the dictator, Tito himself. According to Gal Kirn, who has written several articles on “partisan art” and whose book Partisan Ruptures was recently published in Slovenia, the opposite is true. “For these, let’s call them modernist monuments, you would be surprised to see that the financing many times came as a combination of republican (Yugoslavia was heavily decentralised into its six constituent Republics) and regional funds, and also self-managed funding, meaning also that enterprises and factories contributed — while much less was given from the federal-state level.” There were competitions and “some public calls which had juries — but the existence of these progressive sculptural objects tells us that more conventional representations-resolutions were not favoured.” That is, in many cases these “UFOs” were commissioned, funded and chosen locally.