Spomenik — Jan Kempenaers and “The End of History”

There are hundreds of them scattered throughout villages and rural landscapes in the former Yugoslavia. Once the site of pilgrimages by schoolchildren, military veterans, patriots, and mourners who had lost family in WWII, these Spomeniks (monuments) are today rarely visited. Often built out of concrete in a style dubbed Brutalism, these secular totems were meant to endure, impervious to the mere march of time—a testament and continuous witness to the new unity of the historically fractious Balkan states—the unity of all the Slavs, YUGOSLAVIA.

But the wounds of history never fully heal; they continue to suppurate, bleeding in many directions. A country held together (as they often are) by a charismatic and feared leader, President for Life, Marshall Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia tried to forget the centuries old enmities and religious and ethnic conflicts exacerbated by WWII--- by unfurling the banner of a homegrown brand of communism that defined itself on the world stage as “non-aligned.” Somehow, an ersatz nation that seemed at first only a tenuous alignment of many languages, ethnicities and religions, stuck together for more than 35 years after the end of the war. During this time, the Spomeniks were commissioned and built.

Twentieth century Yugoslavia was formed in late 1918, a month after the end of WWI and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In late 1941, the Axis Powers invaded, and control of Yugoslavia was parceled up, mainly between the Italians and the Germans. Occupation oppression was most severe in Croatia where the Nazi-supported Ustase government murdered up to one-half million Serbs, setting the stage for retributions by the Serbs in the Balkan War of the mid-90s. This slaughter of and by Serbs and Croations was not singular; atrocities coursed like fetid blood through all Slav ethnic arteries.

Post WWII unity under the victorious partisan Communists was promising, and in 1946 the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia was born. The Spomeniks began to appear shortly afterwards, often in pristine rural settings, a kind of neutral no-man’s land that would not bear the troubling memories of wartime factional, urban conflict. Many were erected adjacent to cemeteries for the war dead; they became a unifying marker of shared national loss and grief, irrespective of ethnic affiliations.

There seems to be no architectural template from a central committee for the design of the Spomeniks—perhaps deliberately so for a country that did not choose to define itself as “totalitarian.”  The rigid impersonality and conformity of much Nazi and Stalinist architecture and sculpture was studiously avoided, as was any attempt to create heroic, realistic, figurative statues of war heroes or martyrs. Some of the monuments even seem to be of an organic or crystalline origin blown up to steroidal proportions.

Many building materials were chosen but the one most favored for strength and flexibility was reinforced concrete, “beton brut,” the chosen material of the architect Le Corbusier. This French master’s grandiose schemes became a sought after model for much urban design in the immediate post-war era. Corbusier’s concept of the “radiant city” may never have gained much traction in the real world, but some of its tropes, especially the idea of enveloping greenspace, can be found in the Spomenik sites. Some of these structures appear to be actual buildings, though devoid of viable internal living spaces.

Others resemble futuristic housing along the lines of a Disneyland “Tomorrowland.” They incorporate access ramps and windows.

The Belgian photographer, Jan Kempenaers, has traveled the many countries of the Balkans during the past decade and has recorded these monoliths with his camera. He has compiled several dozen of them into a book, titled simply Spomenik.

Amazon.com—Jan Kempenaers Spomenik link

Kempenaers, as an artist, is interested not principally in the historical background or in the ongoing socio-political implications of these eroding artifacts; he is a photographer of a particular bent. I have found no personal or art-critical analysis of his intentions—but it is clear that the layout of his book follows the design precepts of what is often called “photo taxonomy.” Key proponents of this approach (teachers of a whole generation of contemporary German photographers of international importance) were the husband and wife team of Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose Dusseldorf School has been one of the strongest influences on late 20th century German photography. The Bechers published over a dozen books, mainly documenting German sites, but also ones in the United States. They were vanguard artists of “typologies,” images and books focused on picturing dozens of utilitarian structures—water towers, coal tipples, blast furnaces, natural gas tanks, cooling towers.

Each of their books concentrates on a single subject displaying strong black and white, full-page prints with a minimum of text. As hung in galleries, and as available for photography collectors, multiple images are identically framed and displayed in serried ranks.

The Bechers photographed only in fully overcast light in order to obviate any distracting shadows or variable sky density. Kempenaers, while not employing the serial imagery technique of the Bechers, follows this pattern. I have found no evidence that he studied with the Bechers, but his stylistic similarities are compelling.

Kempenaers’ book opens with a stark title page that reads simply:

There is no introduction or preface. Small photos, four to a page with site designation and dates photographed, follow; then there are 26 Spomenik images, one to a page, Only at the end of the book is there an attempt to give context and background to the work with a single page essay by Willem Jan Neutelings.

Marshall Tito died on May 4, 1980. The Yugoslav federation was already weakened by recession and was struggling with an IMF loan; latent ethnic tensions within and among the six Socialist Republics re-emerged during the late 80s. After the fall of communism in most of Eastern Europe, multi-party elections were held throughout Yugoslavia in 1990. Tensions mounted and boiled over; abortive secessions erupted and several succeeded, with Slovenia being the first to break away. Chaos was followed by mass killings throughout the former YUGO-slavia and the catchword “ethnic cleansing” became the PC version of “genocide,” an easy verbal palliative for Western Europe to step away from the consequences of the near century-old mandate that had grown out of the geographical rubble of WWI.

Several of the Spomeniks thrust themselves into the bald sky as though they were nothing more than outsized abstract sculptures. Imagine a modernist like Brancusi given the resources to explode his aesthetic into the stratosphere. One thing that is so maddening about them is the total impersonality they present, a clear attempt to eschew any partisan/ethnic allegiance: thereby rendering them essentially meaningless to the caravans of school children bussed in to see them. There is no emotional context here—any more than there is in looking at a water tower or gas tank as photographed by the Bechers.

Others do seem to project hints of a socio-militaristic bent.

Kempenaers made a clear decision to photograph the Spomeniks from a singular vantage point: straightforward, either head-on or at the slightest rake angle, at eye level. He studiously avoided any attempt to distort the field of view with a wide-angle lens. It is an axiom of criticism that there is no such thing as an “objective” photograph—there is always deliberation, even when considering the “shoot from the hip” aesthetic of a Garry Winogrand. But Kempenaers does strive to neutralize his presence as an artist. There is no evidence in his approach that gives a clue to his own critical perspective, except that:

Some of the Spomeniks show clear evidence of neglect, with underbrush and trees taking root around them. It is difficult to determine whether the piece shown above is a fallen fragment of a greater structure—or whether its concrete kindling tumble is its actual design.

Several of the monuments rise beyond the impersonality of the majority, and seem to aspire to lyrical arabesques.

Or, they are insistently metaphoric in blasted recollections of war’s genocides.

But Kempenaers’ most unequivocal message (and one that represents an underlying reality) is shown in two photographs.

Like the wrecked hull of a once proud ship, the skeleton of the above Spomenik rises out of the graffitied rubble beneath. It reminds me of the great sonnet, Ozimandias, by Shelley:


I met a traveler from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Another Spomenik is so in ruins that its spiked branches seem to be merging into the surrounding boulders. Projecting re-bars at the top are defunct tendrils of a long dead organism.

Jozo (Joe) Zovko, a camera assistant of Croatian origin, who worked with me on a recently completed film in Alaska, gave me Jan Kempenaers’ Spomenik book. I was fascinated with the subject and the immediacy of Kempenaers’ vision, but my own perspective on the images was totally deracinated from any historical context of the Spomeniks’ cultural underpinnings. I appealed to him for more information.

He sent me photos of a simple, even elegant, Spomenik from the town of Podgora (not part of Kempenaers’ book), with this explanation:

Those communist monuments seem to be all over the place— and they are in my memory as far as I can remember—my earliest memories in life are of my first visit to Croatia at the age of 3—my cousins live in the sea side town of Podgora where this Spomenik dominates the north western hillside above the town—it’s a pretty hard image to forget really—you can’t help but see it every day

Below is an aerial view. This Spomenik pierces the blue sea in the photo’s upper right.

Jozo described the WWII killings, recalling the fate of his mother’s village:

There were mass killings on all sides—whole villages decimated—the most infamous killings were done by the Nazis who helped prop up a Croatian nationalist government. My mother’s village "Vostane" was hit by the Nazis, the Prince Eugene Division. The burning village scene at the end of the film "Come and See" is practically a retelling of what happened in that and many other villages all over the area—and all over Europe. Many of these sites were hit due to their support of the communist Partisans—and the same sort of thing happened to the towns that supported the Serbian nationalists (Chetniks) and the Croatian nationalists (Ustase) and possibly other smaller groups that I’m not aware of. If a civilian village was unlucky enough to be visited by a group of armed men of the opposing political view, they were most probably treated to a checklist of atrocities.

These experiences are difficult for Americans to understand despite movies and newsreel footage of the time; more difficult for us is to contextualize the Spomeniks themselves beyond their formal properties. Totally elusive to 21st century Americans is the complex web of emotions that surround the abandonment of these edifices and what they once symbolized.

Jozo’s summation helped lift the fog for me:

I can't wait to see where all this takes you, John—there is so much misinformation out there—every side can come back and accuse the other side of lies etc—for me it’s been a never ending road of frustration that I think leads to an interesting place inside the mind, and its ability to alter its past memories—and the way the winners of war can sometimes historically erase their own wrongdoings or make the losers of the war look worse—a new past made of delusions and illusions. It’s this specific topic that has taught me to never take any opinion on this subject too seriously, but to erect an odd mangled structure out of these people’s version of history— its like a living breathing M.C. Escher re-imagining of Bruegel’s painting of the Tower of Babel.

Jozo also introduced me to the grim but epic WWII film Come and See, a dramatic feature by the Russian director Elem Klimov. I will discuss it in a future essay.

I encourage you to visit the website of Jan Kempenaers’ book. The publisher, Roma, generously provides a page-by-page view of the monuments, even allowing a full screen high-resolution examination of each Spomenik by several successive clicks.

issuu.com—Spomenik link

Note: I want to thank Jozo (Joe) Zovko for introducing me to this artist and for exposing a bit of light into the darkness of the Balkan tragedy.

John's note on May 9, 2011: I have received many insightful as well as contentious observations about the SPOMENIKS and I feel it's time to call a moratorium on posting any further comments on the subject. Apparently, links to the essay were posted on several sites that discuss the difficult post-war legacy of the former Yugoslavia. The emotions clearly still run high. I understand that-- but this blog is not a political forum to air raw grievances-- so I am not going to post any more comments about the SPOMENIKS. "The End of History" allusion in the title, meant in irony, is clearly just that. History is a personal perspective. And as I said, the wounds "continue to suppurate."



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