Spomenik No.2 (Petrova Gora), 2006 © Jan Kempenaers
During the 1980’s, dutiful parties of schoolchildren in former Yugoslavia would journey to Petrova Gora to visit the extraordinary, futuristic monument – or spomenik – erected by the Communist government in memory of the partisans killed there during the Second World War. President Tito had commissioned the undulating, windowless, stainless steel-clad structure on the site where once stood a field hospital and refuge used by resistance fighters. As with many such spomeniks built during the period, its construction was presumed to help consolidate a view of the recent past, while reaffirming a national vision of both the present and the future.
In the pictures of Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers, though, the monuments convey a less confident, more equivocal legacy. In 2006-7 he toured the countries of the former Yugoslavia using a 1975 map of memorials as a guide; now he has published Spomenik – an expanded series of colour pictures of 25 of the region’s most striking examples. As might be expected of a typological project of this nature, the photographs are unpeopled, and the views unimpeded; the early morning skies are neutral, and the structures cast few shadows; the photographs are landscape format, and centrally composed. Stripped of its ceremony and historical function, the monument at Petrova Gora now appears decidedly run-down. It has shed some of its cladding, to expose the hollows amongst its concrete interior; its approach is uneven and overgrown; and a satellite dish and antennae mar its profile.
Spomenik No.4 (Tjentiste), 2007 © Jan Kempenaers
Similarly the Tjentiste spomenik, despite its dynamism and boldness, looks merely antiquated and redundant. Built to mark the doomed and outnumbered stand by partisans resisting an Axis assault of 1943, the monument used to attract up to half a million visitors per year. Some 80,000 celebrants there observed the 4th July, Day of the Fighter in 1973. In Kempenaers’ photograph it stands deserted, its concrete is pitted, stained and streaked, and its concourse looks to be returning to meadow. But his work is of more than merely local and particular interest; for the physical decay and institutional neglect are in themselves symptomatic of a wider social fracturing. In other words, their obsolescence is at once communal, social, national and historical.
Spomenik No.5 (Krusevo), 2007 © Jan Kempenaers
The spomeniks, then, owed their recognisable function and secure meanings to the framework established by the Communist Party which had commissioned them. But with the development of democracy through the 1990’s, and that decade’s wars and uprisings, the possibility that the monuments might celebrate a coherent, uncontested view of the past proved fainter than ever. That said, at a formal and symbolic level the structures had always (unwittingly) acknowledged the fragility of their own enterprise: they were all, of necessity, stridently and startlingly abstract. How else might the Party commemorate a war of liberation that spilled into a civil conflict fought on tangled political and ethinc lines of allegiance? An essay accompanying Kempenaers’ photographs notes that the monuments “had to be neutral enough to be acceptable to both victims and perpetrators. After all, once the slaughter was over, the former opponents had to collectively form the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia.”
Spomenik No.9 (Jasenovac), 2007 © Jan Kempenaers
An earlier selection of Kempenaers’ spomenik pictures was subtitled ‘The End of History’; and perhaps that, ultimately, is his subject here. Not – heaven forbid – the triumphalist ‘end of history’ once announced by Fukuyama and the like. But the end of those certainties and histories which were momentarily so assuredly promoted by Eastern Europe’s single party states. An end which – Kempenaer’s minimally-captioned photographs powerfully attest – has resulted in incoherence, amnesia and the loss of meaning. As Bogdan Bogdanovic, designer of more than 20 memorials including that at Jasenovac, once put it: “The 20th century was a sad, dangerous century. In that time, Europe was chopped up into national boxes, with hermetic front lines. Half of my school friends perished in the war; the rest, in becoming communists or anti-communists, fought each other. All that I can say is this: I saw it, I lived it, and I didn’t understand it.”
Spomenik by Jan Kempenaers
Published by Roma Publications