Digital remaking of ‘spomenici’— a range of monuments found across former Yugoslavia and built during Tito’s rule.
Spomenik, meaning ‘monument, in serbo-croatian
I became fascinated by the spomenici scattered across former yugoslavia after taking a course on memory, place, and power. these monuments stand alone in empty fields, on mountain sides and in forests commemorating wwii battle sites. while they are remembered in history as monuments built under tito’s rule, they stand in stark contrast to and even challenge the uniformity and dogmatism of the tito era.
these stand-alone relics launched a deeper fascination with yugoslavian design and the societal values, norms, and ideals underpinning socialist architecture.
I felt particularly drawn again to these after visiting ‘towards a concrete utopia: architecture in yugoslavia, 1948- 1980’ at moma in january 2019. below are a selected four drawings i made of these spomenici. The text excerpts are from an analytical paper i wrote on the role of these counter-monuments in the memorial landscape of this time period.
Express a rejection of beliefs surrounding an event rather than affirming it.
Shun the traditional monumental form.
require a multi-sensory engagement that elevates one to more than a simple observer.
have meanings embedded that are not straightforward and force visitors to extrapolate meaning
(Stevens, Franck & Fazarkerly, 2012)
The counter-monument provokes imposed narratives of history and challenges the very ideals of the monument itself (Young, 1999). If monuments facilitate a remembrance of success and heroism, then the counter-monument embodies atrocities and traumas that must never be forgotten. However, ruptures in memory regimes can rupture the meaning of a monument, thus creating the possibility for it to fade from the memorial landscape, only to return as a counter monument.
At their crux, counter-monuments eradicate the potential for state actors to impose a heroic, myth-laden narrative as they remove the ability for elites to manipulate collective memory as a means for political advancement; in essence, they counter history itself.
In 1972, Dušan Džamonja unveiled the “Monument to the Revolution” at Kozara to commemorate the Partisan fighters and Serbian civilians who lost their lives fighting Ustaše and German Wehrmacht forces (“Kozara Memorial: History”, 2017). The Memorial Mrakovica, comprised of the memorial, memorial museum and a wall, was entirely designed by Džamonja.
Located at the highest point of the national park’s forested mountain range, the 33-meter tall monument is made of twenty concrete, trapezoid pillars separated by conical gaps through which visitors can enter (Kirn, 2014).
Inside one is encompassed by darkness, with light only made available through vertical slits. To exit, one must unpleasantly squeeze themselves out through the gaps, producing “an uneasy feeling of entrapment, which clearly refers to the horrific experiences that took place during WWII in the Kozara mountain range” (Kirn, 2014, 348).
While the interior reflects absence and death, the size of the monument is meant to represent “the liberty and freedom-loving spirit” of the Kozara people (Dizdarević & Hudović, 2012, 461).
At the opening of the complex, President Tito draped the Battle of Kozara in a nationalist rhetoric, “Kozara has survived one of the most difficult and one of the most famous epics in the history of our people at the same time... It was the beginning of the greatest struggle for brotherhood and unity” (Brenner, 2014, 74).
This struggle, marked by tens of thousands of deaths at the hands of external forces and internal collaborators, became secondary in its ruthlessness to the Yugoslav Wars.
at their time of construction, these simplifications and abstractions were meant to convey the freedom artists had to express themselves, a freedom fought for by Yugoslavs (Putnik, 2015).
President Tito’s emphasis on ‘brotherhood and unity’ is reflected in the socialist aestheticism of these monuments, namely the focus on the unity of those who fought against fascism, rather than the individual soldiers and civilians who were killed (Putnik, 2015).
Ultimately, the spomenici were direct attempts to legitimize Yugoslav identities over local ones by linking individual and local tragedies and weaving them into a broader narrative of the republic’s suffering and eventual triumph.
If a monument is meant to pay tribute to and immortalize the ones that perished for their homeland, then what can one make of monuments that commemorate a homeland that has ceased to exist?
Many spomenici stand solemn and alone in forests and fields, with no clear meaning on display. These structures are no longer visited by schools or tour groups, reinforcing the rejection of Yugoslavian identity and the brutality it denotes.
No monument recollects the atrocities of the Bosnian War (Riding, 2015).
Perhaps these “places of memory” have truly become “places of oblivion” (Putnik, 2015, 217). Or perhaps, these only appear to be places of oblivion because the layers of contested identities and conflicting narratives are as difficult to grasp and untangle as the abstract forms themselves.
Thus, the abstraction of these monuments at their conception denotes that Yugoslavian identity was itself amorphous and uncertain, countering itself with every erection of nationalist remembrance and that these monuments are no longer part of the WWII memorial landscape.
At their crux, the counter-spomenici of Kozara and Jasenovac are reminders of a discomfort and volatility that spanned decades, wars, generations and identities that never truly could be captured in one, official narrative.
In 1966, Bogdan Bogdanovic unveiled the “Stone Flower” on the grounds of the former Jasenovac Concentration Camp in present-day Croatia (Lawler, 2013). The 24-metre high, six- petalled concrete flower was conceived as a “sculptural flower of remembrance,” signifying life and eternal renewal (Lawler, 2013; Hatherly, 2016).
Two pieces of the structure are direct attempts at invoking Yugoslavian unity through commemoration of the fallen.
— First is the underground crypt lined with railroad ties from the railroad that had brought prisoners to Jasenovac.
— Second is the excerpt Ivan Goran Kovacic’s poem, Jama (The Pit), which was studied across elementary schools in the republic and thus would’ve been recognized by any individual who had grown up during this time (Lawler, 2013).
By 1971, Bogdanovic’s structure was at the center of a fully-fledged memorial complex laden with officially recognized spaces for Yugoslavian nationalism (Lawler, 2013).