How and when did the world’s fascination with Yugoslav socialist monuments begin? Who started the fire and who is stoking it? Photographers Jan Kempenaers (Belgium) and Jonk (France) share their work on spomenici, sources of their inspiration, and views on the monuments’ social media notoriety.
Featuring the song “Spomenik” by Lepša Brena (Serbia).
Graffiti, abandoned places, and assorted ruins also make an appearance.
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Episode Transcript (and More)
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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your guide Peter Korchnak.
I’ve already dedicated a number of episodes to Yugoslav socialist monuments. In all of them, the popularity of the monuments was a major topic of conversation.
In Episode 5, “Future Mo(nu)ments,” Sanja Horvatinčić bemoaned the schizophrenic status of these monuments:
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: At this moment they are kind of stuck in between political denial, erasure on the local level and then some sort of fetishization on the global level that has nothing to do with actually understanding of social purpose or political purpose of those monuments.
In Episode 8, “12,000 Monuments (and Nothin’ on Map),” Vladana Putnik Prica proposed ways to correct for the fetishization of monuments on part of their visitors:
VLADANA PUTNIK PRICA: The foreigners: the first thing they see is art and they feel certain emotions and that’s wonderful, but it should not be without some information about their history.
And in Episode 15, “Ace of Spomenik Database,” Donald Niebyl suggested the responsibility for popularizing the monuments ought to be shared:
DONALD NIEBYL: So you see this fetishization, or futurism sort of aesthetic being applied to them, not just internationally but also from people within the former Yugoslavia.
PETER KORCHNAK: By the way, the BCS word for monument is spomenik, the word whose root comes from the word to remember or memory; the correct BCS plural is spomenici, but in English you’ll often hear it used in the BCS singular with the English plural suffix, as spomeniks; I admit I am guilty of this error on occasion as well.
At any rate, spomenici also made an appearance in stories about Yugoslav-inspired graphic design, defunct socialist holidays, and diasporic travel. And I already have a number of episodes in the works where the monuments feature quite prominently.
So here I am reporting on the phenomenon. Travel bloggers and their ilk sling snapshots by the thousands on social media. Monuments now appear in feature films, TV shows, documentaries, video games, graphic and other art, products like apparel, jewelry, or paper models… And in 2018 a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art shot the monuments, alongside other brutalist and modernist architecture in former Yugoslavia, to the cultural stratosphere.
Why is this happening? I like to employ the five whys technique to get at the root of matters. Basically, you ask the question why repeatedly, where each answer creates the next question, until after the fifth iteration you get or should get to the root cause of a problem. Or one of the root causes anyway.
You probably wouldn’t even need all five whys to get to the spark of the explosion of interest in the Yugoslav socialist monuments.
JAN KEMPENAERS: Before I photo’d them, I think nobody was interested in it.
PETER KORCHNAK: Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers triggered the thing when he began exhibiting his photographs of monuments circa 2007 and particularly when his book Spomenik came out in 2015. A number of professional photographers followed in Kempenaers’s footsteps.
JONK: So at the end, I had around the 50 monuments and I decided I could make a book with these 50 monuments.
PETER KORCHNAK: In this, the 25th episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: Yugoslav socialist monuments, the spomenici, and the photographers who photograph them.
Graffiti, abandoned places, and assorted ruins also make an appearance.
A couple of notes before we get to it. The song you’ll hear is “Spomenik” by the Novi Sad-based band Lepša Brena. The song isn’t necessarily about monuments per se, but the emptiness and loneliness it describes and evokes match that of the photographs we’ll be discussing. Anyway, follow Lepša Brena on social media (Facebook / Instagram) and listen and, more importantly, buy their music on Bandcamp! Links are in this episode’s show notes.
And, as always, this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia is brought to you by…you. Thank you to everyone who has signed up to support me and Remembering Yugoslavia on Patreon or donated on the website via PayPal.
Today I welcome new supporters James, Daddy, and Danny.
Spomenik Photography: Jan Kempenaers the Pioneer
PETER KORCHNAK: Jan Kempenaers, how does a Belgian photographer get into photographing Yugoslav World War Two monuments?
JAN KEMPENAERS: Before I photographed like wide overviews from landscapes. And just after the war, I went to Sarajevo with a friend, making photographs from the places where they were shooting on the city during the war. But during the rainy days, we went to the library looking in books, and also in art encyclopedia during the communist period, and I copied some of the pages and there were little small black and white photographs of some of the monuments. And I, when I came home, I put them in my archive.
And when I started doing my PhD in the arts about picturesque landscapes, so it means also about contemporary ruins, I was looking in my archive, and I found these pages. And I had a friend from the time I was studying in the [?] Academy in Maastricht, who’s living in Zagreb, and I phoned him and I asked him, if he was interested to level up what it was, for the moment is one of my days still exist, etc. So we went to the library in Zagreb, together with him. And there, we found, like, some some books and a map, from a book from the 70s, I think. And on this map, there are loads of these monuments indicated with small drawings.
And then we started to look for them and to visit them. [It] was very impressive, the first one we found. And then I start doing photographs together with him. But I only photographed ones who were not in the city context, not in an urban context. I think I started to do this in 2006, yeah.
PETER KORCHNAK: Jan photographed the monuments on multiple trips to former Yugoslavia over the ensuing three years.
JAN KEMPENAERS: Slowly we discovered there’s other ones who are not on this map, because they were built later. And then we went back and visited some more. And yeah, that’s the reason why it went a bit on and on.
PETER KORCHNAK: How did you decide that you’re finished? There are so many monuments, large, monumental ones and smaller ones. So at what point did you say, “Okay, it’s time to show the work to the world.”
JAN KEMPENAERS: The first time we went we found like the most impressive ones. I did the most interesting ones like the first two-three times I went, but I’m discovering some more and smaller ones. Yeah, you still want to see them and go back and make photographs of them. But on a certain moment, I think you have to stop doing this.
And now there is a lot of interest in these monuments. And there are like people who are busy with making what was never my intention to make like a complete overview of all the monuments. There’s this Spomenik Database thing, I think it’s like an Instagram thing and there sometimes I look at it and I see that there are a lot of good monuments I never photographed which is a pity actually.
PETER KORCHNAK: I’m getting a sense that documentation wasn’t part of your intent. What was?
JAN KEMPENAERS: I’m not really like a documentary photographer. And it was never my intention to make a real complete document.
If you’re on these spots, on these places, there is a certain kind of weird feeling. Most of them have this of aura, you can feel in a certain way that something happened there. It’s hard to describe with words. And this kind of feeling you’re living, you’re standing there, that’s what I try to capture in the images, by the angle, the light, the background. And so I created this kind of image and only one ultimate image of each monument, which captures this kind of feeling you have when you’re standing there on the spot at the monuments.
PETER KORCHNAK: Did you do any research about the monuments? You mentioned a map, some books…
JAN KEMPENAERS: Yeah, of course, I did a bit of research, but not really like complete one. That’s for other people, I think for story people or art historian people. So yeah, did I know more or less what’s happened on these places and also stories from the locals, because my friend could talk to them, they’re also interesting stories the local people are telling. Yeah, but I’m not like specialized in all the kind of details of all these monuments, of course.
PETER KORCHNAK: Which, if any, monument stood out for you in terms of that aura or feeling you were talking about earlier?
JAN KEMPENAERS: The one that was on the cover of the book. It’s a very special place to visit it, it’s enormous. It’s a very impressive monument, that I can say.
PETER KORCHNAK: On the cover of Jan’s book Spomenik is the monument to the 1943 battle of Sutjeska at Tjentište, Bosnia and Hercegovina. The 1971 monument consists of two white-concrete sideways-chevron-shaped walls jutting up into the air at sharp angles. Together with the adjacent structures, Sutjeska was one of the largest memorial complexes in Yugoslavia and it was certainly one of the most important and visited ones.
JAN KEMPENAERS: And also the Petrova Gora one, it was a museum before and it’s covered in stainless steel.
PETER KORCHNAK: The Monument to the Uprising of the People of Kordun and Banija at Petrova Gora, in Croatia, is a five-story tower with differently undulating layers enveloped in stainless steel panels.
JAN KEMPENAERS: So people [were] stealing the metal as scrap metal. So slowly, it went down and down, of course, And there are like some interesting stories from local people, why it’s in stainless steel, because there was a company producing knives and forks and they provided them for metal steel and so on and so on. So the local story from the local paper is quite interesting and you can’t read in books, of course.
PETER KORCHNAK: What was the response from the locals to your photographing of the monuments?
JAN KEMPENAERS: Yeah, I couldn’t really talk with them of course, because I’m not into Serbo-Croatian language. But afterwards, I also read some articles from like, local papers that said, Why is someone from from Belgium or from Europe, why are they coming here? And just doing the photographs of these monuments? Yeah, nobody over there is [sic] still interested in his monuments because they refer to the former regime. And some are even dynamited, or they steal the metal. So they’re not interested anymore? So they wonder[ed] why someone is interested in visiting them of course, yeah.
PETER KORCHNAK: Your work sparked worldwide interest, if not fascination with these monuments. How do you feel about starting this trend?
JAN KEMPENAERS: Before I photo’d [sic] them, I think nobody was interested in it. It’s great in a certain way that a lot of some serious research about it, wrote articles about it. They often ask me to send photographs for their research. It’s a good idea, I think. And I read a lot of interesting details I didn’t know before. So I think it’s great.
PETER KORCHNAK: So you feel like you can take credit for this?
JAN KEMPENAERS: No, it’s not that important for me.
PETER KORCHNAK: But you’re fine with your status as a pioneer.
JAN KEMPENAERS: Yeah, it’s fine.
PETER KORCHNAK: Aside from tourism, photos, research, films, and so forth that your work inspired, there have also been efforts to restore some of the neglected or damaged monuments.
JAN KEMPENAERS: Yeah, it should be good if they do some restoration on the monuments, but in a good sense, not just over painting. I think it would be great if they restore them and tell the story again, that would be a good idea, I think.
PETER KORCHNAK: In the eleven-thirteen years since you photographed these monuments, have you ever felt like revisiting the project? Adding to the body of work so to speak?
JAN KEMPENAERS: Yeah, it would be great to go once more and to have a look at the monuments I never visited. Yeah, it would be great to do actually.
Spomenik Photography: Jonk
PETER KORCHNAK: Aside from hundreds if not thousands of amateur photographers inspired by Kempenaers’s work, a handful of professionals have followed in his footsteps. Jonathan Jimenez, who goes by Jonk, was born in Paris in 1985, and I spoke to him right after he won first prize at Earth Photo 2020, an international photo competition organized by the Royal Geographical Society in the UK, with his Naturalia series, photographs of places where nature is reclaiming abandoned buildings. I want to know about his journey to photographing Yugoslav socialist monuments.
JONK: I started photography when I was around 10 years old, when my parents sent me to the United States, actually, to an exchange family to learn English. So see my English is not very good today, but well I’m French, so the comparison is very good with our French people but still it’s not perfect.
I took a small, you know, disposable camera, and this was my first one. And then I, they sent me every year for two weeks in a different family, different state. And every time I took some cameras with me, and these were my first pictures.
My real first photographic subject, it was a graffitis, street art, when I went to Barcelona for my first solo solo travel. And then I really found something that I wanted to continue shooting everywhere I went, so I bought a better camera and I started photographing street art in all my travels. And it’s actually this taste for street art [that] brought me to abandon places. Because graffiti artists they often go to abandoned places to paint and to be quiet and take the time to make bigger and better paintings. So I started to go to abandoned places to shoot some graffitis.
And actually, this is the starting point for the starting point for spomeniks because I traveled the world to photograph abandoned places. And one day I decided to go to the Balkans, to the former countries of Yugoslavia to shoot them on places. And when I made research to find some places to shoot during my trip, I encountered the spomeniks. I instantly fell in love with them. And so as I continued researching abandoned places but also spomeniks. So during my first trip I actually photographed almost as much [sic] spomeniks as abandoned places.
PETER KORCHNAK: Spomeniks is one Jonk’s five books, the others being Naturalia; Westlands, which is about graffiti in abandoned places; Baikonur, which features photos from the defunct Soviet cosmodrome; and Goodbye Lenin, which is about vestiges of the USSR in Eastern Europe. I’m curious about his process of photographing the Yugoslav monuments.
JONK: When I decide to go to a country to shoot abandoned places, I make hours or days of research on the internet to find places to shoot. And when I decided to go to Croatia, Serbia, or let’s say to former Yugoslavia, what I found the some casual abandoned places, factories, school, whatever. And as some of these monuments are abandoned, they just showed up in my research, and I realized there was a very, very strong places because some are just not monuments, some are places, so…
I dig a little bit more into them and I realized that there was a whole universe around these spomeniks. So I really try to start documenting on them. And I realized that I really had to, if I go to former Yugoslavia and I don’t shoot spomeniks, it would be it would have been a shame because they are such an interesting subject that I had to make more research to find more and to shoot some of them.
My first trip to former Yugoslavia, I shot around 20 monuments, and maybe 30 or 40 abandoned places, so those spomeniks they took a very important part of, of this first trip.
The first trip was in 2016. It was between two and two and three weeks, I think during this trip, I drove like five or 5,000 and something kilometers in all the countries in the area.
And then after, when I came back from this trip, I realized that what I saw with these spomeniks it was just fascinating, so I came back and I almost instantly started to make more research about them to find more monuments. And a year later, in 2017, I went back to the Balkans, and I made another big trip around 4,000 kilometers this time, same countries, and I shot around thirty monuments more.
So at the end, I had around 50 monuments and I decided I could make a book with these 50 monuments. So that’s how spomeniks was born, the book Spomeniks was born.
[COMMERCIAL INTERLUDE JINGLE]
PETER KORCHNAK: Hi there, it’s me, Peter Korchnak, the creator and producer of Remembering Yugoslavia, with a snapshot of the making of the podcast.
I interview people across the Balkans and beyond, do a great deal of research, writing, and recording, and when possible travel to the region like my guests today to bring you the stories of this podcast two to four times a month.
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Alright, back to spomenik photography.
[COMMERCIAL INTERLUDE JINGLE]
PETER KORCHNAK: So what is it about these monuments that fascinates you?
JONK: First, it was mostly the, let’s say, their physical aspect. Some of them they are just incredible to look at. They have some incredible shapes. But then when you dig a little bit more is also that the background that’s just… you have to investigate that as much as possible.
When you discover something that fascinates you and you know that you did not explore everything of it, you just want to– I know there are monuments in Serbia, in Bosnia that I did not shoot and that are just fabulous. So I just want to I just want to take pictures of them, to make research about them, to discover their history.
When you’re fascinated by something, and you know you can go deeper in it. Well, I’m a passionate person so I when something drive[s] me I want to I want to dive as much as possible inside. So I shot 50 of them, I’m really happy I shot those 50 monuments, but I know there are maybe 200 more.
PETER KORCHNAK: Tell me about the book itself.
JONK: First, as an introduction of the book, there is a few pages of contextualization. I talk about what are they, why are they here. And before each monument, when I could find the information because it was sometimes very hard to find information about them, I give the architect name, the year of completion, and some details about the symbolism, the history. For example, some monuments they are erected on the place of battles, on the place of concentration camps, on the place of some massacres. And I try to give as much information as I could find and sometimes there are [sic] a lot sometimes there are very few.
But at the end of the book I think you really you understand the history of the place, you know why they have been built.
PETER KORCHNAK: How did Jan Kempenaers’s work impact your own?
JONK: When I made research about spomeniks, of course, I run into, into in Jan Kempenaers pictures. I did not have the book, I just saw the pictures, then I saw the book and his work is is really about the aestheticism of the monuments. There is not really history or documentation. It’s really a very interesting work, very clean work, photographically speaking, let’s say. But what I wanted to do was really give the spomeniks more historical background and not just show [the] physical aspect, and I really wanted to dive a bit more into them and really talk about them and explain [to] people what they are and why they should not be seen only as beautiful structures but also stronger historical vestige.
PETER KORCHNAK: There are countless photos online, on social media, of these monuments. I’ve contributed a few myself, on my RememberingYugoslavia account on Instagram. What’s your take on this?
JONK: I see a lot of pictures every day about spomeniks, and 99 percent of the time people just show the place and there is not a word about what is it and why it’s there. Many times these monuments they are referred [to] as a futuristic or UFO-shaped or monument from outer space or monument from another planet or– and I think this is totally irrelevant and it’s really taking something for what it’s not.
When someone says that those monuments are futuristic, that I have no problem with that they’re actually somehow futuristic, but you cannot just stop there. Some are futuristically-shaped monuments, but you cannot just stop there, you need to say that they represent: the People’s Liberation War, they honor dead soldier[s] of the villages where they have been erected.
I hope that when people read my book, they realize that they learn something that they did not learn in the hundreds of posts they saw before.
PETER KORCHNAK: Did you draw on any local material, local knowledge in addition to your online research?
JONK: I tried to as much as possible to find local information or local people to talk to. It’s of course very, very hard because most of the monuments, they are in the middle of nowhere with nothing around. Most of the monuments, I did not see anyone around. Of course some of them are like almost touristical spot, like Petrova Gora, you cannot miss them it’s that was a big road leading to them. But some are really really remote and even with the GPS coordinates it’s quite hard to manage to find them. So only a few of them are among, you know, some memorial parks that are looked after or let’s say they are, well kept.
But on the 50 monuments of the book, maybe more than 40 they are just isolated and more or less abandoned in the middle of nowhere. So it was very hard to find information. That’s why some of the monuments I could not find anything but for most of them I could write a few things. But I did not rely on anything I could not confirm somewhere.
PETER KORCHNAK: Kempenaers’s book launched a phenomenon. How was your book received?
JONK: When it came out, I think, there was only the Kempenaers book right before it, I think there was only a few monuments, maybe 15 or 20 monuments in the book. So, mine was much more developed, let’s say, with much more text, ancient historic, background, and so on. So, I think it was well received.
All the people that told me that they were happy to be able to to discover an important part of Yugoslavia because these monument[s] they tell an important part of Yugoslavia, the resistance during World War Two. Everybody seemed happy to learn interesting things about an interesting part of history.
PETER KORCHNAK: Was there a monument that spoke to you more than others?
JONK: Gevgelija in Macedonia is some kind of flower-shaped monument all in metal and actually it has been really stripped away of its metal plate. So we now the the appearance is very particular and I really love that one because it was very very hard to reach and because it’s just amazing to look at this metallic structure that all stripped away and you can still see the shape of the flower.
PETER KORCHNAK: You mentioned you might want to keep this project going, photograph more monuments. What’s the plan?
JONK: I would love to really to go back to the former Yugoslavia and to shoot maybe 50 more monuments. I have a list of more than 50 already on my computer to to go there and shoot them but I don’t know when I will be able to find one month so again, twice, three weeks like I did for the first book. But I really I’m not done. I’m fascinated by these monuments. I do not see many things stronger than them in my life. So I really want to dig a bit further into them. But I just I don’t know where when I will be able to find time. It’s not so easy to drive 5,000 kilometers in the mountains of the Balkans.
I could go when we are allowed to travel again, I could go straight to Belgrade or Zagreb with a plane and take a car and make another five 5,000 kilometers trip. But if I do that, I will not go to Armenia which is supposed to be my next trip or Azerbaijan, which is supposed to be my next trip. You cannot travel all the time.
PETER KORCHNAK: When I was doing research on the monuments before traveling to former Yugoslavia for this project, I was shocked to discover I had missed Jan Kempenaers’s 2015 exhibition Spomenik at a downtown gallery in Portland, Oregon where I lived at the time. You can’t win them all, I suppose.
Photographs, as artistic or realistic or evocative as they may be, can’t come close to capturing the feeling you get when you stand at the site of some of the grandest Yugoslav monuments, that aura that comes from the site’s landscape, history, memory, creation, loneliness, forgetting… Whether you come prepared with historic and artistic background in your mind’s pocket or come blind and do the research later—and I’ve done both—you leave changed somehow and part of you stays behind. The power of some of these places, it both takes it out of you and it fills you with tragic, magnificent energy.
Of course, I can’t help but remark that the pioneering, the most enthusiastic, the most prolific photographers of Yugoslav socialist monuments are foreigners. The historical and geographic distance, the lack of lived experience in the region and the baggage that comes with it, the sheer otherness–all of this is what helps create their body of work and perhaps what makes for its good marketing. Look at these weird things, they’re awesome!
Sometimes it takes outsiders to pay attention to what we have for us to appreciate it too, I’ve heard it said in the region. That often seems to be the case with the WWII monuments. But, the media coverage, the documentaries, the academic and activist work, and so on that’s been happening over the last decade plus give me hope for the future of memory in former Yugoslavia.
PETER KORCHNAK: Next time on Remembering Yugoslavia.
MILENA DAMNJANIĆ: I truly believe that Yugoslavia was [an] inclusive country that celebrated diversity and that was built on really strong values, and that we should not be ashamed if we still have feelings for that country, despite all the bad things that did happen throughout its history.
PETER KORCHNAK: On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, three ex-Yugoslavs share their stories.
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PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, links, photos, and the transcript of this episode in the show notes at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
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I am Peter Korchňak.