Photo: Jan Kempenaers

Features spomeniks symbolism gone for good?

Spomeniks are monuments commemorating the World War  II dot the landscape: gigantic futuristic creations that in some cases have been spared destruction.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds pages 40-42, December, BW 4:2011
Published on on January 16, 2012

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“What I felt when I saw one of the monuments for the very first time — that’s the feeling I have tried to capture in my photographs. It’s quite something”, says Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers. He traveled extensively through the Balkans in 2006 and 2007 to photograph a great number of striking monuments, called Spomeniks, using a 1975 map of memorials as a guide. The result is a series of captivating photos collected in the book Spomenik.

There used to be hundreds of them, scattered all over Yugoslavia. The Spomeniks were monuments commissioned by former Yugoslavian president Josip Broz Tito during the 1960s and ’70s to commemorate the Second World War. The striking sculptures, most of them built in reinforced concrete, were designed in a futuristic, brutalist style by different sculptors and architects. The monuments were erected on sites where battles had taken place, where concentration camps had stood, or adjacent to war cemeteries. Their impressive grandeur also symbolized the new unity of all the southern Slavs. (The name Yugoslavia in fact comes from the word for south, jug, and the word for Slav, slaveni.)
Unlike the average war memorials of Eastern Europe, the Spomeniks are non-figurative, abstract sculptures, not busts of heroic leaders or patriotic workers.

After Yugoslavia dissolved in the early 1990s, the monuments were abandoned. Many of them were destroyed on purpose during the war; the rest were left to crumble, their symbolism lost and unwanted.

These often-breathtaking monuments are, to a surprising degree, unknown to people outside the region. Jan Kempenaers first came across the Spomeniks by pure chance while he was taking photos in Sarajevo just after the war.

“On rainy days, I would spend time in the library. One day, I was looking through an encyclopedia and came across photos of some of the monuments. I made some photocopies, filed them away, and then forgot about them. Years later I found the photocopies and decided to go see the monuments.”

The Spomeniks attracted millions of visitors through the 1980s, many of them school children who visited the monuments as a part of their patriotic education, others war veterans and grieving relatives who had lost loved ones during the war. Today, they are rarely visited at all.

“The locals are not interested in them. To the older people I guess they symbolize the previous regime. They just want to forget them. They don’t see the quality of them”, says Jan Kempenaers.

He photographed a great number of Spomeniks during his journeys, and then picked the ones he liked the most to appear in the book. His favorite is the massive monument on the cover of the book, situated in Tjentište in Sutjeska Valley in eastern Bosnia. It commemorates the Battle of the Sutjeska, which took place between May 15 and June 16, 1943. The goal of the attack by the Axis forces was to eliminate the central Yugoslav Partisan formations and capture their commander, Josip Broz Tito. The failure of the offensive marked a turning point for Yugoslavia during the Second World War. Over 6,000 partisans and 2,000 civilians were killed in the battle.

“Awful things happened there. The Axis troops killed all partisans who could not escape, including a complete hospital”, says Jan Kempenaers.

The monuments are often situated in pristine countryside locations, and Jan Kempenaers has chosen to capture them in misty weather, sky always overcast, or at sundown.

“A nice blue sky makes it an image that refers to exotic places, like in a travel magazine. I don’t like that. If the weather was too good I wouldn’t stay, or I would take photos at night to get the right atmosphere. I want the photo to show the whole thing, with no shadows”, he explains.

His mission was not that of a documentary photographer, but of an artist. He did extensive research and learned a lot about the history behind the monuments, but his aim was not merely to document them.

“My main concern is making interesting images. I only photographed the ones that I liked, the ones with an interesting shape.”

Prior to the Spomenik project, Antwerp-based photographer Jan Kempenaers mainly focused on portraying urban landscapes, in large-scale detailed photos. The Spomeniks got him interested in abstract art, and recently he has been experimenting in abstract photography. The project also raised questions about how we see monumental sculptures.

“I asked myself, ‘Can these monuments be seen as pure sculptures now, without the symbolism they represented when they were built?’”

Jan Kempenaers’ photos of the Spomeniks have gone viral on the Internet, attracting lots of attention from people all over the world. He has exhibited the photos in Belgium, New York, France, and Amsterdam — but so far not in any of the countries of former Yugoslavia.

“Maybe some people would be interested, but I don’t know … It is still complicated. The monuments refer to bringing together the different ethnic groups of the region, and obviously that is a very difficult question now after the war. Older people see these monuments as a symbol of something they would rather forget. Young people are just not interested.”

The reactions after a Croatian architecture magazine and a local newspaper wrote about his photos are telling:

“People who commented on the articles said, ‘That must be a very weird guy, to come all the way here to photograph these old monuments’”, he says with a laugh.≈

Note: Jan Kempenaers has been affiliated with the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, University College, Ghent, since 2006, and is doing a PhD in the visual arts about picturesque landscapes. His books Picturesque (2012, Roma Publications) and Spomenik (2010, Roma Publications) present the results of his ongoing artistic research. His books can be ordered from .
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