Jasenovac monument by Bogdan Bogdanović. PHOTO: CECILIA SJÖHOLM

Jasenovac monument by Bogdan Bogdanović. PHOTO: CECILIA SJÖHOLM

Okategoriserade Introduction. The politics of aesthetic historicizations and memory culture in former Yugoslavia Theme: Monuments, new arts, and new narratives

This special section in Baltic Worlds is the result of a workshop engaging with the politics of aesthetic historicizations, through the grid of the monument.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2023:4, p 31-33
Published on balticworlds.com on December 11, 2023

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This is an introduction to the theme in the printed journal 2023:4, “Monuments, new arts and news narratives” with guest editor Cecilia Sjöholm>>.

The rise of rightwing populism, authoritarianism and even fascism is redrawing the map of relations between memorial culture and politics. The spheres of cultural representation, memory and heritage are being subjected to new forms of politicization, a development which in turn has engaged new critical perspectives in philosophy and theory, as well as contemporary art. Disputing simplified notions of nationalism and heroism, as well as the symbolisms of identification, alternate forms of memory culture are developing, beyond the state apparatus of official commemoration. Moreover, new forms of understanding are throwing light on new aspects of the status of memory culture, its form and its impact.

This special section in Baltic Worlds is the result of a workshop engaging with the politics of aesthetic historicizations, through the grid of the monument. Organized by the research project Distrusting Monuments. Art and the War in Former Yugoslavia, it has a special focus on memory culture in former Yugoslavia, but deals also with issues of the monument at large. What does it mean to remember, what does it mean to forget? What are the tools used by nationalist memory cultures? And what concepts, aesthetic expressions and forms of understanding may we use in order to counteract revisionist tendencies in rightwing populism and authoritarian ideologies?

In recent times, the conflict between the scene of contemporary art and older, nationalist memorial culture has become increasingly intense, not least in the Black Lives Matter movement. In Europe, a similar process has been ongoing, offering a critical perspective on an official history often embodied by monuments of heroism, nationalism and unity.

Given the revisionist strategies of authoritarian ideologies, which entail coopting the past for political purposes, an engagement with what should be remembered and how through other and different perspectives is necessary. Memory culture is often regarded as something that produces a sense of stability in times of instability, creating permanence in times of flux, and a sense of belonging for collectives in need of healing. Such definitions, however, tend to miss out on complex questions about the many dimensions that historical sites may contain, such as the simultaneous existence of narratives and counternarratives.

In recent times, the interaction between the scene of contemporary art and memorial culture has become increasingly intense; monuments have been destroyed, or altered, and new ones have been created. Black Lives Matter has become a symbol for a global tendency in which the relation between representation, memory, and the writing of history has become an intensely debated matter of contention. In the region of former Yugoslavia, this is something that has engaged scholars, activists, and artists ever since the end of the war. During the last few years there has been an increase of debates and protests, exhibitions and art works that involve themselves in the topic. Protesting outdated models, the scene of contemporary art has pointed to the fact that the writing of history is a process in flux, and an issue that includes several components: political and ideological perspectives as well as aesthetic means. Commemorative projects and works of memorial culture should be seen as something open-ended and in need of constant reevaluation. As such, it may be showing and producing an array of productive practices and tools, not least when it comes to the way in which the reactivation of memory and the re-appropriation of an antifascist past and heritage may counter authoritarian revisionist attempts today.

The process of historicizing the wars in former Yugoslavia, from the First World War to the Second, and finally into the ethnic wars of the 1990s which meant the breakup of the state of Yugoslavia, is still ongoing in the region. This, in turn, a deeper look into the relation between memory, history, politics, and aesthetics. There is a direct link between the ethnic wars of the 1990s in Yugoslavia and the rise of a right-wing authoritarian or neofascist movement today. The wars in the 1990s dismantled or erased the antifascist legacy from the second world war, removed monuments, burned books, changed street names, revised histories, and ultimately denied genocides — a denial that is still ongoing.

At stake in the memory wars is thus the future of the region, between the ends of a heavy nationalist weight on the one hand and past transnational idea of solidarity on the other. The question of what we are to remember, and how, has come to involve a wide array of agents, materials, and forms of expressions, rather than just state funded memorials and museums. Activists, artist groups, and organizations return to the memory and history of the war today,

The visual historicizations and the alternative modes of writing history transcend the distinction between regional and transnational. Therefore, this issue of Baltic Worlds also moves beyond the region of former Yugoslavia. Given the ongoing dramatic shifts that surround memorials around the world, it addresses the “memorialization of culture” and calls into question received narratives of history, disputing simplified notions of nationalism and heroism, as well as symbolisms of identification and belonging. The aesthetic forms and narrative means of art allow for the production of a new kind of memory culture, as well as for a new kind of understanding of how we are to conceive of what is to count as memory culture, in order to address complex issues of their uses today.

The internationally successful Yugoslavian avant-garde, flourishing in periods during the “golden age” from the 1950s through the 80s, started a tradition of pitting critical art against state monuments. As mentioned, this theme section in Baltic Worlds has its origin in a research project called Distrusting Monuments. The title is drawn from Dušan Makavejev’s famous 1958 film, Monuments should not be trusted. The film itself is part of the Yugoslav avant-garde which questioned “official” history writing and opened a path towards radical experimentation through conceptual art, experimental film and performances at the margins of an official cultural infrastructure. This critical tradition has been consciously incorporated into the scene of contemporary art and memory activism in Post-Yugoslavia.

The first article in this issue, authored by Cecilia Sjöholm, “Animating brutalism: cinematic renderings of Yugoslav monuments”, discusses contemporary films that are dedicated to the extraordinary so-called anti-fascist monuments left in the landscape in all of former Yugoslavia. Sjöholm analyses the way the films treat the monuments as characters of the landscape, with a history that stretches beyond the significance of the events to which they were erected. Whereas such renderings can be seen as a way of “emptying” the works of their local and regional significance, the Anthropocene aesthetic of monuments such as that at Petrova Gora (Monument to the Uprising of the People of Kordun and Banija) can also be seen to create the possibility of a new kind of understanding, where ecological concerns merge with historical ones .

In her article “Presence of Absence. Recognizing the Missing and the Mass
Graves in Bosnia-Herzegovina”, Johanna Mannergren Selimovic writes about the memory work ongoing in the region as part of an elaboration of a war that, long after it has ended, is still surrounded by rumors, secrets and lies. Using the concept of “unquiet bodies”, Mannergren, who argues for the importance of finding a place and space for mourning, presents case studies of the role played by the ongoing process of finding bones and body parts as traces of war crimes in the antagonistic struggles between revisionists and other political actors.

Gal Kirn, in turn, addresses the ecological dimension in partisan art as a dimension of resistance. In his “Partisan ecology in the Yugoslav liberation and antifascist art”, he reads an array of artworks that juxtapose humans, animals and nature, pointing towards a new, emerging solidarity. In poems, short stories, drawings and graphic art material, the forest becomes a site of resistance, Diverse animals are not simply allegorical but rather »comrades« in the struggle, mobilizing nature in their fight against fascism, together with a practice of non-extractivist relation to nature that could be read in the more general lineage of the struggle to decolonize nature in contemporary culture.

Rebecka katz Thor’s “Concepts of Monumental Time” discusses the way in which monuments have changed in meaning and impact over the last few decades. Ever since James Young coined the term “counter-monument”, the ways in which appearance and memory are joined have been conceptualized in new ways. Not only does a counter-monument make memory work possible: it may also defy ideologies such as fascism through its very existence. Today, monuments have been seen to develop into “post-monuments”, defined in Thor´s article as monuments that are directed towards neither nation building nor defiance, but rather a structural wrongdoing in the past that society has not come to terms with.

Memory work — or, in contrast, the impossibility of memory work — can be demonstrated also to have a place in literature, the aesthetic genre that in many ways is the most appropriate one for dealing with “memory in the negative” as Tora Labe calls it. Dealing with exile as a position from which memory work becomes something quite different from a nationalist stance, she addresses a condition where “estrangement is everywhere – in the present and in the past, and in the West and in the East.” What happens with memory, Lane asks in her discussion of Dubravka Ugresic, among other novelists, in a condition where countries such as Socialist Yugoslavia no longer exist? Can there even be a memory culture when the present is disinclined to see a meaning in what was honored in the past?

Returning to the proper meaning of the research project inviting articles for this issue: “Distrusting Monuments”, Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen returns to the same era as Yugoslav modernism but depicts the defiance of monumentality from the perspective of an art movement in Western Europe: the Situationists. To the Situationist International, monuments signified a ruling order of political and economic forms of domination in what they called the “society of the spectacle.” Bringing monuments down, or distorting them, the Situationists targeted the political imaginary of images through actions that today in many ways seem prophetic with regard to how images and monuments serve, or defy, political and economic orders today.

With Mladen Dolar’s article, finally, we return to the core issue that is often connected to monuments: that of nationalism. In “Nation and Narration”, Dolar shows how nationalism is always a product of myth and fiction. The question is how, and whether, we can disentangle real communities from imagined ones. To Dolar, this is a task which, in the case of Slovenia, appears to have surprising results. Rather then be at one with a certain narrative of continuity, what can today be called a Slovenian national identity has been formed as a series of breaks with an idea of what has been considered “authentic”; in works of literature and theater as well as in politics. National identity is never something that can be determined by state powers or political ideologies: it is rather something that is formed by, as Dolar says, a “risky and contradictory process with uncertain outcome.”

In this way, the current theme section in Baltic Words throws light on the condition of memory culture in former Yugoslavia through a variety of points of view and materials: dealing with its monuments, its literature, its art and its historical legacy, as put in perspective through other geographical places and cultural positions. By no means exhaustive of possible angles, the issue gives a few suggestions of how memory work in this specific region in the world can be approached.

Note: The project “Distrusting Monuments” (https://blogg.sh.se/distrustingmonuments/) is funded by the Foundation for Baltic and East European Studies.

  • by Cecilia Sjöholm

    Professor of Aesthetics at Södertörn University and project leader of the research project Distrusting Monuments. Art and the war in Former Yugoslavia (funded by the Baltic and East European Studies Foundation). She studies the relation between art and politics in contemporary culture. She has published extensively on art, psychoanalysis and critical theory.

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