Spomenici – A fine art photographer's dream
What are they?
In former Yugoslavian languages, Spomenici means monuments. For the sake of this article I will be referring to Spomenici as state built socialist monuments from former Yugoslavia and other neighbouring Balkan countries. Most of these monuments celebrate victories and battles over nazism/fascism and some are even ossuaries. While being the product of a regime, these monuments marked important historic events and dramas, as it is the case of Jasenovac, which marks the location and commemorates the victims of a big concentration camp, "the Auschwitz of the Balkans", where hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives in barbaric ways. During the socialist regime, these structures played also a very important social role. These were the places where families used to gather during public holidays and where children would go for school trips.
The architecture of Spomenici is often associated with the movement called "brutalism", where the term comes from Le Corbusier's reference to raw concrete. However, while most of the Spomenici are indeed built with concrete, their architecture has more a life of its own, where abstraction and futuristic elements dominate. Among the authors of the most fascinating Spomenici there are: the architect Bogdan Bogdanovic and the sculptors Dušan Džamonja and Miodrag Živković.
Bogdan Bogdanović (20 August 1922 − 18 June 2010) was a Serbian architect and Dean of the Faculty of Architecture in Belgrade. He fought as a partisan during World War II and has been also Mayor of Belgrade. When Slobodan Milošević rose to power and nationalism gained ground in Yugoslavia, Bogdanović became a dissident. Among the Spomenici developed by Bogdanovic there are: Jasenovac (HR), Prilep (MK), Mostar (BiH), Stip (MK), Mitrovica (KS), Cacak (SR), Bihac (BiH)…
Dušan Džamonja (31 January 1928 – 14 January 2009) was a Macedonian sculptor who worked on some of the most famous Spomenici like: Podgarić (HR), Kozara (BiH) and the Memorial Ossuary to the Fallen Yugoslav Soldiers in Barletta (Italy).
Miodrag Živković (1928) is a Montenegrin sculptor who worked also on some of the most famous Spomenici like: Tjentište (BiH), Priština (KS) and Kadinjaca (SR).
Why photographing Spomenici
I am not interested in engaging in a documentary exercise. I approach Spomenici from a fine art point of view. In this respect, with the exception of Marc Koegel, I claim to be the first fine art photographer who has applied a fine art approach to Spomenici in a systematic and comprehensive way. Sure you will find many photographs of Spomenici on the web, but that’s not fine art photography. Jan Kempenaers, a Belgium photographer, has the merit to have been the first photographer to document some of the main Spomenici after the latest Balkan wars and to collect them in a book, disclosing the existence of these structures. However, he used exclusively a documentary approach. As a fine art photographer, my aim is to take the whole subject to the next step. Spomenici are spread all over the territory of former Yugoslavia. While some don't exist anymore, as they were blown-up during the latest Balkan wars as symbols of the previous the regime, others are falling apart, taken over by nature, because of governments in denial of their past or in some cases due to lack of funds. However, some are looked after by the authorities as national monuments, as it is the case for Jasenovac (HR), Krusevo (MK) and Kadinijaca (SR). Artistically, Spomenici are an incredible basis of departure for abstraction and personal interpretations, which contribute to the revival of these mostly forgotten structures by attributing them new meanings. Recently, there has been an increase of interest in these structures mostly by alternative tourism. There are few tours on offer, mainly targeting "urban explorers" which would take you through a tour-de-force across the Balkans to see and take some snapshots of some of these structures. However, there is currently on offer only one fine photography Spomenici tour which would take you to some of the most remote locations and assist you with the necessary expertise. A Croatian film director, Irena Skoric, has recently presented a superb documentary on Spomenici called "Nezeljena Bastina". The Slovenian Primoz Smajdek has an impressive blog called Simboli Polpretekle Zgodovine (Symbols of recent history) where he documents the whereabouts of Spomenici throughout the Balkans. He has also a detailed collection of what I call minor Spomenici, smaller statutes, throughout Slovenia.
There is no space for politics in my photographs, as I deal with politics in my other professional life. However, as other artists, I like to provoke. My images of Spomenici are in no way a political statement. My photographs are politically agnostic. I am not doing photo photojournalism anymore. I think that in this time of "photographic anarchy", where everybody take pictures with a mobile phone and send them viral on the web in a matter of seconds, photography has ceased to be a safeguard of reality. I love the aesthetics of Spomenici, which inspire me to take them to a new dimension through my artistic interpretation.
Some of the most fascinating Spomenici
It would be very difficult to just pick one, but if I had to, it would be Podgaric (HR). It is dedicated to the people of Moslavina who fought and died during WWII and it was developed by the sculptor Dušan Džamonja. It is one of the most wired, futuristic structure with a style that would suit the 70's UFO hysteria. The monument is still in pretty good shape but it doesn't look like that somebody is taking care of it.
The Makedonium (Ilinden), in Krusevo, is the most beautiful Spomenik in Macedonia. Authors are Jordan and Iskra Grabuloska. It was officially opened in 1974, on the 30th anniversary of the Second Session of the Anti-fascist Assembly for the National Liberation of Macedonia and the 71st anniversary of the Ilinden uprising. The authorities take very well care of it.
Petrova Gora (HR) is dedicated to the uprising of the people of Kordun and Banija. It is located in Petrovac, the highest peak of Petrova Gora mountain range. It is falling apart and is being progressively looted of its metal panels.
Tijentiste (BiH) commemorates the 1943 Battle of Sutjeska and was developed by the sculptor Miodrag Živković. It is abandoned to the elements but due to its massive size is resisting well the signs of time.
Banj Brdo (BiH) commemorates the fallen soldiers of Kraijna and was developed by the Croatian sculptor Antun Augustinic. It is on top of a hill, not far away from the centre of Banja Luka. It still plays its social role, with people walking or cycling up to the monument. The authorities take care of it.
Jasenovac (CRO) is built on the location of a former concentration camp, known as "the Auschwitz of the Balkans", where hundreds of thousands of people were reported to have died. The authorities take care of it. It was conceptualized by Bogdan Bogdanovic.
Kadinjaca (SR) is a memorial complex to the Workers Battalion of Uzice Partisan Detachment who were killed in the battle of Kadinjača. It is a huge site, with several structures, which still plays its social role by attracting tourists and local citizens during the week-end. It is well maintained by the authorities. Authors were the sculptor Miodrag Živković and the architect Aleksandar Đokić. The memorial complex was officially opened by the Yugoslav President Tito on 23 September 1979.
Buzludzha (BG) is the most important Balkan Spomenik outside of the former Yugoslavia. It is massive. It was the house-monument of the former Bulgarian communist party commemorating the events of 1891 that led to the founding of the Bulgarian social democratic party, a forerunner of the communist party. It's located on the top of a mountain in the middle of Bulgaria and it has become a place of pilgrimage for urban explorers. The monument is snow sealed, as it is in danger of collapsing, but people often find ways to sneak in.
Among those that do not exist anymore
Monument to Stjepan Filipović, Opuzen (HR). Filipović was a Croat commander of the Partisans' Tamnavsko-Kolubarski unit in Valjevo (SR). He was captured on 24 February 1942 by Axis forces and hanged on 27 May 1942. As the rope was put around his neck, he defiantly thrust his hands out and shouted "smrt fašizmu, sloboda narodu!” (death to fascism, freedom to the people). In that fraction of a second, a photograph was taken from which the statue was cast. The monument was blown up in 1991.
Makljen (BiH) commemorated the battle of Neretva. It was blown up by vandals in 2000.
Bijeli Potoci (HR) was looted during the latest Balkan wars
For more fine art photographs of Spomenici please visit my website http://www.giuliozanni.com/p566783243
If you are interested to attend the first fine art photography exhibition of Spomenici please see below:
If you are interested in joining myself and Marc Koegel for a fine art photography Spomenici tour please contact me
Warning: if you decide to visit some of the Spomenici in Bosnia-Herzegovina or in areas bordering with BiH please remember that these areas are still heavily mined. Stay on hard surfaces and don't walk out of beaten paths.
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