Speaking of Time: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Framing Yugoslavia’s Spomenik Post ’89

Yasmin Nurming-Por

Since my research trip to the former Yugoslavia in 2012, I have been haunted by the experience of monuments.  During my time in the former republics, I had the opportunity to visit two of 25 monuments (spomenik): one in Podgaric (Fig.1) just outside of Zagreb in Croatia, and one in Ilirska Bistrica (Fig. 2) close to Piran, in Slovenia. As a partial descendant of Yugoslavia (my heritage is Slovenian and Estonian) these ghosts—stories about Yugoslavia—are not entirely unfamiliar. Having had the chance to visit these sites I was not only able to experience the phenomenological function of these spaces, but furthermore the affective sense of time, accrual, and location that is only possible through being present.  Online images of these monuments are readily available, but given the context of the spomenik as site-specific documents of socialist dreams and traumas, it is necessary to disclose that the photographs, and the experiences described are my own.

Commissioned by Josip Broz Tito during the late 1960s and early 70s as site-specific Yugoslavian monuments to the Second World War, there are approximately 25 of these spomenik remaining. Given the contemporary hunger and interest in “self historicization,”[1] it is worthwhile reflecting on why these monuments have been left to weather. Constructed during the political height of Yugoslavia to commemorate the traumas of war, and remaining in cultural consciousness through the nation’s crumble in the 1980s and 90s, it is important to consider how the affect of high and low times, or, in this case, perhaps better articulated as the traumatic return in the Freudian sense, may contribute to the desire to either remember or elide prosperous moments in history. As such, I assert that the spomenik are monuments to a failed socialist dream and sense of collectivism that is within the context of (and a Derridean paragon to[2]) the contemporary division or “cutting”[3] of the former Yugoslavia into independent nations. Taking Yugoslavia as a phenomenon of socialist politics, I argue that these site-specific monuments constructed during the height of Tito’s Yugoslavia engage an alternative sense of time or, vis-à-vis Roland Barthes, a sense of anterior futurity[4]. Collectively the concepts of traumatic return, spacing, dividing and forthcoming may elucidate a different kind of thinking on what a monument constitutes, as more than a materialization of what has come to pass.

Before looking at the spomenik themselves it is important to elucidate the historical context and language in which they were constructed. The Yalta Conference between the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union took place in February 1945, following the end of the Second World War. This conference functioned to divide Europe into postwar territories, where Yugoslavia was recognized as an independent system of republics. Following Yalta, Yugoslavia instated a system of self-managing socialism theorized by Edvard Kardlej that utilized Basic Organization of Associated Labour (BOAL) as its framework[5]. BOAL functioned to serve regional interests with their own bureaucratic structures, with “democratic”[6] election of individuals to official positions, who then reported to the head of state in Belgrade, Serbia. As the official language, Serbo-Croatian[7] was taught in schools up until the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Although each republic had its own dialects and vernaculars, Serbo-Croatian structured common forms of expression and articulation among the various ethnicities. Etymologically, spomenik is the general Serbo-Croatian term for monument, the root spomin meaning memory. It is important here to emphasize the relationship between landscape and language, and the way in which the possession of land dictates the institutionalization of language. While each former republic now has its own language (if not multiple languages) and many words have shifted toward a regional vernacular use, spomenik has maintained its meaning.

The process of finding these monuments is not an easy one; they are not on maps, there are often no road signs leading to them and the road turns-offs are easy to miss, suggesting, perhaps, that they do not want to be found. Upon arriving at the monument at Podgaric (Fig 1.), I was struck by the use of landscaping and concrete masonry that construct a photographic frame leading from the entrance to the monument, a kind of visual and bodily thrust toward the monumental object itself. Walking up a set of stairs and through a concrete entrance leads to a large asymmetrical aluminum and concrete structure, with three wings on one side and two on the other. The circular middle is constructed out of concrete and inlayed aluminum panels which upon closer examination reveal signs of decay and disrepair.  Once at the monument, I was overwhelmed by an imaginative awareness of the landscape, the system of rolling hills and forest seducing me into appropriated memories of soldiers battling for terrain.

Designed by Dušan Džamonja in 1967, the monument is to the people of Moslavina, which is a specific region of Croatia, and to the 900 lives lost to fighting in this area. From the hilltop panoptical perch of the monuments anyone visiting is incorporated not only into the monument’s space, but also into the memory of the event itself, and the historical ritual of visitation. The abstraction or perhaps denial of figuration or iconography by the spomenik’s design does not limit its interpretation to specific vernaculars. The decision to not construct a monument with a stereotypical socialist form should not be overlooked. Evidently, the missing figure is consistent with a sense of cultural flux and the unidentifiablitity of a fixed Yugoslavian. As such, the figures that once frequented the monument were necessary to complete the puzzle. Below the monument now is a little isolated resort, which provides an exception to the primary use of the hills, which is to let sheep graze amongst scarce human settlement. The now unremarkable use of this land (or perhaps the elision of its markedness) returns it to what it would have resembled prior to warfare, and relegates the monument to an atrophying distant past.

(Fig. 1) Monument to the peoples of Monslavia, 2012. Podgaric, Croatia. Image courtesy Yasmin Nurming-Por.

What a visit to the monument at Podgaric reifies is a process form of framing of the monument via concrete construction and the landscape, not often revealed in photographic documentation. Walking from the parking lot through the constructed tunnel leads to an aggressive confrontation, visually and temporally, with the materiality of the large sculpture rather than with its iconography.  On the sides of the walkway to the monument are landscaped ridges which act as a didactic for movement around and engagement with the structure. By the time you arrive at the monument it is nearly impossible to avoid being struck by the sublime nature of its scale, as the height of most visitors would be equivalent to the bottom of its plinth.

The spomenik at Ilirska Bistrica is similarly set atop a hill: the Hrib Svobode, or ‘freedom hill’ in Slovenian. Commissioned in 1965, it was completed by an architect by the name of Baraga.[8] This monument overlooks the small town of Illirska Bistrica, a highly populated area of southern Slovenia. Here, unlike the monument at Podgaric, the walk up the hill, through the woods, forms the initial phenomenological engagement with the monument’s space. While climbing the hill, the monument reveals itself slowly, until one arrives directly in front of the concrete structure that is nestled into the ground, the hollow columns and vaulting resembling stalagmites in the noted nearby caves of Postojna and Škocjan. Continuous with the motif of abstraction, these columns could also be seen as part of the cavernous human body: as muscle tissues holding the body together. Further examination of the columns reveals a strange construction—each are built from the bottom up in small sections, leaving visual imperfections and structural inconsistencies that take the form of leaning and shapeliness rather than linearity. Not constructed using casts, each column is different, much like the form stalagmites take through the accrual of time. The assertion of this natural phenomenon of the local caves is repeated through the nuanced differences in the columns, again asserting a relationship to time, and geographic specificity. Postulating on the literal grounding of this spomenik generates a fruitful connection between the supportive structures of the ground and the support structures within the body.

(Fig. 2) Monument on Freedom Hill, 2012. Illirska Bistrica, Slovenia. Image courtesy Yasmin Nurming-Por.

Unlike the monument at Podgaric the monument at Illirska Bistrica (Fig.2) does not have a specific battle dedication, or loss of life memorialized.  Yet, it would have been in hills with surrounding forests similar to the this one that the Partisans fought dissidents from the future nation of Yugoslavia at the end of the Second World War. This monument, through echoing of natural phenomenon, and through that natural phenomenon’s direct relationship to time and slow accrual functions to embed the dream of socialism into the landscape, time, and memory. Visiting the monument and becoming absorbed in attempting to digest its visual cues (possibly opaque to someone unfamiliar with them) which are tied to a sense of timelessness, communicates a sense of community and of time that is outside the immediate future.

Following the wars of the 1990s the emphasis that was placed upon the Yugoslavian community was to aggressively transition towards competition for nationalistic success, easily evidenced by the race for entrance into the European Union and Schengen borders. As such, the ritual of coming together and the narrative of shared history materialized by the spomenik are no longer desired, being elided or deemed relevant by newer traumas and histories. These former sites of pilgrimage no longer articulate their stories. It is this sense of community, and furthermore a way of relating to one another, that was obliterated during the wars in the 1980s and 90s.  It was at this point that the disintegration of the state resulted in warfare that divided Yugoslavia into the republics and their respective independent forms. Subsequently, the Slovenian war (1991), the Croatian war (1991-1995), the Bosnian war (1992-1995) and the Kosovo war (1998-1999) separated each republic from the head of state in Serbia. The loss of the possibilities that the spomenik allude to, formalized in the context of economic and regional policies, provide a most haunting trauma.

Accepting the double entendre of trauma—its etymology in the German word for wound on the body, and the Freudian psychoanalytic wound to the unconscious[9]—the apparition becomes transgenerational[10] in nature. This traumatic experience and its relief, witnessed in the first collapse of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia during the Second World War, the subsequent civil wars that formed the second Yugoslavia, which collapsed in a series of regional wars in the 80s and 90s create a double exigency. Contrary to Freud’s discussion of the fort-da game, in which loss is conditioned by knowledge of a return, the formation of the former republics is no longer conditioned by the return of a Yugoslavian community.

The construction of subsequent independent nations has taken on more than the form of new constitutions and economic restructuring, and is further exemplified by the process of historicization. In the context of historicizing socio-political and aesthetic practices, the Ljubljana-based project ArtEast2000+ attempts to bridge east and west dialogues.  It does so through a selective process of curating art works but also ideologies. Furthermore the expansive exhibition of the practices of Laibach, NSK, IRWIN, and New Art Practices Croatia (to name a few) have functioned to publicize “Yugoslavian” practices within western Europe and the United States. These projects align with the aesthetics of punk rock, institutional critique, and conceptual art that hold strong discursive practices within the so-called west. Subsequently, it is implied that the spomenik—as state funded projects—correspond to the philistinism of “socialist modernism or socialist aestheticism.”[11]

Norwegian photographer Jan Kempaners completed a project between 2006-2009[12] in which he visited and photographed the 25 spomenik. However, his lack of historical analysis leads to a portrayal of the structures as static objects. In comparison with my own documentary photographs of the spomenik, the process of photographic editing is self-evident, which suggests that Kempaners photographs are aesthetic objects themselves, rather than documents of these monuments. As such, I have only written about the monuments I have witnessed, whose fidelity to history I feel akin to.

Similarly, contemporary Croatian artist David Maljkovic, who creates video-based projects on the sites of the spomenik, “started thematizing the cultural heritage of socialist modernism or socialist aestheticism in Yugoslavia from the personal memory (which was at the same time was part of the collective memory of his generation) of visiting Vojin Bakic in Pertrova Gora from 1970-1981.” [13] What both of these art practices fail to acknowledge is the intersection of personal memory and documentation with the socialist projects of ritual and community. Both Kempaner’s and Maljkovic’s restructuring entails reading the spomenik as static objects that are unable to speak to the present without being reframed by a contemporary artist.

Collectively these practices render advocacy of the Yugoslavian dream in any contemporary discourse or the possibility for collectivism in collective memory impossible.  The monuments effectively enter into this discourse of standing reserve for obsolete ritual and memory. Interviewed in 2008, while living in exile in Vienna, spomenik architect Bogdan Bogdanovic stated that, “above all, the majority of my monuments were in honor of the victims, not victors.”[14] These monuments are not located in large urban centres, in areas of commerce, or of military use but rather in isolated locations often hard to access, at the sites of former battles, or in the location of the ethnicities they commemorate. Largely composed of concrete and aluminum, the futuristic monuments are set atop hillsides, panoptically gazing at their surrounding landscapes.

These monuments were constructed during what is considered to be the “high” time of Yugoslavia.  I have heard several people recount stories of visiting these monuments on school trips and with their families.  What I have tried to suggest, throughout my examination of their historical context, the politics of memory and the way in which trauma both forms and undoes community is that these monuments offer an entirely different relationship to time than that of other forms of either socialism or capitalism. This relationship is conditioned by notions of shared ritual and labour, rather than capital and is based upon affect.  Again, I wish to propose that these monuments engage with ideas of anterior futurity—the always never/coming—of community. In that way they are similarly a paragon, neither temporally fixed nor entirely transient.  In this specific case this shift, or sense of forthcoming, takes place in the memory of the past in the form of living monuments that are outside of the “past past” but rather the past future. In returning to Freud’s description of the fort-da, loss is always conditioned by return; this is indeed the contingency that these monuments operate within. Thought of as Tito’s and partisan monuments, there is no longer this messianic figure to anticipate, since there is no longer any waiting for Tito. However, problematizing the distinction of ‘Titoist’ monuments asserts that yes, these monuments are about  partisan victors and victims, but they are furthermore about a collective community that built them. Viewed through this lens, the use of a socialist aesthetic might be thought as a form of subjective abstraction that is dependent on the participation of visitation. This means, of course, that I have also become part of their project, my body as part of the puzzle. These spomenik remain within time, within its slow accrual, tiredly leaning and patiently waiting.

[1] Zdenka Badovinac, interview by ARTMARGINSONLINE, Creating Context: Zdenka Badovinac on Easter Europe’s Missing Histories. http://www.artmargins.com/index.php/5-interviews/497-creating-context-zdenka-badovinac-on-eastern-europes-missing-histories-interview, August 30, 2009.
[2] paragon
[3] Elizabeth Grosz, Chaos, Territory, Art Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008)
[4] I use this term in the context of Roland Barthes’ discussion of the noeme of photography; namely the this has been, and this always will have been. I am engaging this notion outside of the medium of photography, using it to describe a more general sense of time and messianic anticipation. See: Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida. Trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980), 95-98.
[5] For more on this please see Michael Howard ‘Market Socialism and Political Pluralism: Theoretical Reflections on Yugoslavia.’ Studies in Eastern European Thought, Vol. 53, No. 4 (2001), 307-328.
[6] There are regular allegations of corruption in association with the BOALs
[7] Historian John Lampe elucidates the debate of terming the language Serbo-Croatian vs Croat-Serbian. John Lampe, Yugoslavia as History, Twice There was a Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 236.
[8] Other than my own documentary photograph of the accreditation on the monument I currently cannot find more information on this specific architect. Baraga is a common Slovenian last name.
[9] Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experiences (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 2001), 3.
[10] Dominick La Capra, Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 2001), 39.
[11] Zoran Eric, “Examples of (post) conceptual art practice in a (post) socialist (ex) Yugoslavia.” In Rearview Mirror: New Art from Central & Eastern Europe, ed. Christopher Eamon (Toronto: Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, 2011), 31.
[12] Please visit artist website as is listed in the bibliography.
[13] Zoran Eric, ‘Examples of (post) conceptual art practice in a (post) socialist (ex) Yugoslavia.’ In Rearview Mirror: New Art from Central & Eastern Europe, ed. Christopher Eamon (Toronto: Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, 2011), 31.
[14] Bogdan Bogdanovic, Alexandre Mirlesse, ‘Interview with Bogdan Bogdanovic,’ Rencontre Européenne, No. 7 (2008): 6.

Badovinac, Zdenka. ARTMARGINSONLINE. Creating Context: Zdenka Badovinac on Eastern Europe’s Missing Histories. http://www.artmargins.com/index.php/5-interviews/497-creating-context-zdenka-badovinac-on-eastern-europes-missing-histories-interview. August 30, 2009.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Translated by Richard Howard. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980).

Bogdanovic, Bogdan, Alexandre Mirlesse. ‘Interview with Bogdan Bogdanovic.’ Rencontre Européenne, No. 7 (2008): 1-12.

Caruth, Cathy. Trauma: Exploration in Memory. (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1995).

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience. (Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1996).

Eric, Zoran. ‘Examples of (post) conceptual art practice in a (post) socialist (ex) Yugoslavia.’ In Rearview Mirror: New Art from Central & Eastern Europe. Edited by Christopher Eamon. (Toronto: Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, 2011).

Erikson, Kai. ‘Notes on Trauma and Community.’ In Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Edited by Cathy Caruth. (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1995).

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond The Pleasure Principle trans James Strachey. (London: Norton & Company Inc, 1961).

Grosz, Elizabeth. Chaos, Territory, Art Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

Guilbaut, Serge. ‘The New Adventures of the Avant-Garde in America’ Greenberg, Pollock, or from Trotskyism to the New Liberalism of the “Vital Centre.” October 15 (1980), 61-78.

Howard, Michael. ‘Market Socialism and Political Pluralism: Theoretical Reflections on Yugoslavia.’ Studies in Eastern European Thought, Vol. 53, No. 4 (2001), 307-328.

Kempenaers, Jan. ‘Spomenik, 2006-2009.’ Jan Kempenaers. http://www.jankempenaers.info/works/1/

Kardelj, Edvard. ‘Tito and Socialist Revolution of Yugoslavia.’ (Belgrade: Socialist Thought and Practice, 1980).

La Capra, Dominick. Writing History, Writing Trauma. (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 2001).

Lampe, John R. Yugoslavia as History, Twice There was a Country. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Museum of Yugoslav History. Titova a Štafeta, Štafeta mladosti, 1945-1987 (Tito’s Relay Race, Youth Relay Race). (Belgrade: Tipografik Plus, 2008).

N/A. ArtEast Collection 2000+. Edited by Zdenka Badovinac and Peter Wiebel. (Vienna: Folio Verlag, 2001).

Nelson, Robert and Margaret Olin. Monuments and Memory, Made and Unmade. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

Reigl, Alois. ‘The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and its Origins’ trans Foster, K, and D. Britt. Oppositions 25 (1982): 20-51.

N/A. ‘Georgia passes law to destroy Soviet-era monuments and street names.’ The Daily Telegraph Online. 31 May 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/georgia/8549052/Georgia-passes-law-to-destroy-Soviet-era-monuments-and-street-names.html. Accessed 22 March 2013.

N/A. ‘Tallinn Erupts in deadly riot, Bronze Soldier removed.’ The Baltic Times Online. 28 April 2007, http://www.baltictimes.com/news/articles/17774/. Accessed 22 March 2013.

Zizek, Slavoj. Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?. (London: Verso, 2001).

Yasmin Nurming-Por is an Art Historian currently based in Toronto, Ontario. Her research focuses on the intersection of public performance, community and temporal dissidence in conceptual practices in Eastern Europe and Latin America. Nurming-Por completed her MA in art history at the University of Toronto in 2013. Since then she has held a research and programming position at Gallery TPW, an artist-run centre in Toronto. Previously Nurming-Por was an independent researcher at MUSUM in Ljubljana, Slovenia in 2012, during which time she also gave guest seminars on Canadian art and social history at the University of Ljubljana. Additionally she has delivered papers on art historical subjects at both the University of Toronto and University of British Columbia.