Above from Edward Gorey’s book EpiplecticBicycle. Harcourt Brace & Company, New York 1997
Monuments. For thousands of years we have created them to help us remember events, to remember people. Entire cities are built around them and tourists and residents alike use them as navigational devices. Do they really help us remember? What happens to monuments that disassociate from the things they are meant to commemorate? There are a series of monuments or Spomenik (the word ‘monument’ in Croatian/Slovenian/Serbian) throughout former Yugoslavia that are facing precisely this problem. These spomenici can be found across Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, and Slovenia, often in highly remote locations. They were erected as a unifying gesture by the Yugoslavian president during the 60’s and 70’s to collectively commemorate the trauma of the people there after World War II and to mark sites of historical significance. Some located an important battle and some former concentration camp sites and a variety of national architects and sculptors were involved in their design.
Once highly visited, these monuments have become neglected after the fracturing of the former Yugoslavian republic in the 1990s. Spomenici were meant to unify a country that no longer exists through a history that has fallen out of common memory, making their neglect somewhat less surprising. It begs the question, can we really expect new generations to hold onto the hardships of generations that came before? Do these traumatic histories in physical form become a necessary part of our cultural identity? Even now unattached as they are to their original purpose, the confidence and experimentation in which each Spomenik was executed and their siting in remote locations gives them a prominence that is undeniable. The question now, is what new life can these structures have? These monuments without memory maintain a certain power, but it is not the power of remembrance. Instead they inspire new stories, including the work of Belgian photographer Jans Kempenaers and an upcoming science fiction film by our New Mexico friend Kaleb Wentzel-Fisher (there is an immense amount of talent coming out of those parts in case you didn’t know) entitled SANKOFA, the next chapter in Spomenik history.
Although I have never had the chance to visit a Spomenik in person I would suggest a similar smaller (but by no means small) stateside experience may be found at Storm King Art Center in upstate New York. The sprawling acreage allows you to encounter massive artworks unexpectedly in the middle of the forest or view them from a distance across a great lawn. The same history of the Spomenik is not tied to these works, indeed they have separate histories even from each other, but then again isn’t the experience the same? Giant structures without meaning encountered by chance in nature.
Photos by: Jan Kempenaers