Spomeniks means monuments in Serbo-Croatian and they can be found in tranquil fields in Serbo Croatia. They look alien and at odds with their surrounding hills and farmhouses. Their beauty is in the misaligned locations. They are concrete structures that are lost in a natural landscape and conspicuously out of place. The only people who get to see these structures are the brave enough who are not scared of exploring Balkan’s nether regions.
If these structures had been built today, their obliqueness would spur a lot of controversy in the world of art. Built in the 1960s and 70s, their designers must have had their imagination stretched to the limits. Former President, Josip Broz Tito, commissioned them to commemorate world war II battle sites. Leading architects and sculptors like Dušan Džamonja, Miodrag Živković, Vojin Bakić, Jordan, Iskra Grabul, Bogdan Bogdanović and Gradimir Medaković did this incredible work.
Jan Kempenaers from Belgium photographed the abandoned sculptures for a period of three years. He discovered them on an art encyclopedia in the Jan Van Eyck Academy library, in Maastricht. Zagreb, a friend, helped him and together they found a map that showed all locations of the monuments. They sought them out one by one and discovered that most of them had in fact been destroyed…and deliberately- “because they referred to the previous regime and during the Balkan war, many were dynamited,” Kempenaers says. “They refer to the fight for independence of Marshall Tito’s partisan army, who led the resistance against the German army.”
The monuments conveyed the confidence, power and strength of the Socialist Republic. In the 1980s, they attracted millions of visitors yearly for their patriotic education, especially to the young pioneers. “They were like medals in the countryside. Tito couldn’t erect figures or busts in honor of generals because he didn’t want to be seen to be favoring any ethnic group, for example a Bosnian general or a Serb war hero, so instead they made these things that didn’t refer to people.” The monuments were devoid of identity and were used to cultivate cultural togetherness. They were, however completely abandoned after the republic dissolved in the early 1990s. Their symbolic meaning was also lost.
According to Kempenaers, nobody cares about them today – both the young and old. Those who encountered him as he photographed them thought he was mad. The spomeniks are in fact crumbling: they have been urinated on and graffiti scrawled on them. They are no longer being preserved and are slowly rotting away. Kempenaers gives them back their dignity with his series of photos; otherwise, they would be forgotten and lost forever.