Across the seven countries that once made up the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the landscape is occasionally punctuated by a strange, futuristic statue. This is a ‘spomenik’, a term which translates in the languages of the Balkan Peninsula as ‘monument’. In the 1960s and ’70s, during the reign of Yugoslavia’s ‘benevolent dictator’ Tito, groups of sculptors and architects worked together to construct these formidable objects. They were created both to commemorate the sites of World War II battles and concentration camps, and to confidently proclaim the advances brought about by socialism.
While Yugoslavia persisted, the monuments attracted millions of visitors every year. The state organised these pilgrimages, especially by schoolchildren as part of their ‘patriotic education’ as young pioneers, to encourage feelings of national pride amongst at times discordant communities. But during the dissolution of the Republic in the early 1990s, many of the monuments were destroyed. The spomeniks that survived the catastrophe of the Yugoslav Wars have become derelict, with their symbolic meaning lost.
Between 2006 and 2009, Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers underwent a long journey across the Balkans to locate and photograph these strikingly powerful and mysterious monoliths, and his photographs perfectly capture their melancholic beauty. The photographic series has been exhibited in Amsterdam and Antwerp and published as the book Spomenik (Roma Publications, 2010).
Images: Photographs by Jan Kempenaers. Clockwise from top left: Spomenik #9 (Jasenovac), 2007; Spomenik #1 (Podgarić), 2006; Spomenik #16 (Tjentište), 2007; Spomenik #18 (Kadinijača), 2009