Amnesia in Concrete

I picked up on this late, but The Awl has a great round-up of strange Soviet and Eastern Bloc architecture. There are flying saucers, concrete honeycombs, and a cliffside sanatorium that the CIA though was a rocket launcher. It’s all pretty trippy, but my attention was drawn to the Yugoslav war memorials known as spomenik, abstract concrete shapes ranging from twisted and shattered to sinuous and thrusting skyward. The spomenik were supposed to commemorate the terrible power of the war without reopening old wounds about exactly who was doing the destroying and why. Here’s Willem Jan Neutelings on them:

[the Second World War was] not only a war of liberation against the aggressor Nazi Germany, but also a civil war with complex oppositions between ethnic population groups who fought one another from different points on the ideological spectrum, such as the Partisans, the Ustase and the Chetniks. For this reason, the war monuments could assume neither a heroic or a patriotic guise. In other words, they had to be neutral enough to be acceptable to both victims and perpetrators. After all, once the slaughter was over, the former opponents had to collectively form the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia together.

Out of step with most other Eastern Bloc memorials, the spomenik seem to represent an early response to the problem of a memorial without a coherent narrative to which to appeal. The results are certainly striking, but so is their fate. After the breakup of the Yugoslav state and the horrors of the civil war most of the spomenik were destroyed or abandoned as acts of revenge against the failure of the monuments and their regime to move Yugoslavia beyond the internecine violence the memory of which the spomenik were built to evade.

In that sense, the spomenik may also be a look into the future of the monuments of the age of memorial irony. Earlier monuments may become unpalatable or kitsch, but at least they retain the courage of their convictions. What will future generations make of our monuments?

Jan Kempenaers’s pictures of the surviving spomenik can be found at his website, as can Neutelings’s essay.

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