Concrete Socialist Legacies
A view from Ivana Mihaela Žimbrek
In the latest wave of popular publications on state-socialist art and architecture, two that stand out are devoted to the heritage of Socialist Yugoslavia. The first, Donald Nielby's Spomenik Monument Database, based on his amateur-enthusiast web archive, represents a more-researched coffee table approach to Yugoslav WWII monuments. The second is the catalogue to the recently held MoMA exhibition Toward a Concrete Utopia, which similarly demonstrates the ability to create interesting and well-informed reflections on state-socialist history for a wide-spread, non-scholarly consumption.
By giving the Yugoslav monuments the historical and political dimension their representations were lacking so far, the two publications attempt to move beyond the damaging perspective that has dominated online and offline bookshelves for almost a decade. Since the Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers' Spomenik project in 2010, Facebook and Tumblr pages, as well as Instagram accounts have been flooded with pictures of Yugoslav monuments. Common to them are descriptions emphasizing the allegedly "creepy," "bizarre," "futuristic," and "eerie" character of these monuments. Devoid of any contextualization and starkly portrayed as strange and alien, the (mostly photographic) representations of these monuments became — in Owen Hatherley's words — "concrete clickbait."
This science-fictional aestheticization, coupled with a lack of embeddedness in historical and art historical information is dangerous. It enables the perpetuation of an exoticizing approach to the European state-socialist heritage, embodied, in this case, in the immensely irritating use of the Anglicized moniker spomeniks based on the otherwise fairly uninteresting Serbo-Croatian word for monuments and material heritage. The visual and discursive treatment of Yugoslav monuments, therefore, echoes the historical othering of the Slavic, Balkan, and Southeastern European space, as well as of state socialism and its legacies.
For example, although the monuments are recognized as "communist," this label is primarily used to mean an unexplored and almost incomprehensible spatio-temporal framework portrayed as inherently separate from European history and geography. In other words, communism or communist heritage, in the sense in which it emerges from the representations of "spomeniks," is a post-communist construct that does not refer to a concrete historical, political, and social context of state socialism, nor to its ideological and intellectual dimension – but rather functions as an exotic and de-politicized phenomenon.
The Yugoslav WWII monuments have diverse and complex stories of origin, commemoration, and periodization in terms of local and global visual styles and cultural politics, as well as sources of logistics and finances related to institutional and grassroots initiatives. All of these stories, however, are completely erased in the heavily aestheticized, ahistorical, and politically sanitized representations of the monuments. Through this representation, the Yugoslav monuments can be more easily commodified for audiences whose interest in communism might not go beyond a piece of interior décor. Moreover, due to their price and availability, such representations of Yugoslav monuments in the form of coffee table books and exhibition catalogues are mainly intended for privileged consumption in the West.
In this sense, the West is not only the place of construction, but also of the circulation and consumption of these representations, even in the case of positive examples such as the MoMA exhibition. The result is a stark contrast between the dilapidated state of the monuments themselves, whose protection often depends on voluntary labor, and the expensive pages of these books whose profit remains outside of the post-Yugoslav space. In addition, not only are they not always accessible to the experts, activists or anyone else interested in this topic in former Yugoslavia, but at the same time the knowledge production, cultural projects, and activist initiatives that come from the region — and offer new and challenging narratives — remain largely enclosed to it, unless offered an élite point of entry, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
This does not mean, however, that the described character of the representations of Yugoslav monuments has no effect or relation to their actual, on-the-ground status, as well as to state-socialist heritage more broadly. In the past years, more and more monuments, large and small, suffer from both spontaneous and institutional destruction and neglect, and their protection comes mainly from enthusiastic local activists and cultural workers, often in conflict with the indifferent or hostile attitude of the authorities. In this regard, the heavily aestheticized and de-politicized depictions of monuments from Yugoslavia and the rest of the former Eastern Bloc, not only obscure the local, mostly grassroots efforts to properly protect and historicize them, but at the same time create an artificial void of meaning that is then filled in by the agendas of the post-socialist regimes.
This void of meaning also conveniently plays into the official anti-totalitarian memory politics promoted by the European Union. The erasure of and ignorance about the anti-fascist struggle in former Yugoslavia – and its crucial communist dimension, which these monuments celebrate and commemorate — facilitates the equation between communism and fascism that forms the core of the liberal, anti-totalitarian agenda. Although the anti-communist damnatio memoriae has been present from the 1990s, the recent developments in East Central and Southeastern Europe vividly show that the liberal critique of the two totalitarianism systems actually enables the rise of state-sanctioned historical revisionism which then seeks to condone and even celebrate fascist crimes and their perpetrators as parts of national (and increasingly nationalist) histories.
Faced with the rising threat of nationalist and fascist violence, the insistence to fill the gaps in scholarly and popular representations of Yugoslav and other state-socialist monuments, to carefully map their historical contexts, as well as to recognize the importance of the messages of anti-fascist resistance are, therefore, both a matter of chronicling state-socialist legacies and protecting their heritage, but also more broadly of fighting the battles of today inspired by the promises of the communist tomorrow.
Ivana Mihaela Žimbrek is a historian and cultural critic from Croatia, currently writing her PhD at Central European University in Budapest. Find her at ivana.su.