Los Angeles: On March 17, The Fowler Museum, located on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles, opened an exhibition of twenty-three photographs by Jan Kempenaers of former-Yugoslavian “spomeniks.” Based on Kempenaers’ 2010 photographic book published in conjunction with the Academy of Fine Arts Ghent, the images depict the 1960s-1970s modernist, futuristic-looking monuments that were meant to simultaneously commemorate the tragedies of World War II and herald the promise of the new socialist state. Impersonal, stark, solid but at the same time strikingly in ruin, the monuments evoke the sentiment of an abandoned and forgotten promise. With his careful eye to framing and lighting, Kempenaers has captured the dialogue of these characteristics in his photographs.
Spomeniks combine the beauty of skilled architectural design with sculptural execution, and were conceived of by architects who are today largely forgotten: Bakic, Zivkovic, Džamonja, Jordan and Iskra Grabul. Soon after the formation of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia in 1946 and under the national leadership of Marshall Josip Broz Tito, spomeniks began to appear across the country. With no apparent underlying governing structure that unified their individual design, and, as John Bailey has pointed out in a 2011 ascmag.com entry, reminiscent in form and material of such designers as Le Corbusier, spomeniks are scattered throughout rural areas of the former Yugoslavia. Some resemble large-scale conceptual sculpture, others almost appear to be buildings, still others might be mistaken for space craft or utilitarian structures.
Kempenaers, in a March 15 gallery talk at the Fowler, described the process of seeking out and accessing the largely forgotten monuments in their remote locations. Although the spomeniks were once the well-visited sites of adult and schoolchildren pilgrimage, for his 2006-09 project Kempenaers relied on anecdotal directions and a decades-old map. Most of his images reflect this abandoned state, but others depict the graffitted and ruined remains of the monuments’ former stature. Kempenaers sometimes spent several days at a particular site, waiting to capture the ideal lighting. With a few exceptions, the result is a nearly uniform, unexpressive sky that reflects the starkness of the monument it backgrounds. The photographs, with their careful lighting and landscapes devoid of people, reflect both Kempenears’ trek and his patience.
Ghent-based Kempenaers was trained in photography and completed a PhD in visual arts in 2011. Interested in urban and landscape photography, but also more recently in abstract photographic projects, Kempenaers approaches spomeniks not entirely for their social value or national cache of memories but rather for their aesthetics and striking visuality. The resulting photographs are artistically striking and, although perhaps unintentionally, documentary as well.
Willem Jan Neutelings, in his 2008 Spomenik, The Monuments of Former Yugoslavia, has suggested that, in their present condition, the spomeniks have finally come to their symbolic fruition: dilapidated and all but forgotten, they themselves not only commemorate but also grieve for the horrors of WWII they mark. No longer symbols of victory, they have become sculptural acts of mourning: that which was meant to generate memory has itself been forgotten. It is the completion of this transition that Kempenaers marks in his photographs.
Spomenik: Photographs of the Monuments of Former Yugoslavia by Jan Kempenaers is on display at UCLA’s Fowler Museum until August 11, 2013. Kempenaers’ 2010 photo book, which features three additional spomenik images, is widely available and published by Roma Publications.
Guest Contributor Tracy Buck is currently pursuing a PhD in Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles. She holds MA degrees in South Asian Cultures and Languages and in Museum Studies, and has worked in the Collections Management and Curatorial departments of several history and art museums.