MONUMENTAL FEAR: Interview with photographer Jovana Mladenovic
RUSSELL-OMALJEV: You are a graduate of the Faculty of Applied Arts in Belgrade and were awarded a Masters degree in Fashion Photography from University of Arts in London last year. How did you get involved in photography about brutalist and modernist architecture?
MLADENOVIC: I have always been inspired by architecture. From my earliest fashion work, location has always played a very important role. Brutalism attracts me because it is so raw and because this provides me a lot of room for expression. Colours are often associated with particular feelings and careful colour selection can expand the emotional impact of my pictures. The grey, colour of raw concrete connects with loss and depression, and combines with sharp edges and big empty spaces to allow me to tell my stories.
RUSSELL-OMALJEV: Your project, Monumental Fear, documents 25 commemorative WWII monuments in Serbia and the surrounding region that create a web of memory of the victory over fascism. They commemorate not only the brutal crimes by Axis forces but also the ‘People’s Revolution’. What story do you want to tell?
MLADENOVIC: Monumental Fear stems from an idea I started many years ago but only more recently had the opportunity to develop fully. My aim was to explore and document the many WWII monuments spread across the whole of the former Yugoslavia. I wanted to bring to life a part of history that seemed forgotten, especially amongst the younger generation of people and inform myself of such a turbulent time in my country’s history. I researched monuments in Serbia and the fascinating stories behind them, each of which is built on the exact spot of the battles which they commemorate.
RUSSELL-OMALJEV: Belgian photographer Jan Kempeners’ much talked-about 2010 book, Spomenik, presented images of such monuments in isolation and without explanation of their origin or meaning, leading to the mistaken identity of these monuments. Was your project received differently? And how did the level of interest in Serbia compare to here in London?
MLADENOVIC: Yes, he captured the monuments at sundown with foggy mountains in the background blending in with grey skies which added to the harsh beauty of the sculptures perfectly. Besides Jan, there have been numerous artists who have photographed these memorial sites but this did not discourage me from using the same subject. I am personally attached to this project and this was a way of combining my photographic art with my interest in history, architecture and ballet – I have included a ballerina in the photographs of 6 of the monuments. The ballerina, dressed all in red and pictured together with a Communist star, symbolises political ideology but also the blood of the victims, and the glory and power of Yugoslavia at that time. Coming from a country which the majority of people around the world know very little about inspires me to show off the talents of my fellow Serbians and to inform people about where I come from. Engaging people through art is one of the best ways I can achieve this.
RUSSELL-OMALJEV: These monuments stand in contrast to the authoritarian ‘Socialist- realism’ style popular in the Soviet Union where hero-solders and noble workers dominate the landscape. Dimitrijevic proposes that such style is ‘politically safe’ modernism as these abstract sculptures do not show any representational references. Indeed, after 1948, Tito broke off with Stalin and that pushed Yugoslav art towards western modernism. Are there other reasons why the monuments look so strange and have bizarre abstract shapes?
MLADENOVIC: As the country recovered from its near destruction, it was important for Tito to achieve a sense of unity without offending his former opponents who now had to collectively regroup under the new republic. His vision of these monumental constructions was to unite, empower, and restore faith to his people at a time when the country lay in despair following the war. As a man of grandeur he was aware of the importance of art and cultural politics and wanted to promote homegrown artists to the rest of the world and open up the chance for them to collaborate with foreign artists. A tone of neutrality was vital to the design and construction of these monuments and Tito set about creating something very unique and abstract. These timeless symbols of the past serve as a reminder to future generations to see an optimistic future and a reconciled past – a unified and healed Yugoslavia. The communist government’s political stance became less radical during the 50’s. The focus of the designs shifted from dead partisan soldiers to civilians killed during the war. Later designs reflected the changing cultural traditions taking place during the 60’s and 70’s. The brutalism evident in the first wave of monuments slowly changed as Yugoslavia’s ties with Stalin and communism became weaker and their designs began to adapt a more modern approach, signifying not only the past but increasingly the present, and looking to the future.
RUSSELL-OMALJEV: The Yugoslav architects who designed the monuments, including Bogdanovic, Bakic, Dzamonja, and Tatlin, had a modernist vision. However, it has been implied that Tito was often involved in decision-making. To what extent can the monuments be said to articulate Tito’s personal vision of Yugoslavia? Also, in terms of the materials used, are concrete and steel unusual materials for sculptural art of that period?
MLADENOVIC: Tito faced a huge challenge in his ambitious plans to forge, from the war-torn lands of Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia and Slovenia, a new unified republic which could harmoniously be inhabited by both the perpetrators and victims of such a horrific war. Commemorating and at the same time unifying both sides of these tragedies through his creation of the memorial sites proved to be equally challenging. After WWII, everyone wanted a swift recovery, and these monuments were a silver lining. At the beginning, Tito was commissioning them, but then people were so motivated and inspired by his vision that they started to independently design and build more. Tito’s vision was to present these monuments as a proud celebration of the hope of a brighter future, as much as a commemoration of the horrific past. The choice of raw concrete as the main material may well simply have been because that was the most affordable material to use after the war. Tito also wanted to avoid creating something that would be too luxurious and difficult for the people to relate to. He used this material that was known to people and workers, something that they themselves can use and create.
RUSSELL-OMALJEV: Funding came from a federal level, but the local councils, factories and workers organisations within the towns also contributed. We are now sure that building these monuments was part of the so called self-management efforts. What did they represent for local communities, schools and Yugoslav society more broadly?
MLADENOVIC: I must point out that not all of the monuments were directly commissioned by Tito and the Yugoslav Government and their design plans were not prescribed to the sculptors by the Communist Party. Many independent initiatives were set up by local towns or municipalities where competitions were held to find the right artists to best represent what was personally felt by the locals. These strict monument design competitions helped at that time to reflect the desired political aesthetics and to help alleviated ethnic tensions while at the same time give their communities a far more modern and progressive image to the outside world. Many designs drew upon popular styles of art and design in Western Europe and America, reflecting the modernist abstract style that had been encouraged by Tito, whilst others were still of a more traditional Socialist realism. As a whole, this network of memorials existed as an ambitious symbol of hope for a new and courageous nation.
RUSSELL-OMALJEV: Many of the monuments were accompanied by large amphitheaters, which were used to tell the narrative of Tito’s socialist Yugoslavia to visitors and the thousands of young Pioneers [Yugoslav youth movement]. Can you tell us more about Tito’s ‘grand plan’?
MLADENOVIC: Tito saw Yugoslavia as a brave and forward-thinking nation and set out to shape his vision of an optimistic future. The modernist form of these monuments was a reflection of his idyllic dream of a collectivist utopian society, free from nationalism and ethnic divisions, which could leave behind the religious conflict that had been a direct cause of the region’s past wars. He had hoped that his citizens would begin to see themselves as Yugoslavian rather than Croatian, Serbian or Bosnian etc..
RUSSELL-OMALJEV: The neglect and destruction of the monuments began after the rise of nationalism in early ‘90s and continued throughout the subsequent dissolution of Yugoslavia. Many resented the commemoration of the communist history. Also, newly formed countries created new political ideologies – how do these monuments fit in?
MLADENOVIC: Many of these monuments were situated in remote areas with very little direct access. This played a large part in their neglect and downfall as it allowed vandals free reign without fear of being apprehended. In other locations, monuments were found to be decaying – neglected and abandoned by the local people, particularly in regions where parts of the local populace are indifferent or hostile to what they feel these monuments represent. Many of the sites fell into disrepair and places which were once a visited by hundreds of thousands of people now became ghostly remains which some of the locals had destroyed and used for scrap.
RUSSELL-OMALJEV: Is it better to look beyond the communist ideology that created them, and consider these monuments more in the context of Holocaust memorials in France, Germany, and Britain? Should these monuments be seen as a part of the tourism industry?
MLADENOVIC: As within every political climate, their will always be a split in thinking and ideology. Many people feel that any symbolism of the old system wasn’t meaningful to them anymore and holds no relevance within their lives and present culture. I really hope that after all they can be part of Serbia’s tourism industry. When I start presenting this project outside Serbia I noticed that there was great interest in visiting these places. Maybe new generations will be able to look at them as Tito wished, and maybe more and more people will become aware of these treasures and will wish to stand in front of them and feel these monuments the same way I have felt them.
RUSSELL-OMALJEV: Tell us about the three photographs of the monuments which are currently featured in Contemporary Balkan Art’s Interruption exhibition in London: Bubanj Memorial in Nis, Shrine to the Revolution in Mitrovica, and Kosmaj Partisan Detachment.
MLADENOVIC: These 3 monuments are part of 9 selected monuments that I chose to present in an abstract way using models in a studio in London. A major focal point in these images is the use of red threads, which signify the rooted connection to communism. Whilst being deeply associated throughout history to this system of political organization, its other purpose is to speak for the blood of those who lost their lives on the very spot these monuments were erected. I used flowers to stand for funerals and the dead, stretched and interwoven tights serve as an image of people coming together, connecting both neighbours and strangers, and the tape and make-up pose as falling skin, tired and defeated. I see a link between contemporary dancing and human sculptures and so I directed the models using images of ballet dancers for them as a guideline on how to pose and all 9 of the selected monuments were physically characterised in the pictures, which I believe is evident in many of the images. The central element in my photographs is the emotion carried on the faces of the models. The feelings of sadness, fear, and exhaustion are visible in their expression with their bodies imitating this interpretation. With such rich history and meaning in the stories of these grand constructions, it was important for me to create a strong emotional connection with the viewer.
Three Fists, designed by Ivan Sabolic in 1963, comprises three monoliths of different sizes representing the men, women and children who were executed at this site – entire families were killed here. The clenched fist motif itself symbolizes the defiance and resistance of those innocent murdered souls. 10 to 11 thousand is the generally accepted number of Serbian, Jew and Roma killed here, although those are simply rough estimates — it is not known for certain the true number killed here. The problem is that not only were many of the executed buried in massive bulldozed trenches, but also, in the final days of the WWII, the Germans dug up many trenches and spent weeks burning decomposed remains in an effort to conceal their crimes.
Shrine to the Revolution was designed by Bogdan Bogdanovic. One of the destinations involved me entering into Kosovo which until recently was a part of Serbia and is now an independent country. In Kosovska Mitrovica lies one of the largest memorial monuments, Shrine to the Revolution, which was erected in 1973. 19 meters tall and constructed entirely of concrete, it was made up of two main tapered columns and a trough-like structure resting across the top of them. The columns represented the Serbian and Albanian ethnicities while the trough represents their unity in formation of the Miners Troop in their fight against the occupying forces from 1941-1945. Apart from some graffiti, of both nationalist and personal nature, it still remains in good condition.
The third monument exhibited, The Kosmaj Partisan Detachment commemorates the Partisan regiment from the Kosmaj area and Sava region and honours those who died during the war. The most obvious symbol is five-pointed star. This star, specifically red, was a pervasive and essential symbol to Yugoslavia, which symbolised strength and resistance against fascism and Nazi occupation. The star shape of this monument, designed by Vojin Stojic and Gradimir Medaković seems very appropriate given the events which transpired here. The five points of the star are often said to be symbolic for the five fingers of hand of the worker. Another interesting symbolic element of this monument is that, from a distance, the star monument appears to be one continuous sculpture, however, it is only when directly underneath of it do you realize that each ‘finger‘ is separate and free-standing. This visual effect may represent the idea that the Yugoslavian workers/fighters operated together in collaboration.
RUSSELL-OMALJEV: Finally, I must ask you why you decided to tell this story, how did you do it, and what are your plans for the future?
MLADENOVIC: After Serbia became an independent country following the break-up of Yugoslavia, people’s interest in art was subordinated to far bigger concerns, as would be expected following the aftermath of such a devastating war. I want to remind the new generation of the lovely country we have and to inform people about what is left of the monuments so that they can still be celebrated and hopefully motivate our artists to keep on creating.
I started my journey in the South and zigzagged my way North, covering over 1000 kilometres in a week, and had various people accompany me along the way. As this project left a big impression on me, I wanted to present my work in the strongest way possible and I had the idea of making a grey concrete folder in which to place the book. The shape of the folder was based on the files that could be found in all of the derelict buildings and offices of that time and when you compare this to the stories of the monuments, you can sense the same feeling of decay. What was once so important has now become forgotten and abandoned to history. I eventually plan to publish a larger book which will be made of different types of paper and fabric and embroidery and will be produced through collaboration with several graphic designers. I plan to continue to work with art historians in order to provide a factual and informative narrative to accompany the images. My research, and visits to photograph all of the monuments that I have not included this time round, can begin as soon as I secure sponsorship. As a photographer I see ‘Monumental Fear’ as a subject that I can expand on in many ways and I look forward to seeing where I can take it. Until then, I will focus on developing my work within fashion photography, at a time where I feel greatly inspired by the period in history of socialist Yugoslavia. I feel that I have grown, not only as an artist, but also as a person, and shown to myself a level of maturity that helped me organize and carry out such a monumental task.