Naughty Legacy. Renewing the Symbolism of Yugoslav Monuments to Liberation

The essay Naughty Legacy by Bojan Krištofić critically reflects upon the cultural magnitude of ex-Yugoslavia’s National Liberation Movement, in particular on its monuments, by bringing them into dialogue with Croatian contemporary art production. Artist and groups deal with the artistic and political heritage of Socialist Yugoslavia – while at the same time many of them criticize current conditions of cultural production and the way history is addressed. The scope of this research finds its climax in the political imperative by Krištofić, who strongly asserts that actual »central state institutions continually support the dangerous growth of revisionist historiography ( … ).« Instead Krištofić proposes a new way of reading the history of the monuments, not only through the re-vision of contemporary artists from Croatia, but also by imagining new progressive and transnational, Socialist, and non-nationalist politics.

When it comes to the region of ex-Yugoslavia, through its transition and post-transition decades (meaning: since each of its six federated states gained independency in 1991) – especially in the course of the current one – an artistic, scientific and social subject that doesn’t lose its relevance is the renewal and revitalization of the National Liberation Movement’s cultural legacy, as well as its reflection and reinterpretation in the context of contemporary art.

The National Liberation Movement stands for the Yugoslav resistance against the occupation of the country by Axis forces during World War II. It is also internationally known as the multiethnic Partisan Movement, led by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, founded in 1919. Understood broadly, the term additionally includes the subsequent Socialist revolution, leading to the formation of Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia in 1945 (the state’s name was changed to the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1963, due to pervasive liberal constitutional reforms). During a little less than 50 years of Socialist Yugoslavia’s existence, a vast quantity of monuments to the National Liberation Movement (NLM) were built in public spaces around the country, in remote and rural areas and various urban centers. Monuments were mostly designed by notable artists and architects, and while their visual identity and physical incidence were very much symbolic in themselves, these memorial and ritual sites – in the best sense of those words – also helped to enhance the Communist Party’s cultural policies, providing them emotional substance long after the revolution came and went. In other words, after Yugoslavia fell apart in the horrific series of devastating wars between its federated states during the 1990s, all kinds of monuments to the system now gone became subjects of both remembrance and renewed oppression.

In the first case, the remains of those monuments and origins of ideas they represent, basically revolutionary, anti-fascist and socialistic, allowed left-wing cultural workers of the region to try to reestablish their political and emancipatory potential as opposed to the regressive and nationalistic parliamentary politics of the freshly founded, so-called democratic states. In the second case, it must be briefly stated that countries’ chosen governments, especially in Croatia, did almost everything to either deliberately destroy longstanding monuments to Yugoslav heroic heritage or let them slowly succumb to the prevailing dereliction. Notable exclusions are few, and only recently had nongovernment care for this institutionally abandoned and unwanted legacy attained something of a loosely planned community project.

»In other words, after Yugoslavia fell apart in the horrific series of devastating wars between its federated states during the 90s, all kinds of monuments to the system now gone became subjects of remembrance on one hand, and to the renewed oppression on another.«

So the historical phenomenon of the NLM, that, as has been stated, had a tremendous influence on the geopolitical constellation of the region until now, could still serve as an inspiration for the imaging of new progressive and transnational politics in the aid of the region’s disempowered residents, of which there are many. However, it can also be used as a starting point for the analysis of complex relationship between regional contemporary artists and the distinctive ideology that NLM represents – Socialist self-management, Yugoslavia’s very own brand of state Socialism.

The following essay is based precisely on this specific element of NLM’s »naughty legacy« and includes pieces and projects mainly by living Croatian artists for reasons of its capacity and practicality. By limiting the area to the activities of Croatian artists, curators, and cultural workers first and foremost (whether they work in their homeland or abroad), I will use the examples of several projects created after 2000 to properly articulate different approaches to the treatment of this subject, developed over the years in an environment in which central state institutions continually support the dangerous growth of revisionist historiography. This denies the obvious Communist modernization of Croatia and its neighboring states in the long and ongoing aftermath of World War II.

The following questions are only some I am interested in. How does contemporary art, with its curatorial and cultural practices, revive and refresh the progressive ideas of NLM? Does it do so at all? Is such contemporary art inspired by its values only in terms of (neo) avant-garde aesthetics, which were declaratively maintained by the ruling Communist Party (in its immediate postwar beginnings, the »official« visual language of Socialist Yugoslavia was influenced by Soviet Union’s Socialist Realism style in a great deal. However, after a political falling out between two major Eastern European Socialist states that happened in 1948 (and is colloquially known as Marshal Josip Broz Tito’s »NO« to Josef Stalin), Yugoslavia’s state-sponsored visual arts, particularly their highly visible presence in public space, began to move more in the vein of country’s prewar avant-garde movement, as well as international Constructivism and Modernism) or did monumental legacy leave its mark on artists in a sense of producing political ideas, maybe even cultural policies? Finally, what is the nature of reception of this contemporary stuff among art professionals and laypeople alike? How does the public’s perspective affect artists’ reflection of politico-ideological area from which their practice arises? It is highly important to examine and understand the overall reach of such art and its assumed potential to contribute to a much-needed change of the dominant political paradigm in ex-Yugoslavia. This paradigm is essentially nationalist, capitalist, and reactionary, while the maintained collective memory of a country’s people, that which was not yet corrupted by aforementioned politics, testifies to the history that had known better – the idea of a Socialist welfare state in the service of working women and men.

Before I review a short selection of various artworks and pieces, let me take a quick look at two projects by two photographers, Dutch and Croatian, whose series can serve as archetypal examples of approaches to Yugoslav monuments or spomeniks, as they are called in Serbo-Croatian. In 2010, Roma Publications and the Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent issued a book The Monuments by Dutch photographer Jan Kempenaers, which roughly marked the rising of renewed interest towards Yugoslav sculptural legacy by Western European curators, art historians, museologists, and so on. In fact, it also introduced the very notion of spomeniks into an international dictionary of art theory and practice, but Kempenaers at the same time failed to unequivocally emphasize the context that gave birth to the photographically documented phenomenon. Seven years later, Borko Vukosav, a young photographer from Dubrovnik living and working in Zagreb, got his newest series included in the exhibition program of the photo festival Format 17, the largest in the United Kingdom and one of the most important in Europe. Moreover, his series Used To Be (2016) was exposed under the moniker of promising newcomers from Eastern Europe, with series by several colleagues who were collectively introduced as a part of highly regarded Photodrom section. Of course, as the very title of series suggests, Vukosav’s photographs deal with the traces of largely dismissed Yugoslav culture, but it’s significant that he did not necessarily photograph the monuments themselves (albeit he did catch some of their surface details). Instead, he remarkably subtly and poetically recorded the remains of objects and presences in public space, which convey the patina of what was once efficiently organized social mechanism, though its dysfunctionality eventually prevailed. Unlike Kempenaers, who inevitably ended up fascinated by the now-obscure aura of Yugoslav monuments, Vukosav had the privilege and the obligation to observe their true meaning from the inside out, while avoiding the obstacle of focusing on motifs his fellow countrymen would hardly find attractive a priori. So, while Kempenaers’s photographic series are essentially a postcard collection – sure, of high quality and finely crafted, but postcards nonetheless – Vukosav’s growing archive of collective memories is harder to decrypt, which makes its involvement in a prestigious international festival all the more valuable. It remains to be seen whether this will mean the start of the shift in the international notion of Yugoslav cultural legacy and its entire political and revolutionary experience.

Through the remaining text, I will examine the following projects, most of them exhibitions and set-ups of a different character, with a common denominator that each a in its own way studies and reflects on the NLM, Socialist self-management, and related phenomena. The focal points are: the exhibition What, How and For Whom?, on the occasion of the 152nd anniversary of the Communist Manifesto (curatorial collective What, How and For Whom?, Croatian Association of Artists, Zagreb 2000), the film trilogy Scene for a New Heritage by David Maljković, 2004-2006), the exhibition Neo NOB by Ivan Fijolić (Lauba, Zagreb 2012), the collective and multidisciplinary project Virtual Museum Dotrščina, initiated and conducted by Saša Šimpraga, and Documenta, Center for Dealing with the Past, with installations and performances in public space by Davor Sanvincenti, Slaven Tolj, Daniel Kovač and Zoran Pavelić, realized in Zagreb from 2012 to 2017), The 70th anniversary of ZAVNOH installation, designed by Petra Milički and Niko Mihaljević for the Serb National Council, Zagreb 2014), the (In)appropriate Monuments – a regional research platform founded in 2015 by institutions and organizations from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Macedonia – all of the ex-Yugoslavia’s federated states except Montenegro) and finally, the experimental documentary film Monument directed by Igor Grubić for production house Creative Union in 2017.

The epochal exhibition that marked the arrival of curatorial collective WHW onto the Croatian and regional cultural scene, and which has significantly determined the course of their future work, wasn’t directly concerned with the experience of Socialist self-management. It rather contemplated an even wider field of Socialist and Communist thought, celebrating the 152nd anniversary since the first edition of The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels was published in the revolutionary year 1848. This internationally acclaimed collective exhibition saw the participation of number of regional artists of all ages, many of whom were interested in the clever, creative, and consistent development of politics through aesthetics, and vice versa. The late Mladen Stilinović, Boris Cvjetanović, Igor Grubić, Slaven Tolj, Milica Tomić and several others were and are the artists who continually intervene in the public sphere and repeatedly insist on erasing the boundaries between the world of art and everyday life, especially in terms of revealing the mechanisms through which the ruling class imposes its formative ideology on those who depend on the means of production in its property. The majority of those people are workers of all kinds, particularly in ex-Yugoslavia, but throughout Europe as well. It’s worth mentioning that some of these artists also occasionally played the roles of curators and producers, thus being thoroughly involved into building a small-scale regional community receptive to the contemporary leftist ideas and concepts partly inspired by the legacy they inherited. Curators Ivet Ćurlin, Ana Dević, Nataša Ilić and Sabina Sabolović, longtime members of WHW along with designer and publicist Dejan Kršić, have continued to passionately deal with the kind of contemporary art whose »usability« meant the creation of intellectual tools for the political, even utopian transformation of reality surrounding us. Zagreb’s beloved Gallery Nova, whose program they’ve been curating for years now, simultaneously serves as »headquarters« for the development of numerous international research and exhibition projects, as well as a space for independent, locally-oriented content with invaluable contributions to the cultural scene and its self-organization in critical times. At the same time, WHW collective’s intuitive connection to the neo-avant-garde art (the so-called New Artistic Practice in ex-Yugoslavia) from the Socialist period firmly remains their intellectual foundation.

David Maljković is an internationally acclaimed visual artist, among other things noted for his continuous collaboration with the WHW collective, which organized his first retrospective exhibition in Zagreb by arranging the usage of multiple, highly varied venues with screenings of his films in one of city’s few art-house cinemas. Conceived around the middle of the previous decade, the artist’s multidisciplinary cycle Scene for a New Heritage uses the legendary sculptor Vojin Bakić’s (1915–1992) monument on Petrova gora in the Croatian region of Banija as its central motif (the name of its location means The Mountain of King Peter, named after the last known domestic monarch from the Middle Ages, before early Croatia became a part of the Kingdom of Hungary). The monument and the memorial site surrounding it were built on the top of the hill were the partisans’ guerrilla hospital was located during the war. In Croatia and beyond, the sculptors’ monument became perhaps The Monument – probably the most powerful and instantly recognizable artistic symbol of both the victorious National Liberation Movement and the overcoming of wartime atrocities the occupiers and their local collaborators (Ustachas, the Croatian fascists and Chetniks, the Serbian monarchists) had committed (one equally memorable monument must be Serbian architect Bogdan Bogdanović’s so-called »stone flower« at Jasenovac, a small town in eastern Croatia where the infamous concentration camp was situated during the occupation and the establishment of the traitorous Independent State of Croatia. While Bakić’s monument is nearly destroyed today, Bogdanović’s »stone flower« was fortunately preserved as literally no one has yet dared to harm it). The monument on Petrova gora faced the long struggle for survival, along with the memorial site surrounding it, not only because of complete carelessness of the state bodies nominally in charge of preserving it, but also because of petty burglars frequently stealing the metal material from which it was made.. This is why the monument literally and gradually disappears. But, as opposed to that, Bakić’s monument has remained a fairly frequent starting point in the contemporary re-interpretations of its subject matter, and such is the case with David Maljković’s project as well. In fact, one could probably conduct a simple chronology of the artwork inspired by the aftermath of NLM by just tracking down the pieces that referred to the famous sculptor’s magnum opus in one way or another.

David Maljković has approached the monument in a somewhat distant and rather reserved manner, using it only as scenery for a fragmentary anti-utopian narrative in which the object primarily became an aesthetic and spatial presence, while several of its symbolic layers were neutralized. Since many of the most important monuments to the NLM across ex-Yugoslavia were practically devoid of the explicit Socialist or Communist symbols, but transmitted the values of the revolution in more abstract, poetical notions, it’s all too easy to rashly perceive their exotic aesthetic apart from their politics, which is omnipresent in Maljković’s work. However, precisely because of the political connotations, the physical appearance of this monument will most likely continue to devolve and perish. Aggressively deprived of its unavoidable political identity, the monument(s) will become shallow shells ready to swallow various meanings, but it is invaluably significant for us to remember them for what they were and perhaps could continue to be. I’m not proposing to advocate reverse psychology at all, but I’m trying to point out that political identity is the core of monuments’ identities in their entirety, now more than ever. In other words, contemporary artists’ intimidation of the monument has caused the expansion of its space for a variety of individual narratives, but has also narrowed the emancipatory power that is always materialized through a collective effort.

In his exhibition cycle Neo NOB, sculptor Ivan Fijolić went a completely different direction. Since his artistic approach was primarily satirical, he had no reason to shift the symbolism of the monuments the way Maljković did. Using socialistic symbols collectively inherited for decades, and instantly recognizable, too, he was able to provide them with new layers of meaning deeply rooted in the present, but in constant dialogue with the past as well. For example, by transforming the famous public sculpture of the Partisan leader Tito by artist Antun Augustinčić (still located in Kumrovec, a village in the northwest Croatia where he was born) in a way that he changed his head with the one of Tito’s wife Jovanka Broz, Fijolić made a sharp, witty and completely to the point comment on the role of women in National Liberation Movement, who took a massive part in it thanks to the Women’s Antifascist Front of Yugoslavia, a feminist organization through which they were gathering. Moreover, Yugoslavian women gained their basic civil rights in the process, such as the complete right to vote in the elections from 1945 onward. Nevertheless, women’s high contribution to the NLM hasn’t been sufficiently valorized to this day, nor were their liberties fully achieved in the course of Yugoslavia’s existence. As an aging patriarch in a dysfunctional marriage, after local turmoils in the year of 1968, Tito tended to symbolize more traditional elements of Yugoslav culture through his persona, too, with his wife Jovanka outliving him by far (Tito passed away in 1980 and Jovanka lived until 2013 – she was more than 30 years younger – though she lived the rest of her life neglected by the public and in poverty). Fijolić mocked their personal mythology in his own monument but had also proposed a fresh one, showing respect to the efforts of those who weren’t always celebrated.

When it comes to women’s rights, the installation in public space designed by Petra Milički in collaboration with her colleague Niko Mihaljević is an indicative piece of work. It was appointed by the Serb National Council, a central institution to its ethnic minority in Croatia, on the initiative of the publicist and social activist Saša Šimpraga and under the production of Documenta, Center for Dealing with the Past, a nongovernmental organization established in order to work among the citizens so they could come to terms with the country’s recent troubled past.

The subject of the work was the 70th anniversary of the Third Session of the National Anti-Fascist Council of the National Liberation of Croatia in 1944 (ZAVNOH, its acronym in Croatian ) – just before the end of the World War II – when it publicly issued two crucial resolutions for the future state of the nation. First, it stated that Croatians and Serbians enjoy completely equal rights as citizens and second, this also applied to Yugoslav women and men – their civil and political rights officially became the same. As Šimpraga had said, such constitutional decisions were truly civilizational advances at the time, in every sense of the word. The piece consisted of two elements – a commemorative poster of a lengthy horizontal format, with a time lent from 1944 to 2014 and the prominent resolutions of ZAVNOH very clearly written all along it, while its three-dimensional supplement was installed at Ban Josip Jelačić Square in Zagreb (formerly the Republic Square) in the form of a broken table, similar to the one around which the meeting was held many years ago (it was, of course, complete and whole at the time – the message was more than obvious). The resolutions by ZAVNOH were also applied on the surface of a table, large enough to be seen from the air, while smaller letters told the public a broader story about the historical event once again, recontextualizing it for the present. In a way, the project was a sincere update on the progressive elements of Socialist self-management, namely its nominal inclusiveness and democratic potential, even though it was introduced from the absolutist political position. Additionally, it served as a warning about the regressive political course contemporary Croatia has taken as a whole, falling behind its parent state in many ways, for a start in the terms of social welfare. By placing these messages in the very center of Zagreb, on a square fraught with political connotations (ban Jelačić, Croatian political and military leader during the mid-nineteenth century, in whose honor the square is named today, was a vassal to the Austro-Hungarian emperor and had played his part in suppressing the revolution in Hungary in 1848, making himself a reactionary historical figure from the Marxist point of view), the project team achieved its goal and has for a brief time returned to the public space the ideas that were literally expelled from it. The repressed, but still potent cultural content was thus explicitly exposed to the everyday, hypocritical social consensus.

Virtual Museum Dotrščina, Slaven Tolj, The Frozen Rain, 2014, photo: Ana Ogrizović, Mario Krištofić and Katarina Zlatec
Virtual Museum Dotrščina, Slaven Tolj, The Frozen Rain, 2014, photo: Ana Ogrizović, Mario Krištofić and Katarina Zlatec
Virtual Museum Dotrščina, old graves, archive images
Virtual Museum Dotrščina, old graves, archive images

 

Saša Šimpraga also was the initiator of the Virtual Museum Dotrščina, a multimedia research project that today is only sporadically active, but is nonetheless invaluable in the sense of nurturing Zagreb’s more sincere mechanisms of collective memory and commemoration rituals. The project is dedicated to the mass strata in the forest northeast of Zagreb, the site of an organized mass murder committed during World War II by the governors of the Independent State of Croatia, a Nazi puppet regime in power from 1941 to 1945. After its fall and the end of the war, some parts of the forest were turned into a neat and peaceful park intended to commemorate Ustashas’ victims (about 18,000 of them). Among them were people not even connected to the Partisan Movement, but were nonetheless convicted to death for state treason without so much as an ordinary trial. The accurate number of Zagreb’s murdered citizens still had not been determined. The Virtual Museum Dotrščina project itself is still primarily available on the Internet, in the form of a website designed by Petra Milički and Niko Mihaljević, where visitors can find the extensive documentation on the whole case, including names of the victims identified so far.

As has been said before, in the past five years five installations and/or performances in public space have been made in Dotrščina by the project team and Croatian artists, who have applied to public competitions for the production of artworks relating to wartime tragedy. Their aim was a conception of new and fresh means of commemorating the past while cultivating memories indispensable to the present times. Chronologically, the series included the pieces by the project team (1/9 7000, September 2012), Davor Sanvincenti (Spiegel im Spiegel, a audio installation and a stroll around the forest, May 2013), Slaven Tolj (The Frozen Rain, a land-art installation, 2014), Daniel Kovač (Descendants, a site-specific installation, 2015) and Zoran Pavelić (Sunny Places, a performance in public space, March 2017). While the artists certainly weren’t interested in building monuments in the ordinary sense, each successfully created a monumental gesture toward the dead and the living at the same time. As laissez-faire as you can get when working with such a traumatic subject matter, the artists, regardless of medium, succeeded in introducing innovative interactions between people, space, and memory the site embodies, particularly in the correlation with sculptures by Vojin Bakić (again!) and other late artists, scattered around the entire forest. The subtlety of contemporary works when compared to the material monuments of old is precisely what makes the space of Dotrščina so touching today; so full of compassion as a rebellion against the darkness and death. It is one of the most revered places on the outskirts of the city, with solitary pilgrims (it has not yet been rediscovered by the general public) who visit it regularly, not necessarily during the dates directly linked to the wartime events.

This rang especially true at the time of Zoran Pavelić’s performance piece Sunny Places (beautifully documented by designer and photographer Katarina Zlatec), which occurred on one early, sunny Sunday morning in 2017, with the artist inviting about 100 people to the forest and asking them to stand as long as they wanted to in the places where sunlight shone through the branches. In a way, people showed individual empathy and respect to their fellow citizens now long gone, who perished innocently in the conflict that tore Europe apart. It was a touching image of memory being reborn in the present.

Meanwhile, a relatively freshly founded platform (In)appropriate Monuments has undertaken long-running, almost guerilla-like research on monuments across the region, also leading scientific and artistic workshops (mostly with students and young professionals), as well as organizing international conferences on our subject with above-average numbers of lecturers. The platform intends to expand the maintenance and preservation of a monumental Socialist heritage to regions, since concerned citizens can hardly count on their governments to fulfill this mission. The goal is also to press officials into action through unified and continuous civil and nongovernmental advocacy of the problem. (In)appropriate Monuments consist of various initiatives, associations and institutions such as the Architects Group (Belgrade), the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Sarajevo), the Modern Gallery in Ljubljana, SF:ius (Zagreb), KUD Anarhiv (Ljubljana) and Left-wing Movement Solidarity (Skopje). The key projects so far have been the touring exhibition Across the Roads of Revolution: A Memorial Tourism in Yugoslavia, staged in Zagreb, Kraljevo, Belgrade and Ljubljana; and the conference War, Revolution and Memory: Postwar Monuments in Post-communist Europe, held in February, 2017 at the Mimara-Museum in Zagreb. A large response from foreign contributors, both in terms of quantity and quality, proved that the renewed interest in the subject across the academic world is a fact, which is a solid foundation for the platform’s agitation and for spreading its justified agenda among the general public. Respectively, this is a basic prerequisite for returning the memories and knowledge of the NLM into the collective consciousness of the regional population, as well as reaffirming it in primary education programs throughout the public schools. Without this there won’t be any really substantial progress in the field.

We will conclude this overview of the pluralism of contemporary approaches to the »naughty legacy« of the NLM and Socialist self-management with the recent film Monument (Spomenik) by the artist and film director Igor Grubić, for which he had received the first prize at the 2017 HT Exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, one of the most important recognitions a contemporary artist can get in Croatia, and delivered by a jury consisting of renowned domestic and visiting experts. An award for Grubić’s film ought be read as a statement by the left-liberal part of the Croatian economic and cultural establishment (because the competition and exhibition are funded by Hrvatski telekom, a prominent and private Croatian telecommunications company), addressed to the colleagues, state institutions and general public at the same time, about an urgent need to change our collective social stance towards the country’s still-recent past. Of course, it is a huge question whether such a message will fall on fertile ground, which depends on how many people have actually seen Grubić’s film. Despite its arty aura and pervasive meditative atmosphere, Monument should have received broad cinema distribution beyond the art-house circuit, but that, unfortunately, is another story that has a lot to do with the downfall of another legacy of socialism – a vast network of cinemas across the entire country, gone since the introduction of capitalism, Balkan-style.

What can be concluded from this review is that in recent times the projects and initiatives that have achieved stronger success in their search for the means of preserving and reviving the monuments to Yugoslav National Liberation Movement and Socialist self-management are those founded in the context of civil society and the nongovernmental sector. The majority of these projects didn’t actually use the explicit visual vocabulary representing the ideology they were dealing with, but have embraced its more progressive values as the basis for exploring fresh politics of memory with artistic methods at their disposal. Of course, there is a substantial difference between projects conducted by individual artists, regardless of their cooperation with any kind of platform, and projects and researches initiated by collectives consisting of artists, scientists, activists, teachers or any sort of ex-Yugoslavian citizens interested in the field. What unifies them besides principal motivation for getting into the area is the unavoidable fact that their efforts have started to attract more interest from the international public and academic circles. The interest is not vast, but can be seen as a forerunner to desperately-needed change if we want to renew our legacy in the futre. The exhibition opening at the MoMA in New York on July 15, 2018 – organized by Martino Sterli, chief curator; Vlad