Concrete clickbait
June 16, 2019 6:58 AM   Subscribe

Photos of Yugoslav monuments known as spomeniks are often shared online, exoticised and wrenched from context. But now, argues Owen Hatherley, it is vital that we make the effort to understand what they truly represent.
posted by Foci for Analysis (24 comments total) 73 users marked this as a favorite
 
I feel like it can't help that this sort of visual style gets redeployed in American media as visual shorthand for a certain kind of Orwellian sci-fi scenario.

Like, I have to stop and remind myself that if someone builds monuments like this, it is more likely to mean "I am the sort of humanist antifascist design nerd who likes reading about ethical problems in Lem novels" and less likely to mean "I am the sort of horrifyingly inhuman fascist entity depicted in an ethical problem in a Lem novel." Right? But doing that is harder when American TV and American comics have me trained to see something like this and go ALERT! ALERT! HORRIFYINGLY INHUMAN FASCIST ENTITY! ETHICAL PROBLEM FORTHCOMING!
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:50 AM on June 16 [14 favorites]


Very cool. Spomenik Database seems like a good site for those who might want to visit them.
posted by slkinsey at 7:53 AM on June 16 [8 favorites]


“Tell America what is happening to us.”

George Packer reflects on Richard Holbrook and the Dayton Accords in an excerpt entitled “Elegy for the American Century” from his latest book, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century.

I’m not sure I buy Packer’s premise but interesting to read alongside this piece.
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:23 AM on June 16


The narrative got reduced to resemblance to UFOs

The entire population of Easter Island just stretched back in their chairs and said "Yes. Tell me more."
posted by gimonca at 8:31 AM on June 16 [12 favorites]


That was surprisingly interesting.

Americans should get together and erect monuments like this on every site of a mass shooting.
posted by brambleboy at 8:40 AM on June 16 [25 favorites]


If you like this sort of thing, Owen Hatherley has a number of extremely engaging books. If you are not from the UK and only moderately interested in architecture, you might especially enjoy Militant Modernism and The Ministry of Nostalgia. Both of them deal with using the idea of the "new" and the "modern" for different political projects as a way of trying to break out of the trajectory of the past. I mean, with other things too, but they really gave me - someone relatively uninformed on that stuff - some new ways to think about "modern" architecture.

His old blog, Sit Down, Man, You're A Bloody Tragedy, is still up even though it hasn't really been regularly updated since like 2011. In happier, bloggier days it was one of my very favorite reads.
posted by Frowner at 8:45 AM on June 16 [11 favorites]


Frowner just beat me to it to reccomend reading Hatherley's books. If you liked the focus of this article, the one to start with would be Landscapes of Communism. The only thing is that his books are not heavily illustrated, so you find yourself wanting to read them alongside the sort of big-photos-without-context books/websites that he is so unimpressed with.
posted by Vortisaur at 8:50 AM on June 16 [2 favorites]


That was a good read; thanks for posting this. That's a chunk of history I have very little knowledge about and having these works contextualized instead of just stranded in their visual impact was really useful.

I don't know if I've run across any of these particular monuments in social media wanders, but the general phenomenon the article is touching on—"check out these weird, far-out Eastern European / Soviet-Era buildings!"—is definitely familiar. Cf. the trend of "unusual architecture = brutalism" in similar ways.

And the fact is, they are visually striking and so it's not surprising that people would find ways to trade on that out of sheer aesthetic opportunism, but something about the literal monumentalism of all of these works, the deliberateness and scale that had to have been involved in creating them, makes it that much more uncomfortable that they are routinely divorced of all context just for the sake of that quick visual pow factor—whether in service of internet clickbait or, as nebulawindphone notes, as design fodder for major media productions.

And it's a little maddening to think about how Kempenaers' book is doing a structurally similar thing as the clickbait stuff, in flatting and mischaracterizing and decontextualizing these works and this history, but in a register that isn't nearly as readily met with skepticism. Scummy and opportunistic and unfact-checked as social media aggregators and clickbait articles are, many people at least generally understand and expect them to be so: you may not bother to e.g research an Archillect post, but you probably recognize that it's not a vetted resource. Whereas a published book of original photos on an unfamiliar subject is going to land with a kind of implied authority, of sober and trustworthy research to the words and methodology all out of scale with what we expect of internet chumboxes etc.

So on the one hand it's good to hear that the book has helped with some visibility for this stuff, and the article features folks extending some complicated credit to it on that front, but it's also frustrating to see it function as part of a multi-step process of simultaneously raising visual awareness of these works while undercutting the history and nature of them.
posted by cortex at 9:07 AM on June 16 [9 favorites]


That was a really good article. The educated part of me always knew that Yugoslavia was unaligned for most of its history, but I did not know how heavily decentralized the constituent republics were, and how many different small local socialist/capitalist hybrid experiments had been tried in that country. This really sparked in me a desire to learn more about Yugoslavia’s communist history. Because I think some of those local participatory democratic communist structures and processes might inform the kind of work I think our society needs to do to find a way to live with decency and inclusiveness in this century.

At the very least they can tell us what not to do— which is probably huddle behind interior borders and not engage with the global market. But even that blithe generalization is unkind to the history of Yugoslavia. Because I remember in my own family that when I was 10 years old in the late 1970s, my mother and I lived in London while my staunchly American father spent most of two years building a power plant in Yugoslavia. Sheesh, real life is nuanced and complicated.
posted by seasparrow at 9:43 AM on June 16 [4 favorites]


I feel like it can't help that this sort of visual style gets redeployed in American media as visual shorthand for a certain kind of Orwellian sci-fi scenario.

Very likely that that aesthetic--an abstract-yet-oddly-evocative monumental structure in the middle of an empty field--hews very closely to the dominant science fiction paperback designs of the mid-to-late twentieth century. Frankly, I would much prefer an article that looked at the commonalities in these two very different uses of art, and whether one influenced the other or derived from a common influence, than the prolonged finger-wagging of TFA. I don't think that the "man, you don't really get what these are about, do you?" approach to art history or criticism is the right approach.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:09 AM on June 16 [10 favorites]


Tito was a real bastard, the sort of man who could rally international communists who thought Stalin was too flexible and compromising in the late '40s. Yugoslavia's break with Stalin was convenient during the Cold War and muted criticism of Tito from the west, but the main reason he avoided being fascist by being a different sort of authoritarian.

The article is interesting but obviously IMHO has its own problems decontextualizing things too, by discussing post-war Yugolsavia as if its main quality were its anti-fascist multi-cultural harmony.
posted by mark k at 10:56 AM on June 16 [6 favorites]


I don't think that the "man, you don't really get what these are about, do you?" approach to art history or criticism is the right approach.

I wouldn't say it is the universally useful approach, but as a response (which the article is explicit about being) to the at best casual and careless dismissal/removal of that context for cheap commercial opportunism it seems really on point. I appreciate that the article managed to accomplish more than one thing there. I'd also totally enjoy the examination of the crossover between mid-20th C modernist art and sci-fi art and illustration that you're talking about, but it's not a zero sum; we can have both.
posted by cortex at 11:14 AM on June 16 [3 favorites]


My appreciation for the article is covered in several of the comments above, so I'll just add some sincere gratitude for the publication itself; I was entirely unfamiliar with The Calvert Journal and it looks to be a boundlessly compelling publication that can fill a few of the infinite gaps I have in my knowledge of the creative culture in (to use their parlance) the New East. Thank you!
posted by youarenothere at 11:24 AM on June 16 [1 favorite]


The SF novel art resonance is compelling - it was the first thing that struck me. That's a lot to think about ad explore all on its own.

The other thing that struck me was a resonance with CERN's sculpture park of old exxperiments. (image search for 'cern garden'). It's easy to be glib here in ways the article explicitly warns against, but again I feel this is a path of thought that may lead somewhere worthwhile.

(Do visit the CERN garden if you can - it's one of science's best ritual landscapes, up there in feel if not in scale with Cape Canaveral.)
posted by Devonian at 11:49 AM on June 16


I think context is always important as a way to help try to fend off the kind of consumption based nowism that sees anything that doesn't fit present trends as exotic, bizarre, and usually amusing for being so "wrong" in ways "our" tastes clearly aren't for being ours. At the same time, you can't expect people to "feel" context like they do their recognition of difference, so the response to the works necessarily will be informed by experiences outside the context of the works creation. This is roughly the same issue that makes the frequent posts on funny modern takes on old paintings difficult. The urge to emphasize the bizarre is better served by ignoring the context of the time than it would be by explicating it and risk losing an easy laugh.

Even with the works themselves, the article is slightly misleading in talking about what they "truly" represent as if that could be boiled down to a single thing instead of being a product of competing elements that helped shape the works. The monuments might be the result of competition, for example, but those competitions would have had their own limitations and expectations on what would be acceptable under the political and cultural demands of the time. The anti-fascist sentiment is thus couched in a mode of expression tied to the system they were constructed under. They aren't free of that latter heritage, which is what stands out for so many in the west now, no matter what their intent was or how they communicate additional values of sacrifice and opposition to fascism.

As something of an analogy in a different art form, I recently watched a movie called Cossacks of the Kuban, a sort of Soviet version of State Fair, with the workers of different collective farms coming together at a fair to celebrate the harvest. The movie is charming in its way, almost how one might imagine Gene Rodenberry envisioned life in the Federation. Minimal conflict, the people wise and almost entirely good natured and competent and great abundance of food, entertainment, and necessary items for work and pleasure. As someone familiar with US films from the time and/or later it feels quite refreshing in its light hearted, but purposeful concern for the well being of all and little interest in antagonism.

The movie though was made in 1949, barely two years after the famine of '46/'47, when "abundance" was nowhere to be found and the state's concern for its citizens wasn't quite so rosy as shown in the movie. The movie is a lie, a false promise of things being better. That context is important to understand to get why the movie was made as it was, but for those who didn't live under that system the opposing context, that of what we live can't help but inform our response as well. Art isn't reportage after all, it speaks to things beyond fact alone and exists beyond the time those facts were of the present to being of history. Art made "here", for "us", "today" also obfuscates and misleads as often as it reveals our world to us if we don't pay attention.

We would do well to understand that history and be less interested in mocking or goggling at the bizarre lives of those not us not now, but we likewise can't ignore the competing contexts that also inform or reactions as that too helps inform us of our own context when investigated. The forms these sculptures take, the size, how they are situated in the landscape, the materials, and mode of representation unornamented, abstract celebrations of collective might with little emphasis of anything on a individual human scale says something about the works that their purpose alone doesn't and ignoring that isn't really any more sensible than ignoring their intended function.

Oh, and I used to really dig Sit Down, Man, You're a Bloody Tragedy, I had no idea what the author had gone on to. Thanks for the notice!
posted by gusottertrout at 12:09 PM on June 16 [8 favorites]


Even fully contexturalized, this brutalist style is often simply ugly. Can we in the west be blamed harshly for associating them with the often, well, brutal, regimes that spawned them? Also knowing that those regimes were obsessed with portraying a typically utopian and grandiose narrative?

Doesn't help that they often appear derelict to boot. Hell, it seems they often bear little context among the very people they're meant to speak to today.
posted by 2N2222 at 12:35 PM on June 16 [1 favorite]


I walked the Partisan Memorial Cemetery in Mostar, but it wasn't really introduced in artistic terms, because it was the mid-1990s.
There were some wooden memorials in addition to the stone ones, because the material was easier to get, I think.
posted by doctornemo at 12:59 PM on June 16


slkinsey, that Spomenik Database is really something. Thanks for that link!
posted by brambleboy at 1:12 PM on June 16


Thank you for this, Foci. This adds to what I learned by going to the MoMA Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980 exhibition last year. There was a lot there about these monuments with videos of walk throughs and reflections. If you scroll down near the bottom of that page there is a link to a free PDF of a sample of "Bogdanović by Bogdanović: Yugoslav Memorials through the Eyes of Their Architect," that people might appreciate.
posted by Gotanda at 3:13 PM on June 16 [3 favorites]


I usually find brutalist buildings really ugly, but these are not at all to me. They're beautiful in their own way and I had never heard of them before, so thank you for this post!
posted by stillnocturnal at 2:20 AM on June 17 [2 favorites]


I don't think that the "man, you don't really get what these are about, do you?" approach to art history or criticism is the right approach.

The article is definitely not talking about "getting" art. It about lying, false information, lazy journalism, and profiting of the erasure of history (not just art history). There's a difference between not "getting" a giant concrete fist, and then people from other countries and cultures trying to make money off saying said concrete fists were erected by a fascist and not, in fact, a monument to fallen soldiers that died at the hands of fascists.
posted by FirstMateKate at 5:11 AM on June 17 [4 favorites]


the dominant science fiction paperback designs of the mid-to-late twentieth century

Just popping back to report that that page of sci-fi covers led me to spend all of yesterday rereading a Clifford Simak novel.

The FPP is fantastic, will be seeking out books by that person very soon.
posted by salt grass at 9:10 AM on June 17 [1 favorite]


There's a difference between not "getting" a giant concrete fist, and then people from other countries and cultures trying to make money off saying said concrete fists were erected by a fascist and not, in fact, a monument to fallen soldiers that died at the hands of fascists.

You are so right, FirstMateKate. It's like the people in this thread that keep calling these monuments Brutalist, when the article itself makes clear that they are a lot closer to Vernacular architecture. Many of these pieces, whatever you think of them today, were designed locally, after much discussion from the survivors who had been there, and there was plenty of opportunity to design a more traditional monument or something in another style, but for whatever reason, this is what the people together decided on.

I also really appreciated gusottertrout's comments, especially about the film Cossacks of Kuban. I was intrigued enough to track it down, and watch it online, which you can do in several chunks as long as you start in an incognito window. And I really do understand what gusottertrout meant about lying propaganda in the face of famine.

BUT, at the same time, there are really strange moments of truth that manage to kick their way into that movie, like when the heroine Galina is singing a slow sad song about her love "I waited for you all through the war," and you can see from her history in the film so far that she is still single, so he obviously never came home. And then with a sudden gasp, this single, slow ballad modulates into an enormous chorale crescendo, and there are bursting onto the screen dozens, hundreds of women singing, shouting this song that has totally changed, and you think, "Yes, that is what is would have been like in 1948 for the widows and fiancees of millions of men who were killed in that horrible war."

While being completely different, it reminded me of modern Iranian film, which while similarly working under huge censorial constraints, can sometimes be surprisingly vibrant and hides its discussions about Westernization under the metaphors of child custody or the adoption of certain technologies.
posted by seasparrow at 12:16 PM on June 17 [5 favorites]


While being completely different, it reminded me of modern Iranian film, which while similarly working under huge censorial constraints, can sometimes be surprisingly vibrant and hides its discussions about Westernization under the metaphors of child custody or the adoption of certain technologies.

I think that's exactly right and what I was kinda trying to suggest in my long winded way. The "meanings" of art, even under authoritarian regimes aren't able to be boiled down to one single "right" message as the relationship between the works and the audience is more complex than that. They can both celebrate the thing they claim to be celebrating and be understood for that in the context of the limitations of the time, those who lived in the Soviet Union, for example, were well aware of the famine but could still watch something like Cossacks of Kuban as both a dream of abundance, not unlike those in the US who enjoyed movies like State Fair made during the Great Depression, accept that the movies have imposed limits on what could be shown or mentioned, and still find moments of suggestive meaning in what could be shown that did speak to their condition.

The monuments in the article have multivalent meanings that speak to the limits imposed by time and circumstance in which they were created but also to the values they are designed to celebrate within that constrained circumstance as well as how they exist as something more than either of those as we look at them from a context divorced from the circumstance of their creation and hold them in contrast to wider world of art. Ignoring the context of history is as mistaken as taking them as pure artistic inspiration alone, much less thinking their only use is in amusement for us who tend to think of ourselves outside the influence of history for existing in the now and judge from that "enlightened" perspective.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:50 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]


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