Speaker by Various Artists


Seeking out the Spomeniks

by Clinton Logan

Dotted about the former Yugoslavia are Spomeniks – largely forgotten monuments, often erected in silent, empty landscapes, like sentinels from another world. Even their collective label sounds alien. (It's Serbo-Croatian for "monuments." )

"They're truly hideous," wrote one design critic. But for me, they're the antithesis of ugly and were worth riding thousands of kilometres to see.

During the 1960s and 1970s, hundreds of Spomeniks started appearing across the newly-formed country. These giant modernist/brutalist structures were intended to simultaneously commemorate the tragedies of war and celebrate the utopian promise offered by the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Glorification through sculpture is nothing new – but in contrast to the ubiquitous marble statues favoured in the West, the East adopted a much bolder and more oblique aesthetic. Concrete and rebar was their material of choice. The individual designs ranged from massive conceptual sculptures to multi-storey buildings and some that look more like the notepad doodles of a distracted student. I don't mean that as a criticism – their creativity and scale are absolutely breathtaking in real life.

They were initially revered by the peple, but the relevance of these once-noble emblems faded after the disintegration of the Yugoslavian republic in 1991. Like incomprehensible relics from an alien civilization, most lie in a state of neglect. Like the region's former communist unification principles, the general public don't seem to care about them anymore.

As a fan of brutalism, I'll admit I came for the concrete. The history lesson was secondary. But slowlying approach these wonders from a distance changed all of that.

Their challenging accessibility applies a natural filter for visitors. Whether to site is at the terminus of a winding mountain road or in an obscure rural field, the discovery experience is always the same. Just you and the giant Spomenik, facing off in isolation from the rest of the world. These installations project an aura and gravity that's impossible to ignore. They force you to pay attention. They insist you question their reason for being.

Their existence typically pinpoints a location of unspeakable cruelty. Each is associated with a human tragedy that's sickening to read about. Stories that stick with you long after the awe of the concrete has faded.

But even in their sadly neglected state, these structures offer a positive illustration of how we humans are still capable of sublime expression even in the wake of such behavioural darkness. And whether they're bronze or concrete, classical or brutalist, it's the whole point of creating them, right?

Clinton Logan explores the world by motorcycle and documents his travels on his personal Facebook account.

Dušan Džamonja created this magnificent structure in 1967 to honour the sacrifice the people of Moslavina made during World War II. Standing on a square pedestal, it is 10 metres tall, and 20 metres wide. Photo: Clinton Logan

This stunning concrete flower at Jasenovac marks the location of arguably the cruelest extermination camp of all time. It was built in 1966 on the site of the former Jasenovac Camp III, established by the Ustaše Regime during WWII for the primary goal of butchering 500,000 prisoners in ways not seen since the Dark Ages. The flower stands 24m high and 35m wide and was designed by Bogdan Bogdanović. Photo: Clinton Logan

Jasenovac Flower in reflection, with a human for scale. I had a really nice chat to the man in the photograph. He's a bee keeper from Slovenia. Photo: Clinton Logan

This spomenik at Tjentište commemorates the Battle of the Sutjeska, one of Yugoslavia's bloodiest WWII conflicts. Created by Miodrag Živković from concrete and rebar it stands about 15m high and25m wide Photo: Clinton Logan

The Petrova Gora Monument built on Petrovac, the highest peak of the Petrova mountain range in central Croatia, memorialises the uprising of the people of Kordun and Banija against the Ustaše Regime during WWII. The monument was designed by Vojin Bakić and completed in 1981. Sadly neglected today, its stainless steel facade is being slowly stripped away by looters. Photo: Clinton Logan

The wonderfully organic stairwell inside the Petrova Gora Monument. Photo: Clinton Logan