Žan Kobal —
design, writting and recearch


selected work





     chair 001

selected writing     
    On Memory and Materiality
     Design, Designs
    The Difficult Heritage Of A Broken Past





The Difficult Heritage Of A Broken Past




The Difficult Heritage Of A Broken Past: Yugoslavian Post War Monuments is a research book following the monuments from their birth to their ideological death. It is a brief introduction into the turbulent history of the Balkan region, talked about through the monuments’ shifting narrative in relation to the changing power structures.

Viewing them as political propaganda, the book supports this claim by a conducted research, analyzing the benefactors and funding for individual monuments. The analysis was conducted on 42 randomly chosen monuments.

The book lays a theoretical foundation for ‘A Memorial To The Monuments’, a 9 screen video installation reconstructing their historical narratives through archival footage.

For more on the project click here


Kempenaers, Jan. “Spomenik #8 (Ilirska Bistrica).” Jan Kempenars, 2007, www.jankempenaers.info/works/1/6/

Yugoslavian post war memorials are a series of monument structures, built between the 1950s and 1980s. They are a legacy of a bygone era, the embodied ethos of a generation, objects of anger, and witnesses to suffering. They are triumphant and most of all, they are misunderstood.

Following the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1992, many of these structures have been destroyed. During the Balkan Wars between 1991 and 2001 they became symbolic targets for anti-Yugoslav sentiment. Those that survived were in many cases neglected and vandalized.

After decades of damage and decay, something strange happened. In recent years they have gained a lot of online attention, they became viral clickbait. They are often referred to as being abandoned and forgotten or lumped together under the catch-all title of “communist monuments”. The Western media dubbed them “spomeniks”, a bastardization of a Serbo-Croatian word “spomenik” meaning monument. The term was first used by Jan Kempenaers in 2006 as the title of his photobook documenting these monuments. By completely decontextualizing and stripping them of all necessary tools for understanding them, Kempenaers focused on the obvious – their awe.


The book was the start of their exoticization and the treatment of them as mute, incomprehensible objects of a
foreign past (calvertjurnal.com). The pictures of the monuments spread like wildfire on the internet, often presented as alien like futuristic structures, with the term “spomeniks” commonly used.  Because these monuments are inherently political, the foreign given name can be seen as problematic, as it helps to otherize them. It also highlights a Western perception of the Balkans as only peripherally associated with the project of Enlightenment in the Western world.

As historian Maria Todorova states in her study ‘Imagining the Balkans’, the narrative of the Balkans as Europe’s internal “other” dominates the history of the region’s representation in Western art, literature and culture (3-12). It presents a mystified story, a spectacle of timeless and incomprehensible cycle of passion.  “The old binary model of centre and periphery of cultural production has produced a skewed and deeply problematic outlook onto history” (Stireli and Kulič, 7). Any serious evaluation of cultural production in the region has been further hindered by a sense of Orientalism to “Spomeniks” and works like them, when talked about solely from an outsider’s perspective. This notion of the Balkans as Europe’s “orient”, an exotic “other” territory between East and West, needs to be challenged.  It often leads to misrepresentation of the region’s culture, one that evokes a sense of cultural imperialism.

Kempenaers, Jan. “Spomenik #3 (Kosmaj).” Jan Kempenars, 2006, www.jankempenaers.info/works/1/25/

Under postmodern political conditions, a neoliberal notion of plurality of cultures, or multiculturalism, has come to light. It is through these cultures an individual becomes, according to Laclau and Mouffe, an ensemble of “subject positions” rather than one moment or instance of a larger collective identity (11-15). As no culture relations can ever be truly neutral, multiculturalism involves a Eurocentric distance and/or respect for local cultures not rooted in one’s own culture. This “respectful” distance from which one is able to appreciate other particular cultures involves a patronising gaze, one that requires a “neutral” approach to that which you want to document or protect (Tomney, 2). Doing so involves asserting one’s own superiority, revealing multiculturalism as a version of cultural imperialism of the multinational capitalist model.

This view is especially evident in the case of the memorial monuments.  In order to avoid asserting blatant sentiments of cultural superiority, the Western media confronts them with a sense of “neutrality”. As a result they are often completely de-contextualized, stripped of any political and cultural connotations, and left without any indication of what they commemorate. Confronting them on a surface level leads to articles such as “Spomeniks: the Second World War monuments that look like alien art. The author, Joshua Surtees, states: “… the British equivalent would be Harold Wilson 


commissioning Henry Moore to create war memorials and dotting them all over Britain in the least visited places” (theguardian.com). This amusingly misguided observation, points towards a complete lack of understanding.

As a result these places of remembrance became concrete clickbait. A shared Yugoslav experience of a revolution became only a cultural artefact used to boost online traffic. A better way to engage with these monuments would be to use them as a tool to re-connect to the near past, reviving whatever can be found of politics and aesthetics of a particular era. To do so, we need to go past the nostalgia and past their sheer fascination. We need to face them as mediating factors between the constructions of past narratives, collective imagination and political activities of the present moment.

Political context

Kempenaers, Jan. “Spomenik #16 (Tjentište).” Jan Kempenars, 2007, www.jankempenaers.info/works/1/14/

Immediately following WWII the newly formed Yugoslavia politically aligned itself with the Soviet Union, although the alignment didn’t last long. In the late 1940s, the relationship between Yugoslavia and the USSR became strained as Tito refused to make Yugoslavia a Soviet satellite state within the Eastern Bloc.

At the outset of Tito’s new Republic ambitious plans were laid to create a classless country ruled by principles of socialism, a population free of ethnic tension all bound together by feelings of “brotherhood and unity”. It was a paradigm of a utopian project, one geared to the creation of a pluralistic, secular and idealistic society (Stireli and Kulič, 8). The Federal and multi-ethnic state provided a structure of cultivating internal multiculturalism, a distinct feature of the post-war Yugoslav project. Comprising of numerous ethnicities, some of which have been engaged in bitter conflict during the war, Yugoslavians would be unified around a sense of progressive optimism held together by a collective righteousness in their victory against fascist aggression.


Distancing itself from the USSR, post-war Yugoslavia searched to legitimize itself by claiming to pursue emancipation: internally, from class divide and ethnic conflict, and externally, by supporting anticolonialism. Pursuing friendly relations, cultural connections and economic exchange with both rival blocs, it became a country which offered a “third way”, an alternative to the capitalist West and communist East. By deliberately defying the geopolitics of the East-West divide and its unique presence at the intersection between the two it enjoyed an outsider’s international presence. This created a stage on which to exchange architectural knowledge and ideas, across political borders and cultural divisions (Stireli and Kulič, 7).


Kempenaers, Jan. “Spomenik #18 (Kadinjača).” Jan Kempenars, 2009, www.jankempenaers.info/works/1/16/

During the initial decade after the war, some monuments were commissioned across Yugoslavia, crafted in the traditional “socialist –realism” style. The key aspect of the style was the notion of “typical”: a typical protagonist in a typical situation. Not in the sense of presenting reality but as elements of fantasy, “typical” was an intangible support to the ideology of communism. (Žižek, “Multiculturalism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism” 28) It often depicted intense and graphic imagery focused on evoking feelings of the past horrors, old suffering and forgotten crimes. Trying to suppress ethnic nationalism for the sake of national unity and cultural cooperation, it was feared that such monuments might evoke unwanted tensions.

After the countries split from the USSR the government wanted to emphasize the departure by finding its own visual language, looking for inspirations in the artistic movements of Western Europe and America. As architects were freed from historical mandate of social realism, the singular architectural style of a socialist society until that point, anti-fascist WWII sculptural memorials began to spring up across Yugoslavia in the styles of abstract expressionism, geometric abstraction and minimalism.


The structures did not only represent a departure away from Soviet thinking, but were also designed to celebrate universal ideals, such as “brotherhood and unity”. Yugoslavia created a series of distinctly “Yugoslavian” monuments used as a tool to blaze a unique identity for the nation.

Between the 1960s – 1980s hundreds of these monuments were built across all six republics of Yugoslavia; Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Socialist Republic of Croatia, Socialist Republic of Macedonia, Socialist Republic of Montenegro, Socialist Republic of Serbia and Socialist Republic of Slovenia. Their primary intent was to honour the regions struggle during the National Liberation War (WWII). Many felt that commemorating this through decontextualized abstraction might aid the country in ethnic and religious reconciliation, by creating spaces for solace, reflection and forgiveness for all.
The resulting body of work can broadly be identified as modernist for its social and aesthetic aspirations, but at the same time it adds a different dimension to that general category. They do not operate only as surreal and abstract structures memorializing a horrific past, but additionally they function as political tools meant to articulate the countries vision of a new tomorrow.

Question of propaganda

Whether these monuments were political propaganda or not has been a subject of debate within the region’s academic community for years, enticed by the growing interest in human collective and cultural history of the region. Some scholars argue that the style of the monuments was just a natural response to the countries departure from the USSR and embracing cultural exchange with the West. Through the 1920s and 1930s, many Yugoslav architects would study or work in offices abroad, a tradition that was revived in the 1950s and 1960s. This time this was enabled through aid and grant programs funded by Western nations to carry political influence and strategic partnership with a country without any clear political affiliations.

This narrative can be further supported by quickly glancing at where the funding for individual monuments came from. While some projects were approved for funding by the federal government, and some even visited by president Tito on their official public unveiling, some were raised using voluntary donations only. To illustrate this point the case of Bosnia’s Mount Kozara is often used. Although it is true that the monument was founded entirely by public donations, it is important to note that the site was officially recognized for its historical significance by the SR of Bosnia in 1957 with plans for a massive memorial complex already starting to take shape. Five years later a 38 member selection committee was formed to initiate the open call, which included several government officials.


On the other hand, many scholars claim that they were created as political propaganda. This argument finds its basis in the sheer amount of monuments being built in a similar style in a relative small amount of time. Experts claim that this kind of cohesion is highly improbable not to be planed, especially in the historic and political context of the time. Moreover, the project of Yugoslavia was one of trying to unify different ethnic groups that have during WWII experienced deadly conflicts. It tried to bring together the recently defeated Yugoslav Axis collaborators and Partisans. This would only be possible through processes of exclusion, exclusion of violence and memories too painful to commemorate. It is in that sense, that these memorials can be regarded as political, as they are the expression of a particular structure of power relations.

Finding an objective and conclusive answer for this question is next to impossible. The biggest problem being that the resulting successor states have spent the past 20 years rewriting history, including art history, to fit their individual national narratives. As a result, many or all sources may be untrustworthy as they paint a subjective picture of the past.

Although there are archives of these monuments, most of them focus on their historic aspect, location and the year they were built. Their corpus has never been observed as a whole, and even more importantly, it has never been observed from a certain historic distance.  

The following research takes forty-two randomly selected monuments from different sources, and instead of focusing on their history, looks at who commissioned them and who paid for them. As some of the monuments took up to 10 years to build, the research also looks at when their plans were approved, instead of when they were finished and revealed to the public. By cross-examining where the money came from, the conducted research hopes to provide an insight in this highly debated topic. 

The researched monuments are here presented over the next twenty-three pages chronologically. Focussing on three decades – the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Each decade is internally organized in three categories: early, mid and late. A colour code has been created for an easier overview. Consisting of eight categories, each of them represents a source of commission and/or founding: Tito, federal government, regional government, local government, local communist parties, veteran groups, voluntary public donations, privately donated funds. The colours represent the level of the country’s involvement for each of the monuments and are visualised as their background.

Due to the lack of transparency surrounding many of the monuments, there is no known data on who commissioned or funded a couple of them. These are represented in the research without a background but kept to provide a full picture.


When viewed together, the collected data reveals an interesting pattern. Although projects funded by the federal government weren’t limited to any specific decade, there is a clear difference in funding between the years directly following Yugoslavia’s departure from the USSR and later decades.

It becomes clear that the initial wave of monuments built through the 1950s was solely overseen by the federal government. That trend was somewhat carried through the early 1960s, when the projects seemed to be taken over by the regional and local governments. Although these governments were autonomous to some extent, they still received monetary support from the federal government and had to work within certain guidelines.

An interesting quote comes from a 2008 interview with Bogdan Bogdanović, a prominent Yugoslav architect and author of many of these monuments. Talking about the very long process of finding a suitable design for the Jesenovac monument in Croatia, he states: “Tito, in all truth, did not have much artistic discernment. But he understood that my monuments were not Russian monuments (at that time, unfortunately, all the best sculptors have adopted the Russian formula: headless bodies, wounded figures, stretchers). When he saw me, a bizarre man with a surrealist biography, ready to build him constructions which weren’t Russian, he said, “Let him”.” This signifies Tito’s understanding of ideological and political significance of maintaining appearances and their profound effect on the socio-symbolic position of those concerned.


It is also important to note that in their heyday, the Yugoslav memorial sites formed a physical network of education and memorialization centres, spread out across the six republics. Often the memorial complexes were fitted with museums and a central feature of many were amphitheatres. Busloads of school children would visit as part of their history curriculum or via Tito’s “Young Pioneers” political youth initiative.

The monuments acted as outdoor classrooms, used as a tool to communicate the history, mythology and ideology of the country. They were a national network of grand teaching tools for relating to the population the ethos, history and narrative of Tito’s Yugoslavia.

Cross-examining the gathered data, a possible interpretation starts to emerge. Right after Yugoslavia’s split from the USSR, the first wave of monuments was completely government funded. This suggests that they were inherently propaganda. From their drastically different style to their sheer size, they were a clear statement about the countries shifting alliances, a not so subtle nod to the West. Even though not all monuments were government projects in the following decades, the initial wave had such a strong impact that it firmly cemented a new visual language. Political propaganda became a nationwide trend, creating a new socialist style. When viewed as a single unit, they tell a story of external political propaganda, and stand as a testament to cultural planning and one nation’s intent to communicate a shared ideology.

Cultural genocide

Kempenaers, Jan. “Spomenik #15 (Makljen).” Jan Kempenars, 2007, www.jankempenaers.info/works/1/3/

Since the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, many of these monuments have fallen into disrepair. The relative political stability of post-war Europe was achieved through a generalized forgetting of wartime crimes. This proved to be too difficult of a task for the people of Yugoslavia. From 1991 to 2001, the Balkan region was overtook by ethnic conflict and re-emergence of politics of pure particularism, one that manifested itself in the form of extreme nationalism.

The change of the ideological paradigm caused the necessity of creation of new memory politics and rewriting of recent history, a method that is widely referred to as historical revisionism. This involved processes that can be read as iconoclasm, the erasure of monuments of the fallen regime (Horvatičić, 00:05:29-00:05:40). The resulting nationalist movements saw the monuments as unwelcome symbols of a unified Yugoslavia, resulting in them being destroyed, abandoned and neglected. They were discredited as “communist”, instantly erasing their history of commemorating the victims of fascism and the antifascist struggle of World War II.

It has been reported that by the turn of the millennium, more than 3000 memorial grounds have been vandalized or destroyed across the Balkan region.


These acts of violence were largely carried out during night time, out of sight of the general public. While most of these instances weren’t reported on, those that were, are now considered to be cover up stories. Following the destruction of one of the abstract monuments in Slavonia, a local newspaper reported that the concrete memorial complex was destroyed by strong winds (Šuljič, “Minirani partizani” 68).

Moreover, the successor states stripped the monuments of their status as cultural monuments, a status they were given in Yugoslavia. This meant they no longer were protected by the state and became no one’s property.   They were rendered out of mind. Those that still remain tell a hunting and passionate story about violence, history and future unrealized. They stand silently as a ruined web of unseen cultural markers.

There is no doubt that the monuments have had a very tumultuous life. From being adorn and celebrated for decades, to their demise in the 90s, and recently being rediscovered as cultural commodity. This sort of shift in narrative is very unusual, especially in historic monuments commemorating war struggles. How did these monuments that were meant to heal a region and help overcome ethnic rivalries through benevolent forms, become artefacts of contention?

Walker, Alan “a still from music video Darkseid” Youtube, 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-P4QBt-FWw

Following the terrors experienced during WWI and WWII, a major part of the 20th century mind-set and social investment was in the protection of memory, with WWII memorials being the most obvious case. Almost all Western war memorials of the period tend to shy away from depicting aggression, not showing the war as it actually was. One could argue, that since the Yugoslavian post war monuments do not only follow the aesthetic but also sociohistorical tendencies of the modernist monument, they should be considered as part of a larger corpus of Western memorial production.

So why have they experienced such a drastically different fate then the likes of  the Memorial to the Fallen Jews of Europe in Berlin, or the Aschrott Fountain in Kassel? Perhaps the answer lies in the historic and political context in which they were erected. As previously established, they weren’t only spaces of solace and recollection, they also acted as political tools, a role more closely related to monuments of totalitarian regimes. And how better to celebrate the fall of totalitarian regimes than by celebrating the fall of their monuments.

It is important to note that there is a clear difference in the role the Yugoslavian monuments had as political tools, then that of the Soviet monuments. The Soviet monuments acted as internal propaganda, enforcing the Communist Party’s ideology of a heroic proletariat and glorifying the Party’s leaders. In contrast, Yugoslavian monuments were an act of external propaganda, emphasizing the countries departure from the Eastern Bloc. 


As such, they didn’t operate with the motifs of idolization, but focused solely on the memorialization of the victims of WWII. Therefore they shouldn’t have experienced aggression after the fall of Yugoslavia.

Perhaps the reason for their fate is the benevolence itself. Since there was concern that more direct and aggressive forms might evoke feelings of suppressed horrors and forgotten suffering, which would lead to ethnic tensions, the government decided to adopt a less representative, more abstract style. When looking at them through a historic prism, it seems that leaving out the aspect of violence rendered them, while still important and impressive, empty vessels.ć

As the years after the war passed and the memories became less painful and less clear, the monuments took on a new role. Because of the lack of a strong visual implication of what they were supposed to commemorate, people could project their own sentiments onto them. In the nation’s eyes, they became the embodiment of the Yugoslav ethos and its symbols. This notion was carried through into the 90s, when they became targets of nationalist aggression and faced neglect and destruction.

Even now, rediscovered by the internet, this lack of clear communication, has left them somewhat unreadable and vulnerable to commodification. They became silent backdrops for magazine photoshoots and music videos, exploiting them for their impressive visuals. Their online status as cultural icons becomes apparent when searching the #spomenik on Instagram, with more than 16.000 results. Most interestingly, a large portion of the posts using the hashtag isn’t about the monuments at all. This implies that the monuments became an online brand, one that is reduced only to boosting online traffic.
Perhaps this fate could have been avoided with a clearer narrative. By not shying away from the violence and pain, they would present a less ambiguous sentiment, standing firm in what they are and not what people perceive them to be. Perhaps if they embraced the violence, they would have survived.


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