Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Spomenik and Orientalism

Somewhere around 2006 a photographer named Jan Kempenaers started publishing photos of these things in the former Yugoslavia. Huge concrete sculptural forms, building-sized, but not buildings.

We came to understand, partly from the photos, and partly from enthsiastic commentators, several things. These were weird brutalist constructions all over the former Yugoslavia, erected in various middles of nowhere. These were commissioned by Tito himself as part of a vast project to aggrandize something or other. These were mysterious, isolated, dramatic things.

This is, obviously, unbridled Orientalism in its one of its more obnoxious senses. Something is exoticized, and we project all kinds of ideas onto it, ideas that make us feel comfortable, superior, and so on. We admire these monumental things, and yet we are free to kind of sneer at them too. "Oh well it's just Tito, you know, dictator shit." "Oh well, they don't make any sense, we're still better than them." and so on. I am not the first to point this out by any means, this is in fact the current standard understanding of the 2006-onwards media thing around spomenik.

In reality, none of this is really true. In reality, we can trace back the falsehoods to Kempenaers photos, which isolated the major structures, deliberately and completely de-contextualizing them. This creates the illusion of "out of nowhere" which is largely false. In fact, many (all?) of these things are part of a little park thing, there are benches and plaques and other bits and pieces, and just over there is a town, and so on. They are, in fact, perfectly ordinary monuments that memorialize one thing or another, which you can read all about on the handily supplied plaques.

Tito did not command these things. They just sort of showed up for various and sundry reasons, driven by various and sundry processes, funded by various and sundry sources. The reason they all look kind of of-a-piece is just because that was the style. It's a bit like all the bronze statues of Confederate Generals in the USA — it seemed, to a swathe of society, like a good idea at the time. The spomenik memorialize mostly anti-fascist things, so I can certainly get behind them a bit more, but the social mechanics are similar.

The meaning of these objects is now much clearer, and is widely known. I can recommend the Spomenik Database to those interested. I'm sure it's not the whole story, and I am sure it has its problems, but it's a damn sight better than the folk understanding we had in, say, 2007.

Anyways, this speaks to the larger project of "photographic colonialism."

It is certainly true that many many photographs have been taken of the world "out there" with the goal of exoticizing that which the locals find perfectly normal. It is certainly true that a lot of reports-from-the-East have come back over the last 1000 years or so which serve mainly to make Them look like primitive weirdos and Us look like smooth sophisticates.

At the same time, though, there is a corrective process. The Spomenik Database uses photos that look a great deal like Kempenaers' photos (for all I know they may actually be using some of his.) At the same time, though, other photos with more context are given. There is a text writeup for each monument, and so on. Kempenaers' photos are not evil or wrong, they're just incomplete.

The system of media which grew up in 2006 was built on Kempenaers' photos, but was so much more. It began with context-lite photos and added in a bunch of made-up context, to create an overall impression. The same photographs, placed into a more complete context, work completely differently.

In the same way, the photographs from The Mysterious East or from The Colonies are not inherently evil. Placed in one context, they support lies. Placed in another, they support truth. Placed in yet another, they support scholarship. It is the nature of photographs to remove context, and at the same time to provide a kind of detail that no other medium allows. Scholarship of seeable things demands the use of photographs, despite their capacity to remove context. It is the job of the scholar to put the context back. Replace "scholar" with "anyone who's interested in what's actually there" or some similarly broad term, and this remains true.

It happens that the history and context of the Yugoslav spomenik has not been lost. You can just go read the plaques, and talk to people in the town next door, and they'll tell you all about it. At the same time, though, these things are arguably a product of a cultural experiment, an experiment in the construction of a national identity. Tito's program included welding Yugoslavia together into a coherent single national identity, which project failed spectacularly. You can argue that, to a degree, the spomenik are artifacts of a dead culture. The culture from which they arose remains in fragments, in individuals, in records, and so forth. It's kind of right there, but it is nevertheless slightly removed from contemporary cultures in the region. Imagine, though, if Kempenaers' project had happened in 3006 rather than 2006 (or that the monuments dated from 967ish rather than 1967ish.)

The people in the area would not meaningfully have any connection to the WWII partisans and so forth commemorated by the monuments. The plaques would be gone, or illegible, or in a script nobody reads any more. The local population might well claim the monument as "theirs" but they might well have no actual connection to it. Some muddled traditions, probably wrong. Maybe a few bits and pieces of language, maybe not. Maybe a genetic line of descent, but maybe not even that.

Kempenaers' photos and the knock-on effects would be even more possible than they were in this era. However, also the scholarly approach, the one that pieces together the context as best it can would be possible. That whole business of digging things up and deciphering dead scripts could be dragged out to build something like the Spomenik Database, or maybe even something better. It would probably have errors, but at least it wouldn't be pure exoticization.

The Egyptologists showed us these freaky "mummy" things that the weirdos in Africa did, but they also deciphered the hieroglyphs. They also tried to reassemble the details of what was, to a large degree, a lost culture. Yes, the material objects of the Pharaohs rightly belong to the neighboring people, but there really was no significant cultural continuity in play here, it's just a chain of possession.

We know both dopey exoticization and scholarly reconstruction are possible, because both things happened, over and over and over.

Simply saying that outsiders shouldn't come to photograph (or whatever) a local culture, because outsiders suck, is maybe not a great answer. Sometimes the locals are pretty busy. Sometimes the locals just don't give a shit, or actively seek to bury a past. The outsider/insider distinction is, as often as not, meaningless anyway.

I am glad that Donald Niebyl and his many supporters went to the trouble of assembling the Spomenik Database, and I'm glad a bunch of white Euros deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphics. You could argue that someone from the former Yugoslavia should have done the former, and an Egyptian should have done the latter, but they didn't, and we have no way of knowing if that would have ever happened. The world is a better place for the work having gotten done, and I am not at all convinced that we should worry over-much about who did it.


  1. This is all very interesting, thanks. Obviously, these monuments are only in the "east" in a very relative sense. Every town has an "east end" that is west of some other town, and the spomeniks are in Europe's "east end". Hordes of us proles from the capitalist "west" used to go there for a cheap summer holiday in Tito's day. The concrete gigantism of the spomeniks is a characteristic artistic phenomenon of the time and place (you should see the hotels), and I don't think you need to know precisely what they memorialise or who commissioned them to find them fascinating in their own right. Chartres cathedral is amazing to its throngs of Chinese tourists, even without the slightest knowledge of 12th century France or the Catholic religion; perhaps even more so.

    Speaking as an empire-heritage person of aesthetic curiosity, I'm beginning to find the "orientalist" charge rings a little hollow, when all it amounts to is an accusation that "you're liking these things for all the wrong reasons". In the end, art and the appreciation of art are not about being politically "on message". "The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing" (Pascal).


  2. Photography has the innate ability to 'exoticize' anything it is pointed at. Hooray, that's its magic! A useful attribute for artistic purposes, but I think many documentarians underestimate the extent to which it destroys indexicality. And I doubt it matters much whether the photographer is an 'authentic,' has 'good' intentions, or whatever. What does ultimately matter is who sees the pictures.

  3. Sure seem to be a lot of people around telling me what I can or can't do or like and why.

  4. This is off topic, but my web site kind of sucks, and I want random people who may be reading this to go look through it, and then tell me why they think it sucks. But before you all get started, let me just say that the main reason is probably because I don't give a shit. Thanks!