Relics of a lost ideology

Monday 26 Mar 2012

Jan Kempenaers explores monuments of former Yugoslavia and contemporary relevance of the Picturesque tradition in a new series of photographic books

The focus of Belgium-based photographer Jan Kempenaers has undergone a subtle yet significant shift from large, detailed cityscapes to isolated architecture and natural landscapes. Two recently published books, compiled by the artist with Roma Publications, have documented his current preoccupations.

The first comprises a series of Kempenaers’ photographs of Spomeniks: the enormous, abstract monuments of the former republic of Yugoslavia commissioned and built in the years following World War II that punctuate the mountainous landscape of its now separate countries. Strangely, incongruously, the Spomeniks emerge like subterranean crystals from the ground, pushing skywards in cold, hard defiance as symbols of socialist triumph. Often built close to the graveyards of victims of war, some have the appearance of exaggerated, pneumatic memorials, while others tentatively suggest the capacity for inhabitance, as futuristic residential complexes.

These objects of reinforced concrete, steel and granite, which can neither be categorically defined as sculpture nor architecture drew Kempenaers’ attention when he was leafing through an old art encyclopedia on a rainy day. “I was doing a series of landscape photographs in Sarajevo just after the war, and when it was raining I went to the library - it was there that I discovered in an art encyclopedia some pages about these monuments. Much later, when I started doing a PhD I rediscovered those pages and went with a friend to the library, where I discovered an old map from the 1970s with the locations of all the monuments marked on it.”

Thousands were constructed, but most of the Spomeniks have since been demolished, vandalised or left to decompose in the wilderness, having become metaphors for an obsolete ideology. Their locations are few and far between, and can only be found by thorough research or spontaneous encounter. “A friend of mine came with me and we had to show the map to the local people. We had to ask several times before we could find them, because they are all located in places like the mountains or in the woods, so they were quite difficult to find.”

The relevance of these once glorious emblems, synonymous with collective strength and unification during the era of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, swiftly diminished after the disintegration of the Republic in 1991. “None of the local people are interested in the Spomeniks anymore, because they refer to the bringing together of the country – and they've just split it up.” Indeed, the Spomeniks already seem like the coded, incomprehensible relics of a distant age. Yet Kempenaers’ project may itself have helped alter the course of their future; “Since the book there's been a lot of interest in them... I’m not sure what’s going to happen. Maybe when they become part of the European Union they will restore them. I don't know.”

Published more recently in 2012, Picturesque presents Kempenaers’ exploration of derelict Spomenik constructions and other ruins within the natural landscape. “I saw the monuments as ruins in a certain way - because some of them were also dynamited during the last war - which is part of the Picturesque tradition; landscapes and ruins.” His photographs respond to the 18th-century concept of the Picturesque, with particular reference to the English priest and early exponent of the Picturesque tradition William Gilpin. “Most aristocratic people from England during this period went on the Grand Tour to Italy, and Gilpin wanted to design something like the Grand Tour but for England itself. When people came back from the Grand Tour they brought back drawings which were based on the French painters, and it was these drawings that inspired Gilpin to make aquarelles of the British landscape. He had some rules which were important for these images - these rules are the basic premises of Picturesque images.”

While some of Kempenaers’ landscapes follow the tradition of depicting the landscape in its natural state, most capture sections of land that have been in some way altered by humankind. He regards this 18th-century intrigue of the Picturesque - its socially transgressive sensibilities and embracing of the changeable, sublime force of Nature - as a formulaic concept that has remained relevant throughout the course of photography as an artistic discipline, and one that still remains so today; the enforcement of man-made rules upon the natural landscape is the focus of his concept for this photographic series. “I looked to later photography until now, as to whether these rules are still important or not – and that's what the project is about. They're still important I think. Like in Axel Hütte’s Landschaft, for example, you can still use these rules, and all these images get their power from these rules in a certain way.”

As well as being visually awe-inspiring, this series of publications reminds the reader of the potential for artists to be instrumental in social and political change. Whether or not direct action will be taken upon the monuments as a result of Kempenaers’ artistic enquiries, this published study has posited the anachronistic objects into contemporary discourse, opening the strange world of Spomeniks to the possibility of future reconsideration, re-use and renovation - making these socially irrelevant relics relevant once more.

For more information on Spomenik and Picturesque, see:

Amy Knight
Arts and Media Correspondent

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