Jan Kempenaers

In the late ’60s and the ’70s, Yugoslavia, at that time a socialist republic, launched a substantial program of monument building, resulting in a dense network of dozens of memorials all over the country, on both urban locations and more rural sites. The assortment of forms and shapes is quite extraordinary. While most of the monuments resort to a figurative language in the tradition of nationalist-socialist sculpture, others are abstract constructions of concrete and steel. Often standing in striking natural environments, these large-scale sculptures were meant to act as glorious reminders of the country’s past and strong expressions of faith in its (socialist) future. During the war and after the dissolution of the republic in the early ’90s, many of these monuments suffered sad fates. While a few have been carefully maintained and still serve as tourist destinations, most have been neglected, some even destroyed.

Fascinated by both the formal qualities and the intricate political background of these monuments, Belgian artist Jan Kempenaers recently toured the various former Yugoslav republics to photograph them, using a 1975 map as his guide. The resulting series of fifteen photographs, entitled “Spomenik,” 2006–2007, after the Croatian word for “monument,” does not, by any means constitute an exhaustive mapping of all the Yugoslavian memorials. Rather, Kempenaers selected only those that struck him as sculptural presences. Consciously abstaining from any exaggeration in terms of perspective, framing, or viewing angle, he presents each of them frontally, centered within the image, always evenly bisected by a clear horizon. Nor did Kempenaers exploit the often spectacular scenery around the monuments. Whereas in past series the artist has shown a fascination with vastness of space in both rural and urban settings, the landscape hardly matters in the “Spomenik” series. The environs—some surrounding trees, bushes, or rocks—merely serve to indicate scale. The artist does not blow up the images to the spectacular dimensions so common in art photography nowadays; the pictures are small, and placed in delicate white frames.

Kempenaers’s distinctive approach further benefited from the specially devised exhibition design, by Antwerp architect Kris Kimpe in collaboration with German artist Jochen Weber. The photographs were hung on a set of four light and loosely positioned walls in the slightly curved space of the exquisite Braem pavilion of the Middelheim. Consisting of an open structure of wooden planks, the delicate exhibition architecture not only afforded an overview of the whole space but also served as a critical backdrop for the material and symbolical weight of the depicted objects.

With “Spomenik,” Kempenaers manages to avoid a wholehearted celebration of the sometimes peculiar and retrograde character of the monuments, on the one hand, and a cynical exposure of them as gloomy relics of a past political ideology on the other. Still, one missed learning something of the geographical and historical specifics of the monuments—all the photographs are titled merely Spomenik, followed by their number in the series. Given the problematic social and historical background of these monuments, there’s something unsatisfying about Kempenaers’s treatment of them as nothing more than aesthetically appealing objects.

Wouter Davidts