Apr 27 2012: Twenty-One Modernist Monuments, Buildings and Memorials from a Guide to the former Yugoslavia (Yugoslaviapublic Beograd, 1980)

The volume that these photographs of futuristic monuments, public sculptures and buildings were selected from is a mammoth guide to the whole territory of the former Yugoslavia (now the separate states of Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro) packed with historic landscapes, landmarks and artefacts. Published in English around 1980, it’s presumably intended as a guide for tourists, and its format and layouts closely resemble a particular Reader’s Digest book on Britain that I remember my parents having in the car through most of the late 1970s and 1980s: a combination of regional encyclopaedia, with entries for every significant town, city and village, a catalogue of attractions and appendix of road maps that is closely followed here.

The images that seemed of particular interest, though, were less the great historic churches and museums than these strangely compelling visions of a future that was partially built and then abandoned. I don’t know how many of the things seen here remain in the landscape, but their tendency to feel like alien visitations in the world gives them a fascinating presence – objects that have something of the quality of apparitions and chimeras, or film sets constructed for 1970s science fiction dramas that happened to be made from stone, bronze and marble rather than polystyrene and canvas. The two girls in the sculpture park above, with its simultaneously ancient and modern white sentinels, might be posing as H.G. Wells’ Eloi in The Time Machine, or caught in a still from Logan’s Run.

The defining feature of all these structures is their rejection of conventional form: curves and odd angles replace the traditional boxes and figures, and many attempt to create abstract language in the service of a commemoration of loss, often marking the sites and dates of massacres and struggles, giving them a strong, if unexpected relationship to Edwin Lutyens’ Cenotaph in Whitehall – probably the best known British abstract sculpture, even though it’s rarely considered in those terms. In Yugoslavia, it’s as though Lutyens’ minimalism and simplicity collides head-on with a more dynamic species of Constructivist and progressive sculpture, a public language that is not only far more successful than any figurative solution to the problem of commemoration, but one that is only now – some years after its eclipse on its home territory – coming to be acknowledged in the West.

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