The School of Missing Studies and Slought Foundation have recently returned from a “photo safari” to Petrova Gora in Croatia, one of many languishing memorials from the socialist era of the former Yugoslavia. Conceived in 1981 by Vojin Bakić, a Croatian sculptor who won many state-funded commissions, working with the architect Branislav Šerbetić, the project was designed as a 12-story-tall social center, set on the site of a Partisan field hospital used during World War II. Finally completed in 1989 as a monument to Yugoslavia’s resistance fighters, the memorial was used as intended for only a brief period before the Balkan crisis erupted. The wars that ensued scattered refugees around the region, and practically erased the political cause this structure was meant to embody.
Today, Petrova Gora stands unused and empty—but not secured with lock and key. Thanks to the neglect of Croatia’s democratic government, which looks away from its socialist past, the memorial is more approachable and free than ever intended. Anyone can come here, enter the site, walk inside the monument, and wander upward through 12 interconnected levels all the way to the roof.
The feeling of melancholy inspired by Petrova Gora is overwhelming, but it is irresistible to call it beautiful. Furthermore, an astonishing aspect of this monument is that inside, it is the size of a small Guggenheim museum, positioned on a dramatic hilltop site. It also is significant that the building is the work of an abstract artist, and that the architect played a minor role.
Today’s contemporary artists have discovered this inhabitable monument, and are cementing careers by embracing Petrova Gora in their work. Take the video produced by David Maljkovic, which portrays the structure deep in the future as a neglected fiction. Other projects and expeditions to the site have produced similar imagery, evoking “nostalgia for the future.”
All of these projects raise awareness about this exceptional work, and about the exceptionality of Yugoslav socialism when compared to the idolatry of the Soviet bloc. However, these artists’ projects fail to ignite strategic thinking and analysis, especially within the context of contemporary practice, about ideologies deploying art in place of design. Moreover, little if no work has been done to relate this monument to American influence upon Yugoslav cultural policies during the Cold War, making Yugoslavia an ally to the West and offsetting the Soviet East. American abstract art, conceptual art, and corporate architecture all play provocative roles in this history.
So while artists exhaust the repertoire of visual interventions, the time is ripe for architects to step in. In contrast to socialism, which tended to freeze time and artistic competence, today in the emerging democracies in the Western Balkans the situation is much more open. Paradoxically, perhaps the best aspect of emerging democracy is that being behind may mean being next.
Yet time is also limited for further action. Visitors to Petrova Gora have already spotted men with geodesic equipment measuring the site of the memorial and the monument itself. This may mean that we are already late on the scene, and that there is perhaps little time to think of a strategy to put this monument back in the future, either for an authentic use (which few would fund without a neoliberal zeal for profit returns), or preserved as a beautiful ruin.
The time of earnestness may be over.
This text is part of a forthcoming book created by Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss in collaboration with Berlin-based photographer Armin Linke, which explores the fate of a number of Socialist memorials in the region. The photo safari to Petrova Gora, along with further discussions among the participants in Zagreb, was part of the Slought Foundation’s traveling exhibit at the Croatian Association of Visual Artists and the School of Missing Studies’ workshop “City as a School of Politics,” held in Zagreb with local participants and curated by Katherine Carl.