Still Monumental: Serbia and Macedonia (Article in a forthcoming book A Journey from Italy to Afghanistan, Milano 2014: Victory Project) Goran Gocic
Approaching The Republic of Serbia from the northwest, one immediately notices that there are few, if any, road posts on Croatian highways giving directions towards the Serbian capital – or, for that matter, any other locations in the neighbouring country. The divorce between exYugoslav republics, especially Catholic Croatia, Orthodox Serbia, and Muslim Bosnia and Herzegovina, was dramatic during the Wars of Yugoslav Succession. The interested parties are obviously still bitter. One of the most conspicuous objects in Belgrade is the ex-Yugoslav Army Headquarters. First evacuated, and then rocketed during the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation™ bombing campaign against Serbia and Montenegro in 1999, the building’s carcass is still standing in the heart of the city, waiting for a new owner. It looks like a bizarre NATO memorial to the dead and buried dictators and busted and bankrupt countries. In short, we are in the land of wonders. Indeed, if you are planning a trip through the Balkan region, it is worth taking notice of visual telltales. If I were a foreigner, I would definitely keep the region’s monuments in check. They are educational, to put in mildly. Once in Belgrade, finding a monument to some local statesman or artist is not an easy feat. Judging by sculptures, great men seem to be sparse in Serbia nowadays. It is worth checking Kalemegdan’s fortress and Belgrade’s inept landmark, Victor, a statue of a muscular, naked man made by a Croat Ivan Meštrović. Perching on a column and over the Sava River, Victor is looking a bit like a 46-foot high Oscar. Except that Oscar only holds an oversize sword, and Victor holds both a sword and falcon. Within walking distance from this bird tamer there is a zoo containing a pitch-black bronze monument of a gorilla. Cute, you would say. Why not? After all, zoos also have their distinguished personalities – preferably their own resident animals, even those that do not reside on European soil. For example, one of the boa constrictors in the same zoo is called Madeline, honouring Madeline Albright, the former US Secretary of State and loud proponent of the aforementioned NATO intervention conducted from 10,000 feet above. One may think that a monument to a gorilla is something unique. An eccentric local businessman’s whim? A gig for a well-connected sculptor who sold his unpopular piece to the right client? An inside joke dedicated to the rising number of pumped-up bodyguards and goons who in local slang are called gorillas? The Bronze Gorilla is even saved for posterity in a Serbian award-winning movie The Land of Truth, Love and Freedom, but it is uncertain who posed for it. Travelling three hours, or 230km southwards, to the well-kept spa of Vrnjačka Banja, one encounters another strange marker in the same pattern. Residents of Vrnjačka Banja will give
you directions around town in relation to their sparrow. A local joke? Not really. If you look closely, you would recognize features of a sparrow in a voluminous bronze sculpture languishing at the central spot of the pedestrian zone. The gorilla is a foreigner, but one can identify the sparrow’s nationality. A šajkača, or traditional Serbian hat, sits on his head. It may not be a proud white eagle from the Serbian coat-of-arms, but it is still a genuine Serbian bird. There is a popular talk show here called It is not Serbian to Keep your Mouth Shut, so this is a monument worthy of our squawking. Not that far (110km) in the same direction, close to the border with the renegade Serbian province Kosovo, lays a national park and trendy ski resort, Kopaonik. A family of grey coloured foxes crossed the road on my way there, unfazed by the car lights, so I kept my fingers crossed. Sure enough, there is a grey stone monument to a bear right in the busy centre of the resort. Like with the previously mentioned sculptures, most tourists want a photo in front of it. Still pondering whether all these tributes to animals are just a weird coincidence, one finds oneself, after three and a half hours (250km) of not-so-comfortable riding eastwards, still deeper in the Serbian countryside. Close to Bulgarian border, in Pirot, you are bound for yet another surprise, perhaps the biggest of them all. Standing in front of a monumental dragon fly, cast in bronze on the main city square in Pirot, one keeps wondering about animals, about monuments and about Serbia. So no, it’s not a coincidence. It’s more of a system. But whether this creature distinguished itself in some way or it is an expression of peculiar fondness towards that particular breed will remain the secret of an artist and the city officials. The sculpture reminds residents of Pirot of a mosquito – they apparently did not count the wings. Thus a documentary about this unusual artefact is called A Pirot Mosquito. A notion of celebrating a mosquito will give chills to anybody who has felt tropical heat, since mosquito-borne malaria is one of the deadliest diseases on planet. These little pests – and I hear it is females that go for your blood – infect 300 million people a year with malaria, and one to three million of them lose their lives. Mosquitoes kill more people than snakes, crocodiles, lions, hypos, sharks and all other dangerous creatures you can name together. Taking pictures of these artificial animals, I was thinking about the Dutch who cruelly exterminated mosquitoes from their swampy plains using genetic engineering. Angry because of damage to their crops, the Chinese brought sparrows to the verge of extinction during Mao Zedong’s reign. Inhabitants of Zaire or Rwanda have been keen connoisseurs of gorilla meat, so this shy and harmless giant is almost extinct today. So is polar bear, which is hunted down for its fur to the last one standing. Unlike all those peoples, Serbs seem to be great lovers of fauna – and not only of sparrows and bears, which are almost domesticated. However, this strange kind of worshipping of species which are elsewhere in deep trouble is not a result of some politically correct policy. An answer to the riddle lies elsewhere.
Serbian towns were urbanised during the Obrenović dynasty in the 19th century. A city hall, post office, church and school were erected at central squares, and then ornamented with a bust of a distinguished Serbian national, preferably from the area. During communist times (in Serbia approximately 1943–2000), however, impersonal, abstract structures made of concrete were built far from towns, usually to commemorate battles or victims of World War II. Most of them look like gigantic flowers. Today, however, after a not-so-heroic and memorable period, Serbia apparently reached some kind of history overload. Neutral, de-ideologised and non-historical sculptures exemplify Serbia’s painful sobering from past glory. After petrified communist flora, we have petrified post-communist fauna. Or, as Mark Twain once said, «The more I know about people, the better I like my dog». Travelling further south towards Macedonia, that is, officially The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, wonders do not cease. On the contrary. So yes, one feels that around here almost anything is possible. But no, this procession does not culminate with a monument to a Godzilla. In fact, the situation in Macedonia is completely inversed. Arriving to the Macedonian capital of Skopje (still deeper southwest, three hours or 220km), one is struck with the amount of history that is poured into this city’s landscape. If it once harboured some memory, Skopje completely lost it when a huge earthquake struck the city in 1963. It was rebuilt in the modernist, proto-Corbusier style that was popular in the 1960s. But something has been missing ever since. Serbs, it seems, suffer from the surplus of history, from a war-time burden and occasional attacks of bitterness and guilt. Trying hard to take a load off our shoulders, we want to get rid of history. Early in 2013, police took down a monument to Kosovo Liberation Army fighters that local Albanians erected in southern Serbia. On the other hand, it seems that contemporary Macedonians suffer from an acute absence of history. They are apparently trying, somewhat hurriedly, to gather bits and pieces of it. Through a government-sponsored project worth 500m euros called Skopje 2014, a dozen of marble monuments, placed on pompous pedestals, are being sprinkled in Skopje’s centre. What do Alexander the Great, Justinian the First and Mother Theresa – a Greek conqueror, a Byzantine emperor and an Albanian nun, have in common? A fair bit if you think about their inclination towards Asia. But that is probably not what Skopje city officials had in mind when they commissioned huge sculptures to these people. I am not aware that these personalities have any direct connection to Macedonian history. But who cares? Perhaps it would be elaborated to curious tourists in a huge, brand-new, white coloured Macedonian Archaeological Museum which is also a part of the project? Perhaps it is the same logic that led Americans built an Egyptian-style obelisk in honour of George Washington?
Looking at those monuments in Serbia, Macedonia and elsewhere, I am thinking how hard we are trying to impress visitors. These bizarre architectural interventions intended to dispose of history or scrap history together are our spitting image. Whether their final effect is belittlement or aggrandizement, or a bit of both, I am not so sure.