A Monument to Concealment

stefan nemanja

Although the topic of public monuments has not ceased to be the subject of various disputes in the last thirty years, it became even more current in Serbia recently when the construction of a megalomaniac bronze figure of Grand Župan Stefan Nemanja was decided and started in front of the former railway station in Belgrade. After the end of the socialist socio-economic experiment in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, the question of monuments became an important aspect of the defamation of the socialist period. The mantra that usually referred to the socialist time was that it was characterised by hyper-production of monumental sculpture, so giant Lenin and Stalin in bronze were mainly demolished or moved to sculpture parks that should become a kind of an open museum of socialist "fear and horror". But this practice lasted for a relatively short period of time and it was noticed already in the late 1990s that these monuments have their historical and cultural value, and since then they have become less a subject of removal and destruction and more a subject of curiosity or desire for possession. With the entry into the 21st century, socialist monuments and other minor memorabilia from that period become more and more intriguing, either as a kind of "ironic objects" or as a kind of provocation for the predominantly anti-communist discourse which seeks to equate communist and fascist politics through the notion of “totalitarianism”.


However, what followed - especially in the second decade of the 21st century when the practical link between far-right state policies and the neo-liberal understanding of economics strengthened - led to the increasing production of new monumental sculpture. Especially throughout the former socialist world, monuments to national heroes, personalities from religious myths, and to modern post-communist politicians, are increasingly built. This production starts to surpass the socialist period, considered to have built in tons of bronze, stone and concrete in hyper-ideologised statues in the public space. Let's take the example of Croatia, where about thirty monuments to Franjo Tudjman have already been erected. For comparison, there were far fewer public statues of Josip Broz Tito and there were almost none in the centres of large cities.[1] The case of "monumentalising" of Skopje, which would become the city with the largest number of monuments per capita, has already become a specific and world-famous curiosity, but the hyper-production of monuments is one of the key cultural and ideological characteristics of the present day.


Hence, the monument to Stefan Nemanja is part of a process that characterises "illiberal democracies". The monument is erected in honour of a person from the 12th century in order to construct the continuity between Raška Principality and modern Serbia, ultimately a political decision that could have been expected. At the initiative of the President of the Republic, the project selection for this monument was made by a nine-member commission in which politicians constituted a majority. Among the commission members for whom it can be said to have the expertise for the matter, the most famous was certainly late Miodrag Živković, who, however, left the commission and wrote a sharp statement about it. The job was entrusted to a Russian artist and the Serbian public has not found out about the price of the project and which budget the money comes from.[2]


The monument itself has become controversial for the professional public for several reasons. First of all, its size of 23.5 meters, which will make it the largest figural monument in Serbia, is contentious. Until now, the largest monument was the one to Stevan Filipović in the park on the Vidrak hill above Valjevo (figure of about 10 meters, or 15.5 meters with the pedestal). The Victor, the symbol of Belgrade, is "only" 17.5 meters high, together with the pillar on which the 4.5-meter statue stands. The iconography of this monument is naturally also contentious. The statue involves a broken Byzantine helmet as a pedestal and one can only speculate what this symbolism means, considering that Nemanja did not win any victories against the Byzantine Empire but had to kneel humbly before Manuel I Komnenos instead. At the same time, Nemanja came to power with the help of the Venetian Republic and the Hungarians. He later enables the Crusaders to pass through Serbia in their campaign towards the east, which would culminate with their conquest of Constantinople in 1204, a little more than a decade later. The monument depicts Nemanja emerging from a broken Byzantine helmet like goddess Athena from the head of Zeus which, I suppose, means that Serbia is a symbolic heir of the defeated Byzantine Empire although the “founder of the Serbian state” (sic!) took part in that victory, as a “western man” who supported and aided the Latin occupation of the Greek Orthodox East. Although he is presented as an older man, based on the frescoes of St. Simeon, under which name he became a monk, Nemanja brandishes a sword instead of a cross in his hand. My colleagues have already written about some other symbolic and aesthetic misunderstandings that this monument transmits.[3]


Like many other ideas in today's Serbia, the initiative for this monument came from President Vučić, who said that its construction "is not about the national charge, but the elementary attitude towards history”. Like many other things that the president utters, this statement is in complete opposition to the truth and has a basic function to obscure history and deny the facts. This monument by no means represents an "elementary attitude towards history", but it is precisely and only about "building of the national charge", due to which Serbia dropped out of history and fell into the abyss of para-historical mythomania in the 1990s. If we approach this question theoretically, it is already largely elaborated in cultural theory that has analysed the characteristics of the epoch called "the postmodern" since the 1980s. All you have to do is open the famous book by Fredric Jameson, first published in 1991, and read the first sentence that outlines the cultural and historical circumstances in which this monument was created. Jameson says, "It is safest to understand the notion of the 'postmodern' as an attempt to think historically about the present in an era that first forgot to think historically”.[4]


In the concrete example of the situation in today's Serbia, the oblivion of "historical thinking" is one of the main characteristics and the fundamental basis of the local socio-political structure. This primarily refers to the political project of "historical revisionism" which at the same time obsessively exploits history as an area that serves as a decorative authorisation of disastrous political processes, while obsessively erasing and denying the historical facts that do not suit the ideology in power. This primarily refers to a thorough revision of the People's Liberation War through the equalisation of the Partisan and Chetnik movements, but also to the more recent history related to the 1990s wars and the relativisation and denial of the mass crimes committed in the name of the Serbian people and state. All this is not unique to Serbia, but it is a general symptom of a situation described with a notion of "post-truth" where no qualitative difference is made between derived facts and their interpretation and "alternative histories" based on ideological constructions, while the quantity is reserved for the unfounded fantasies that have the sole purpose of raising the "pride" of the nation. The monument to Nemanja is the construction of such "pride", of a national phallus, bigger than any before. In the psychoanalytic theory, the phallus is actually a signifier of some deficiency. It symbolically stands in place of something that either does not exist or something concealed by it.


In the case of the erection of the monument to the Grand Župan of Raška, a number of things are concealed, and not only the historical ones. First of all, the monument conceals the violence against the public space carried out in Belgrade today through defunctionalising of the functional objects (railway station, cinemas, cultural and social centres, parks and promenades and other locations and facilities of public importance). Instead, the citizens’ money is used either to build symbolic phalluses such as this monument or for investments in buildings built exclusively for the benefit of the private interests. The monument to Nemanja is located at the triangle between the former railway station, the former cinema and the Post Office - which is still the Post Office, but can't we imagine from today's perspective of an accelerated entropy that the Post Office will soon disappear and be replaced by private courier services and digital platforms? In the same triangle, there was one, apparently stillborn, monument to the victims of the 1990s wars, itself a result of an unconvincing solution and an inarticulate bid announced by the previous city government. This removed monument, as well as the erection of other monuments in Belgrade in the last two or three decades, shows that the issue of symbolic marking of the public space, and especially of the art in the public space, is much more complex than the pouring of bronze figures of great men and a "Pharaonic" approach to urban space engineering that we are currently witnessing. For the purposes of the progress of the private capital, it is necessary to exhaust all common resources, reduce public facilities to ruins and narrow the historical horizon to the genealogy of leaders to authorise the current government. The enormous presence of this monument, talk as a seven-storey building, serves the purpose of distracting attention away from the vital issues of Serbian society in order to cover up everything that no longer exists in the immediate vicinity of this monument, or in the entire city. Marshall Berman's famous book, "All That Is Solid Melts into Air" describes the physical and social transformations of a city that seeks to push poverty out of sight. But, as Berman says, "the glitter lights up the rubble and illuminates the dark lives of the people at whose expense the bright lights shine".[5]





[1] On this topic, see: B. Dimitrijević, "Titomaginarium - A brief introduction to the ambivalence of the "cult" of Josip Broz Tito in socialist Yugoslavia", Monuments should not be trusted, Nottingham Contemporary, 2016. https://www.academia.edu/20433983/Titomaginarium_a_brief_introduction_to_the_ambivalence_of_the_cult_of_Josip_Broz_Tito_in_socialist_Yugoslavia_  

[2] In the meantime, data emerged from the customs declaration, according to which only imported material is already worth 9 million euros, which means that the final figure with all fees, installations, transport and other costs is probably more than 10 million euros.

[4] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Verso, London, 1991, p. IX

[5]Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air - The Experience of Modernity, Verso, London 1983, p. 153