Throughout the former Yugoslavia, mysterious and beautiful monuments dot the landscape, initiated by Yugoslav revolutionary Josef Broz Tito and designed by modernist architects. Increasingly forgotten, these brutalist concrete sculptures, which were public monuments to the country's fallen soldiers of World War II, are revived in Serbian photographer Jovana Mladenovic's series Monumental Fear, which not only explores the former country's triumph over fascism, but echoes the painful split that led to several Balkan states. Mladenovic's series is also a tone poem meant to celebrate the creativity of the Serbian people, many of them artists facing uncertainty in the wake of the Brexit vote.
After studying photography at Belgrade's University of Arts, Mladenovic moved to London to pursue her interest in fashion photography at the London College of Fashion. But she soon realized she was more interested in conceptual art and photography. Though she was happy to be in London, exploring avant-garde impulses, Mladenovic started thinking about her home country—specifically, its brutalist Yugoslavian communist monuments unveiled in the decades following World War II.
"I've only heard stories from people who are mostly nostalgic about Yugoslavia, and how it was nice back then, and how our country grew, and how after the breakup everything stopped growing, and how people started forgetting the monuments, especially the new generations," says Mladenovic. "I have lots of friends, some of whom are even a bit older than me, that don't know about the monuments. I wanted to photograph them while I was still in Serbia, but I didn't have money or sponsorship, and my professors weren't very interested in helping since it was a big project."
After becoming inspired by Yugoslavian history, Mladenovic shot the first chapter of Monumental Fear inside the vast, labyrinthine interior of Tate Modern's new Switch House, a building full of brutalist concrete geometric surfaces and structures. It was a way for Mladenovic to introduce little known facts about Yugoslavian history to Switch House visitors, tying the monuments to the dead of WWII.
"The idea is that it is the story of inside the monument, representing all of those dead soldiers," says Mladenovic. "A lot of people died in the war, but there are no records."
The Switch House work quickly inspired photographs that Mladenovic took of the actual monuments. After locating them on Google Earth and realizing it would be difficult to find and visit them all, Mladenovic pared the list down to 25 structures. Eventually, she narrowed this list to the nine sculptures that she would visit and photograph for Monumental Fear.
Using a medium format camera, Mladenovic took photographs of the monuments with and without a ballerina. Those depicting the monuments alone became the visual framework for a studio shoot, for which Mladenovic had models pose in shapes approximating the sculptures. She then added accents with red embroidery (a traditional Serbian practice), which represents communism and the blood of soldiers.
The photographs with the young ballerina in red outfits coalesced into a chapter Mladenovic calls "The Star." In this series, the ballerina assumes various poses both around and on the monuments, again as a nod to Serbia and the former Yugoslavia's WWII and communist history.
"The ballerina from the National Theatre in Belgrade wanting to be part of the project was perfect, because I wanted to involve more people from our country to represent the country here in London," says Mladenovic. "I also involved five young designers from Serbia to create five different outfits… For me, it was very important to show people that there is a lot in Serbia that you can shoot, create, or represent outside."
"These monuments were not built so people would be scared of them or have unpleasant feelings," Mladenovic adds. "The point was that we are celebrating that our people were brave and we're dancing for their glory. Also, Tito's idea was to make theaters around the monuments, so that everyone could come there to celebrate holidays, and so it makes perfect sense for a ballerina to dance around them."
The final piece of the project, recently seen in the Balkan Contemporary Art's group exhibition Interruption, is a book featuring her photographs with accompanying text on Monumental Fear. The folder for the book is made of concrete, which Mladenovic calls her own monument inspired by the sculptures, but also concrete folders seen in the former Yugoslavia's factories. For Mladenovic, this installation was a way to encapsulate the story in a single artifact.
"I was so inspired, and I still have some ideas for working on this topic," says Mladenovic. "But for now this was my master project, and I'm happy that a lot of people are interested in it in London, even though there aren't many people in Serbia who know about it."