For Stanislava Pinchuk, poetics are intertwined with politics. The internationally acclaimed Ukrainian-born artist is best known for intricate installations, drawings, films and sculptures that use data to map conflict zones. Some of her most profound work includes Borders, which envisioned the destruction of the Calais migrant camp, and The Wine Dark Sea, which couches the leaked Nauru and Manus Island cables in a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey and will be exhibited in December at Sydney’s Yavuz Gallery.
Over the past few years, Pinchuk, who was part of the 2022 Adelaide Biennial and whose survey exhibition Terra Data showed in 2021 at Heide, has turned her gaze to the power of monuments. She chose to speak about the work of Bogdan Bogdanović, the Serbian and Yugoslav architect, urbanist and essayist whose anti-fascist memorials gave her own ambitions shape and form.
Bogdanović made such poignant memorials, influenced by everything from romanticism and Victorian architecture to surrealism. Why does he speak to you?
I was always aware of his work and when I moved to the Balkans, I got to start seeing it in person. He was in a league of his own as a surrealist and an arch-romanticist. He was staunchly opposed not just to fascism but to [former Serbian president Slobodan] Milošević and the rise of genocidal nationalism. He was exiled for his opposition. He was an incredibly punk-rock, free-thinking man. Seeing his monuments and feeling the relation of my body to them is absolutely extraordinary. Then, when I was approached to do something in Mitrovica in Kosovo last year, he became a North Star for me. Not a bible but an Ikea guide of what to do.
One of Bogdanović’s best-known works, the Partisan Memorial Cemetery in Mostar, commemorates those who fought as Yugoslav Partisans against Nazi-occupied Croatia. It was designed to return to the landscape itself. As an artist who has long dealt with memories that are part of topography, what does the site mean to you?
Mostar for me is up the road; I’m there quite often. It is a place that faithfully understands what’s happened. Bogdanović was an anti-fascist. He did one semi-residential project and spent the rest of his life commemorating his fallen generation. In regard to Ukraine, I really understand this. I don’t know what he would have built and done with his life otherwise.
I think of his work as being some kind of archetype of Yugoslav, post-Yugoslav monumentalism that is deeply anti-monumental. Kind of like myself, he never made things for the victors. He only made things for the victims. It was about the loss, not about the victory. All of his monuments are on sites of the conflicts within the land. The key thing for me is that he really thought about timelessness, you know? What would happen to this monument after the living memory of [this] event? How does this space invite peace or reflection or the imagination? I think that’s why he looked so much to ancient romantic locations and esoteric ways. He really researched. Half of his monuments look like they could be archaeological sites, but they are clearly not. If you know nothing of what happened on that site, it inspires this kind of dreaming. He made his work in deep time and space.
The Mostar [cemetery] is amazing because the city of the dead looks down on the city of the living. It has been destroyed a lot by right-wing neo-fascists, most recently last year. If you look at the plaques, there are Muslim names, Croatian names. There is an anti-fascist unity that people want to destroy the history of and it’s still threatening beyond his death. He lived to see the end of Yugoslavia. He was a man of the 20th century. He lived through a lot.
His work also often symbolised unity between ethnic groups. The Monument to Fallen Miners is a memorial to Mitrovica’s Albanian and Serbian miners who, together, fought Nazi occupation. After the Kosovo War, its meaning shifted. What do you think is the power of monuments that uphold failed narratives?
The monument is a proxy of a social contract and a kind of political, historical value within a public space. I’m interested in the destruction of monuments, the deep necessity of that but the fault lines of removing rather than recontextualising or placing education around things that are very, very difficult to talk about. My friend said this beautiful line: “It belongs to everybody and nobody at the same time.”
The monument sits in a strange place for the whole city – it’s a difficult monument for the Serbian north bank, because although it was built by a Serbian architect, it was also built by one who was among the first to denounce Milošević’s rising nationalism, with a 60-page letter that went everywhere. And it is an uncomfortable and clear artefact from a time where the city was not divided by its riverbanks. And it’s an incredibly difficult monument also for the Albanian south bank – not just an example of Yugoslav architecture and value-building that persecuted Kosovar dissidence particularly strongly, which repressed language and came to betray its population in a genocidal way.
Even with difficult monuments, there is a time that we deal with them in public space. Do we deface them, topple them, leave them? Is there a period in which we can talk about it, express fury onto it, express betrayal onto it? Do you know what I mean? Is there a point at which a monument can be a vessel for discussion?
That reminds me of your installation at Manifesta 14 last year, Europe Without Monuments, a playground and pavilion that’s also a scale replica of the Monument to Fallen Miners. It grapples with the significance of monuments not just in Kosovo but in your home country, Ukraine. Did making that change you as an artist?
It was my most profound experience as an artist so far. It was July, four months since the invasion. It was so full of pain. It was really intense and extraordinary but I think my most joyous work as well. It was holding on to some kind of hope. [Even] in these times, there is still daily life, there are children, there is beauty, there is lying in the sun. Whenever you see Ukraine or Kosovo or Bosnia, you see footage that has this gaze of despondency. And yet we have this other life going on. It is resilient and joy also follows resilience. All these things are true at the same time. When my work was photographed by photojournalists, they would shoot it early in the morning when it was cloudy. They wouldn’t credit it as an artwork or a peace project. And two hours later the sun comes out and there are kids everywhere. People are coming from the north side and from the south side and the river is sparkling.
Bogdanović wanted children to play on his works. He has these alcoves for no reason, recesses with nothing in them. Places to … circle and explore. Why would you give your life for a world to be a better place and then your body lies in this forlorn, haunted state? Isn’t it lovely to be buried somewhere where people want to be, where you are part of life? He said the best compliment he ever got was from a young Bosnian woman who came up to him and said, “This is really embarrassing, but I have to tell you something: I was conceived by my parents [at this monument]”, and he said, “Of course, because this makes people feel something.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 28, 2023 as "Stanislava Pinchuk".
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