I just published my first game on itch.io, Spomenik-1, and this post serves as an artist’s statement to accompany the game. I think the game needs the statement below for context, and the statement doesn’t stand alone, separate from the game. So if you’re reading this without having played the game first, I strongly encourage you to do so.
‘Spomenik, 2006 – 2009‘ is a series of photos by Jan Kempenaers, of monuments found in the region of the former Yugoslavia. Kempenaers’ photography emphasises the exotic geometry of these structures, and exaggerates the starkness of the landscapes in which these monuments sit. The photos also remove the monuments from any social or historical context, and most Western viewers can only interpret them in relation to exoticised ideas of post-Communist Eastern Europe as a landscape of crumbling, abandoned concrete structures.
When I first saw Kempenaers’ photographs, I was enthralled by the images, and the powerful connection to the ideas of decaying post-Communist modernism that were already well-established in my mind. There’s a sense in which relics of post-Communist industrial societies present a kind of alternate universe modernism, one with similar technology but a design aesthetic that is appealingly alien and exotic, but just familiar enough, to the Western viewer. This comes through in a lot of the way Kempenaers’ ‘Spomenik’ series has been discussed when featured on a variety of articles, listicles, etc. including those on The Guardian, Wired and Dezeen. It’s a popular way of thinking about post-Communist Eastern Europe as a fallen empire, and lets the Western viewer marvel at the achievements involved while also feeling a little superior. It also perpetuates an exoticisation of contemporary Eastern Europe as a weird and unknowable place where strange, crazy things happen.
More recently I’ve re-evaluated my ideas about Kempenaers’ photographs, and the way I think about the body of representations of contemporary Eastern Europe they’re a part of. ‘Spomenik-1’ comes out of that re-evaluation.
The game, ‘Spomenik-1‘ places a very familiar monument, part of the mundane urban landscape of my hometown of Brisbane, into the same de-contextualised and mythologised situation as the monuments of Kempenaers’ ‘Spomenik’ series. The central structure of ‘Spomenik-1’ is a crude replica of the Shrine of Remembrance, a monument in Brisbane, Australia, a war memorial dedicated to ANZAC soldiers of WWI. Removed from its socio-cultural context, its purely geometric elements emphasised, and positioned in a stark, harshly-lit landscape, it becomes alien and unfamiliar. The only context is the title and the UI aesthetics, which deliberately evoke that same mythological idea of post-Communist Eastern Europe.
When we in the West look at the ‘Spomenik’ photos, and other representations of post-Communist Eastern Europe, we see them as isolated relics of a distant past, rather than as creative products of a society that continues to exist. We project our own lack of familiarity with the culture and art of places like the former Yugoslavian states onto these representations, and I’d argue that what makes them seem alien to us is our own gaze itself.