Arkantecture


welcome


A
Field
Guide
to
Serbian
Gangster
Kitsch

 

By Steve Korver

 

A few years ago I yelled Hajde! Hajde! (indispensable Serbian which when yelled loud enough means “Let’s get the %#*& out of here!”) to the only Belgrade cabdriver I could find willing to stop for a flash so I could take a quick snapshot of a pink marbled mansion. This wedding cake of a landmark belonged to a man whose official trade was listed as baker: the warlord/gangster Arkan. As such, it was a house that came with lots of local urban lore: most specifically that there were always scary gangster types on hand to abuse and expose the film of anyone stupid enough to try to take a picture of it. Fortunately for me, it was either their day off or they were too ensconced in their morning coffee and pastries in the ground level bakeshop (or more likely: the taxi driver had judged correctly what would be a VERY safe distance…).

Arkan's-House

Arkan was living in this monstrous architectural statement that screamed “look at me!” while enjoying the status of being on the top of Interpol’s most wanted list for over a decade. While the building’s colour suggests Miami Beach, its structure suggests a mutant Byzantine dream where the small high windows and rounded cupola tower were meant to mirror the classical Serb architecture of Kosovo’s famed Orthodox monasteries. However as the home to one of the country’s most notorious war criminals, it was more suggestive of a potential centrefold for Better Homicide and Garden magazine. While my resulting photograph was a bit of a disappointment since it made the house look almost tasteful, the adrenaline that was unleashed while taking the photo did jumpstart an obsession for modern Serbian architecture that reflected the legacy of the Milosevic regime.

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And indeed, Arkan’s house can be seen as the perfect starting point for an architectural tour that could also aptly include gas stations with Sci-Fi flourishes, mobster-built theme parks and hastily constructed refugee housing.

And now happily such a tour is possible. Snap-happy tourists are now able to leisurely line up the perfect shot of this monument to the distinctive fall of a Serb psychotic (Arkan was shot with 37 close range bullets in a Belgrade hotel lobby during the last days of Milosevic in 2000). During the recent crack-down on organized crime that followed the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in March 2003 when thousands were arrested and millions of assets were seized, one of the most hope-inspiring acts of all these many hope-inspiring acts occurred when police raided Arkan’s former home to uncover not only a vast array of arms but also souvenirs from his days as the most feared paramilitary leader during the Yugoslav wars. And as icing on the cake, they arrested the home’s main resident: Arkan’s widow, the Serbian superstar Ceca. Long dubbed “The Madonna of Serbia”, Ceca was the queen of Turbofolk, a banal lyriced fusion of Balkan folk melodies and Western electronic beats usually served with a thick video sauce of breasts, booty, Versace and gangster chic marketing. In this position, Ceca had done much since 1991 when she was voted the country’s “best looking singer”, to romanticize both nationalism and kitsch in general and Arkan in particular. Together they were the sugar and spice of the gangster kitsch culture that came to define Milosevic’s nationalist Serbia.

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While undoubtedly too busy with costume-changes to run her late husband’s extensive criminal empire, Ceca did apparently find time to offer refuge and money to her husband’s gangster protégés who made up the upper echelons of the Zemun Clan and allegedly masterminded the Djindjic assassination. Ceca’s arrest is of great symbolic value coming from a country that continued to be force-fed a dense media landscape of nationalist/gangster kitsch even two years after Milosevic was hauled off to The Hague War Crimes Tribunal – an event made possible after a chat between Djindjic and Milorad ‘Legija’ Lukavic, the former Arkan righthand man, who was then still the commander of the “Red Beret” Special Operations Unit (JSO) before shortly after opting for the greater profits of leading the Zemum Clan.

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After a 2-year mourning period, Ceca also made time for a comeback in 2002 – looking less attractive and more like a plastic surgery disaster – with a tribute concert to her husband that attracted an audience of nearly 100 000 in the Red Star football stadium across from her mansion. Her new album was greeted by with much fawning from such media outlets as TV Pink and TV Palma which had both been set up by Milosevic cronies to present a banal, sterile yet sexually charged version of the Serbian dream. These oddly propagandistic media myth-makers happily mixed symbols from all times and places as long as they functioned to present Serbs as an oppressed but always striving to be a free and distinct people. While most Serbs – in particular the city dwelling ones who had access to such alternative news sources as radio B92 – have long been painfully aware of the mechanics between kitsch and power under Milosevic, the children who are currently the main viewers of these television stations are not. This perhaps accounts for why 90% of the audience at Ceca’s tribute concert were below 19 years of age…

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Kitsch with a Distance…
But I’m not here to cast a disparaging eye on kitsch. As a dweller in the land of wooden shoes and brought up in a land that was the first to market maple syrup art, I’ve always had it pretty sweet. Not only did I have access to jobs that earned me enough money to travel widely, I’ve also had the luxury of judging the countries I visited by their kitsch. After all why should you rip your insides apart with stories of concentration camps when you can concentrate on Camp? It’s really the ultimate in defence mechanisms. However as a connoisseur of sorts, Serbia was the place where I was confronted with a kitsch that often echoed a past that was too scary and recent for me to filter through the rose-tinted glasses of ironic distance. This kitsch was very different than for example India – certainly a kitsch Mecca of sorts – where even when Gods sport bloody skull necklaces they still come across as fairly cute entities.

Of course I have no problem investing in a collector’s edition of stamps depicting crumbled examples of “NATO Aggression” or boxer shorts depicting Bart Simpson in traditional Serbian garb and blowing on a gypsy horn. Hell, I live for that kind of stuff. But Technicolor coffee mugs depicting freely wandering war criminal types crosses some sort of fine-line that I cannot bring myself to cross. How is it possible that ex-General Mladic, sheller of Sarajevo and organizer of the killing of 8000 in Srebrenica, has been reborn as a “100% Serbian” kitsch product? Former Bosnian Serb leader Karadjic, another favourite subject for coffee mugs, is perhaps a case apart. As a bouffant-haired one-string-fiddle-playing monk-impersonating psychiatrist and children’s books author, he’s always betrayed a psychotic kitsch edge. Regardless, these sort of cultural mementoes are just too hot for me to handle – after all, I belong to the school that sees kitsch as something that should enrich lives and not celebrate the destruction of lives.

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Kitsch with a Chainsaw…
And for me, Arkan came with yet more of an extra edge – perhaps one similar to the chainsaw edge that he was said to favour during interrogations. While alive, he built a mighty myth around him that was equal doses kitsch and psychosis. And this myth still lingers not only in his protégés of the Zemum Clan who see him as a patriot and themselves as his rightful heirs, but also in Serbia’s depressingly unchanged media landscape that worked long and hard in romanticizing the gangster society that Serbia would eventually become. But for many more, Arkan is one of the scariest faces of the 20th century. His baby face features immediately betrayed his stunted-in-boyhood tastes for parades, guns, forts, military costumes, Hollywood gangster flicks, ceremonial swords and female bodyguards. He put the ethnic in front of cleansing and used his own ethnicity as an excuse for his thirst for money and power. He was in fact ready-made propaganda for Serb enemies and hence was fundamental in leading those unfortunate enough to share his ethnicity to the extremes of global pariahism. In this way, he was just as responsible as Milosevic for the fact that the Serb treasures of Kosovo will now undoubtedly fall into Albanian hands…

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His real name was Zeljko Raznatovic, a Montenegrin Serb born in Slovenia (reflecting a typical story of cross pollination in Tito’s Yugoslavia), who began his career at 17 by embarking on a bank robbing, drug smuggling and gun running spree across Europe. After a string of spectacular jail escapes – perhaps aided by the Yugoslav secret police for whom he claimed to provide hitman services for – he eventually settled back down in the implosion that was Yugoslavia of the early 90s and turned to channelling the energy of the hooligan element of the supporters of the Belgrade Red Star football team into a lean mean ethnic cleansing machine named the Tigers. Made up of many who would later graduate to become Serbian secret police members and/or Zemun Clan gangsters, the Tigers built a reputation as a paramilitary unit engaged in massacres, rapes, and other atrocities first in Croatia and then in Bosnia (while Ceca built a reputation at the same time as their khaki hot-panted cheerleader…). Later, on the spoils of looting and smuggling, and his connections with the Albanian mafia, Serb secret police and customs (a web that explains the ready availability in Belgrade of such Albanian export products as marijuana and heroin throughout the Kosovo crisis), Arkan was then able to build himself up to stature of Belgrade businessman, a parliamentarian, and founder and President of the Party of the Serbian Unity – a party used by Milosevic to funnel votes away from an equally rabid nationalist that was proving too ambitious, Voyislav “I will scoop Croat eyeballs out with a rusty spoon” Seselj, who is now currently starring daily in his own brand of TV Pinkesque theatrical television as a defendant at the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague.

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Symbol Soup
While Arkan’s mansion remains his Reichstag, his wedding with Ceca in 1995 will go down in history as his Goring rally. Witnessed by thousands, it took full advantage of the fact that there were few other glimmers of glamour in this time of war and sanctions. The 140-minute video became a national bestseller and standard repeat fare for such Milosevic state-sponsored TV stations as Pink and Palma. Today, it remains readily available to buy alongside the mugs of Mladic and Karadjic on many Serbian street corners. And for many tomorrows it will certainly provide meat for media analysts since it reflects Arkan’s savvy at playing the symbology game that developed under Milosevic. Of course bad taste is a universal phenomena, but it has rarely been used so efficiently as a basic tool of ruling as it did under the Milosevic regime. Much has been written about how Slobo sponsored kitsch media in general and Turbofolk music in particular to rid the airwaves of musical alternatives (such as those of the country’s long vibrant rock scene that organized the first Belgrade anti-war demonstrations in 1991) and reinforce certain myths of Serbness that were fundamental for his hold on power as a “soft” dictator. Already excellently observed by Serbian anthropologist and media scholar Ivan Colovic, as well as Eric D. Gordy in his truly fascinating The Culture of Power in Serbia, this wedding attempted to represent all things to all (Serb) people. By fusing elements of Serb folklore – in particular those stories that painted the Serbs as valiant victims – with the more romantic Hollywood notions of the gangster lifestyle, barriers that defined the true Serb national identity began to blur. Repeated broadcasting just made it all blurrier. And certainly a decade of UN sanctions also did much to enforce the idea that the only way of getting ahead was an illegal way.

And certainly, very many Belgrade residences belonging to the rich and infamous tell a similar tale. An “Arkantecture Tour” could conveniently point out Byzantine flourishes while telling stories worthy of Scarface and The Godfather that grace, for instance, the sprawling complex – complete with rumoured escape routes – belonging to the Brothers Karic, who amassed a fortune (some of which they allegedly passed on to fund Arkan’s Tigers…) as Milosevic cronies.

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Post-Arkantecture?
Perhaps a coincidence but certainly convenient for Arkantecture tourists, the TV Pink headquarters is just around the corner from Arkan’s mansion. This national station was set up by a close associate of Slobo’s wife, Mira Markovic (herself worth an encyclopaedic study on kitsch gone mad), as a regime mouthpiece and the definitive broadcaster of Turbo culture in the country. Even today it continues to broadcast large doses of gangster chic, soft porn, documentaries on Kosovo monasteries, Turbofolk videos and such international mainstays as Friends. Experts have observed that repeated viewing of such imagery seems to induce a weird militant hypnosis in such underdeveloped viewers as children and potential war criminals. Of course if one chooses to ignore the rabidly nationalist subtext, TV Pink can offer hours of quality viewing to those who take ironic delight from the more garish TV broadcasts in the West during the 1970s when American Country & Western performers were at the height of their high hairdo days, and German schlager singers were revolutionizing the wearing of clashing colour combinations.

TV-Pink

Like Arkan’s house, the TV Pink headquarters comes equipped with a large litany of local urban lore: that the management were very proud of their glass floors since they allowed them to admire the view up women’s skirts, that it received an architecture award (of dubious merit) in the same week it was revealed that it was illegally built without a building permit… At first glance, this building seems to have little in common with Arkan’s more openly Byzantine-influenced mansion. But they do share a taste for small gun port windows. They are both aggressive to the point of militancy. Their architectural components lack any unifying organic basis (which suggests a runaway materialism…). Perhaps the TV Pink building’s Sci-Fi styling can be seen as an optimistic statement – by those who regarded Serbia’s downfall into a lawless gangster state as a good thing – that yes the future is now and the Serbs are finally a truly free and distinct people. So would this make the TV Pink headquarters a prime example of post-Arkantecture?

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The Road to Slobo…
As a reflection of Slobo’s own banality and preference to rule from behind tall and indistinct walls, the nearby Milosevic compound can be easily skipped. To witness the architectural legacy of his regime one must turn to his gangster son Marko who was a true product of the society his father constructed. Arkantecture buffs are hence advised to drive a couple of hours from Belgrade to Pozarevac, the Milosevic family’s hometown. Here one can not only find the tree under which Partisan Teen Queen Mira wrote bad love poetry to Slobo, but also witness a wondrous vision of TurboKitsch in decline – namely, the leftovers of Bambipark, the amusement park that Marko unveiled during the height of the NATO bombing in 1999 as a propagandistic fuck you to the West. Western propaganda proceeded to paint the park as some sort of huge Serbo-Disney that was later ransacked by an angry mob. However today, you can find it at the end of a dusty road: fully intact and nothing really more than a garishly painted playground for children. It’s open daily from 2pm and the admission is now free due to the current vagueness in regards to ownership since Marko fled to Russia in 2000 to escape either arrest or retribution for having organized Arkan’s assassination (in typical gangster fashion, it was widely rumoured that Mira visited Ceca to plead for “no war between our families”).

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On the other side of town, Marko’s outdoor disco, Madona (sic), (apparently the superstar was not amused so an “n” was removed) is a tad meatier for the architecturally-inclined: an atrocity of pastel colours whose Byzantine motifs had seemingly been shit upon by an episode of Miami Vice. Other decorations include somewhat eerie mural paintings that pleaded ‘Stop the Violence’ and ‘Don’t Drink and Drive’. While not visibly “ransacked” as reported in the media of NATO member states, its ghost-town vibe seems to suggest that it is closed for a very extended season…

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Gas Stations as Arkantecture
The road between Belgrade and Pozarevac is itself notable for the density of brand new – and often betraying a Sci-Fi edge similar to the TV Pink headquarters – but mostly abandoned gas stations. In fact they can be seen throughout Serbia, and can be regarded as surreal landmarks to the uselessness of UN trade sanctions. Gasoline sanctions just allowed sanction-busters like Arkan, the Karic Brothers and the Zemum Clan to have the monopoly on gasoline. These gas stations – mostly constructed in a time when gas was smuggled and sold on street corners from Coke bottles – were generally built by these and other forward thinking mobsters who used their black market profits not only to sponsor extreme nationalist political figures but also to make investments that would help them establish themselves as bona fide businessmen as soon as the sanctions were lifted and Serbians could live happily ever after as free, brave and distinct gangsters…

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The Regular Folks
Of course like anywhere in the world, the tastes and ways of the rich and famous trickle down to influence the less rich and famous. The highways and byways of Serbia betray a huge building boom of more modest and humble houses and apartment buildings for the many tens of thousands of Serb refugees from Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Like their luxury counterparts, most of these homes have been illegally built without a building permit. Many also betray the influence of the dubious tastes of TV Pink and the gangster elite with a Sci-Fi feature here and a cupola inspired by Kosovo’s monasteries there. As proof of Turbo-media’s influence on contemporary Serbian design and architecture, one of the more popular features of these mushrooming homes is a double half-circle balcony whose Byzantine roots has been obscured by having been renamed Lepa Brena in tribute to the “Dolly Parton of Turbofolk”. Richer refugees have even gone so far to build perfect replicas of ancient Kosovan churches in their neighbourhoods. It’s certainly understandable that refugees have been influenced by the media landscape they have been force-fed. Hell, it’s even perfectly understandable that many of these house’s residents have been radicalised by their life experiences into having a soft spot for nationalism in general and Arkan in particular – not just from the media’s broadcast of myths but also from the fact that while living in their former homes in Croatia and Bosnia, perhaps Arkan was on hand to stand between them and war criminals on the Croatian and Bosnian sides.

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Such realizations relativize… These people are the real victims – of both war and the media. Their new homes do not deserve to be tainted with comparisons to the tastes of Arkan, Marko and their ilk. It’s like driving down Germany’s autobahns and merely seeing them as projections of Hitler’s legacy and not as mighty efficient ways of getting around. These houses actually have more in common with the houses found throughout the world – including those belonging to Croat refugees in Croatia where references to Catholic architecture are currently all the rage – whose resident’s are more concerned with surviving day to day than being beacons of good taste (whatever that relative term actually means…). My obsession with Arkan and his crimes against both humanity and good taste had in fact infected how I digested everything that I saw around me while travelling the highways and byways of Serbia. An Arkantecture tour is in fact very similar to those already organized that visit all the major NATO bombing sites: worthy if one sticks to reality (as a reminder of destruction and death…) but dangerous when used as an ideological tool (as a reminder that the world wanted to kill us Serbs but we survived as a free and distinct people…). Additionally, such a glib phrase as “Arkantecture” can even possibly be appropriated by those out to romanticise the gangster lifestyle. After all the term Turbofolk originated from the inspired Montenegrin musician Rambo Amadeus who used it as a satirical term before having it appropriated by the very folks he was busy despising who fused it to the rest of the symbol soup that was out to proclaim Serbs as a free and distinct people…

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Hopefully with the great changes that are finally underway in Serbia, my eyes will soon be inspired to quickly skim over such things as tacky mansions and empty gas stations and instead be drawn to admire the things that have truly endured the millennia of Serbian history: such timeless quality kitsch as the personalized labels on the bottles of home-brewed rakia, heart-shaped cookies glittering with tiny mirrors, flashy golden icon paintings of such saints as Sava and Tito, naive paintings of chaotic village barbeque feasts, Sirogojno sweaters depicting fluorescent nature scenes…

What the country really needs now are the same tours that took place until over a decade ago when the wars and the gangsters so rudely interrupted. Perhaps it’s time to set my sights on writing about the beauty of ancient monasteries, beautiful spas, epic mountains, bucolic country farms, forgotten wine regions, and wiggly rows of plum tree orchards…

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4 Replies

  1. fuck you asshole.

  2. Bojana Jan 13th 2013

    Fair point and not only in this one article

  3. Bojana Jan 13th 2013

    …but other ones as well


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