Marco Casagrande: Portrait of the Artist as a Killer

marco casagrande, ma ying-jeou, taipei, taiwan, c-lab

Marco and Ma in Casagrande's striking C-Lab attire

*NB on 12/5/2010 I amended the prologue to this piece and one of my comments at the end at the request of the main source, who felt some of the information to be sensitive.

More than five years ago I was contacted by a Finn called Jani Anttola about his compatriot Marco Casagrande, who was a visiting professor at Tamkang University.   

We have corresponded intermittently in the interim and it has long been my intention to publish the following piece in some form. In 2008, I was dissuaded from doing so by close friends who thought what I had written was tantamount to character assassination and based on far too much hearsay. I disagreed but valued their opinions enough to bury the story.   Casagrande, meanwhile, left Taiwan later that year. Here, now, is what I wrote with a few minor amendments.  

Finally, some of the original Finnish-language materials (newspaper cuttings and interviews with Casagrande) were sent to me during my time at Taiwan News and lost when my e-mail account there was closed. Should I manage to get hold of these in the future, I will put them up.  

Portrait of the artist as a killer (2008)   

Few people in Taiwan will know the name Luca Moconesi.  

His 1997 book ‘Mostarin tien liftarit’ (“The Mostar Road Hitchhikers”) hardly set the world alight, its narrator’s pyromaniacal tendencies notwithstanding.  

But this homage to a mercenary’s life in the Bosnian War should be of interest to staff and students in the at Danhsui’s Tamkang University (TKU), where its author was a visiting Professor of Urban Ecology.  

Moconesi is the pen-name of Marco Casagrande, an award-winning Finnish architect, who featured in several local news reports for, amongst other projects, leading the clean up and renovations of Taipei’s Treasure Hill community.  

His work met with mixed responses but the Taipei City authorities seemed quite taken with the Finn. In 2008, then Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou met Casagrande; and Sebastian Liao, the former commissioner of Taipei City Government’s Department of Cultural Affairs called Casagrande “an artist who really embraced the idea of community [and] embodied our ideals.” The communities rent asunder by the ethnically-motivated atrocities that marked the war in Bosnia might disagree.   

Casagrande’s resume is impressive. In 1999, he and longtime collaborator Sami Rintala were finalists in the Emerging Architecture category of the prestigious Architectural Review awards; the following year, the renowned New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp cited their entry as his personal favorite at the Venice Biennial.  Since then, Casagrande has exhibited at shows and museums worldwide. He was back at Venice in 2006, this time representing Taiwan with a Zen garden installation.  

I must say that I personally find some of his work quite compelling and moving in a way I find difficult to articulate. It may have something to do with the dialectic of destruction and decay on the one hand, and protection and comfort on the other, that imbues his designs. More on this in a moment.  

So much for the artist. Noticeably absent from his official biography is any mention of his activities from 1993-4. For his “gap year,” Casagrande traded his setsquare for a gun, serving as a soldier of fortune with the Croatian Council of Defence (HVO).  

War is never fun, but from the outset the Bosnian War was a particularly nasty, complicated, internecine affair. Casagrande’s involvement was born of the schism in the alliance between the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ARBiH), which was the official government force, and the HVO. This latter militia represented the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia, a self-proclaimed and unrecognized state of Bosnian-Croats backed by extreme elements in Zagreb who wanted an ethnically cleansed Croatia.  

Initially these two forces buried their differences in the face of a common enemy: The invading Serbs. By 1993, however, with the HVO taking heavy losses, they decided to try and capitalize on the virtual pandemonium that had engulfed the country with a land grab against their Bosniak allies. Enter center stage Casagrande and an international array of hobbledehoys, psychopaths and thrill seekers for a year of fun and frolics in southeastern Europe.  

Casagrande's – sorry – Mocanesi's memoir – sorry – novel

Casagrande described the recruitment process in an interview with the Finnish monthly Helsingin Sanomat: “There are big recruiting offices, but you don’t know about them if you are not in the circles. In 1993 I was with my Croatian girlfriend on holiday on the island of Korcula off the coast of Croatia, and met some wounded mercenaries there. I asked them for some address, but they didn’t trust me. I decided to show what I am capable of, to cross a mined area to a radar station. It got me some respect. One of them then escorted me to the headquarters.”  

On his return to Finland, Casagrande penned Mostar, a repellent hotchpotch of neo-fascist bravado that sneeringly rubs salt into wounds that, more than 15 years after this tragedy, have yet to fully heal. It is, Casagrande has insisted, a work of fiction; that it took the threat of investigation for complicity in war crimes to elicit this declaration is telling.  

Mocanesi’s unit is depicted as having a strong neo-nazi agenda and “Mostar” is brim full of bigoted vitriol directed at practically every group of “undesirables:” Muslims (“perverts and pigs”), Jews, homosexuals (“faggots”), communists, Swedes and Slovenes (“a hysteric nation of shitpants”).  

And they do not stop at verbal abuse. Otto “a devout Nazi and anti-Semitic … slashes a Swedish Jew’s face up;” Bismarck revels in the “cleansing of some nearby Muslim villages [where] the boys are now comparing rape stories;” and Moconesi and the gang take some holiday snaps with an compliant local, “distorting the dead man’s face for funny expressions.”  

The text contains numerous references to rape (“a soldier’s right, if not duty,” according to one comrade), the execution of prisoners (“war is war”) and violence against civilians (“Fifteen thousand Muslims – all straight to paradise. Fuck, we are doing them a favor. Allahu Akbar – fuck them”).  

But just as the reader is thinking Moconesi bereft of a conscience, the mercenary shows his sensitive side: “I don’t want to speak up for war crime, I just state that sometimes things get out of hands.” So that’s all right then.  

In one passage Moconesi’s “idol” Markus, “a neonazi, who … had over a hundred confirmed kills,” holds court at the dinner table with an anecdote about an obdurate pensioner: “That grandma, we call her the Superbitch. Fuck, what a bitch, she just would not die. I had shot in the room with a PKM [a Russian light machinegun], a hand grenade had been thrown in there and when we stormed in, the bitch was still alive. Well, Kurt shot her in a neck with a pistol. Fuck what a bitch.”  

In another, Moconesi contemplates cannibalism: “We have also toyed around with the idea of eating a Muslim soldier. What an experience it would be to cut a deceased up and arrange the platoon a party of a different kind.”  

The Mostar Bridge (Stari Most) after it's reconstruction in 2004

Moconesi’s reflection on the destruction of the UNESCO-listed Mostar Bridge is perhaps the most striking passage of all: “The symbol of Mostar’s Muslim culture is a bridge built by the Ottomans, a world widely admired and highly reputed architectural creation. The Croatian TV news was there to witness the great moment when the bridge was demolished into the river Neretva.”  

A “great moment.” The perversity of the talented young architect penning a “novel” where the protagonist celebrates the demolition of a 440-year-old masterpiece of engineering is obvious. As this interview shows, Casagrande clearly has a fascination with the violence and “horror” inherent in ruins, which as interesting as it is artistically, seems grotesque as a prescriptive methodology. Does he view the destructive act as the ultimate in the architectural process, the end toward which “design” is always working?  

Casagrande rejects the idea of the designer actively designing as a nonsense. The design, he contends, chooses the designer, which – although a distinct point– has something of Barthes’ remark that “le texte me chosit”  about it. Casagrande has termed his thinking the theory of the Third Generation City, where human nature has ruined the urban condition and the architect is simply there to interpret some atma-type general will or consciousness, ala Wittgenstein in one of his more mystical moods. Perhaps Casagrande sees the Mostar destruction as meshing with and justified by this rather vague philosophy.   

Inquiries into Casagrande’s activities in Bosnia seem to have been few and far between, and when questions have been asked, they have hardly been probing. In a TV interview in Finland for example, Casagrande was asked about a passage in “Mostar” which depicts members of the platoon dousing a Serb prisoner in petrol and setting him alight. The act is caught on camera and then printed on T-shirts for posterity.  

Prodded as to why the narrator calls this incident “amusing,” Casagrande dismissed it as “punk” literature, designed to provoke, evasions with which the interviewer seemed satisfied.  

Elsewhere several Finnish-language magazines broached the subject of war crimes without trying to get to the crux of the issue: How much of Mocanesi is there in Casagrande? Are we to believe that a book about a group of right-wing paramilitaries during the Bosnian War did not draw on the author’s experiences as a member of a group of right-wing paramilitaries during the Bosnian war?

Back in 2008, when I started putting this piece together, with the intention of sending it to Taipei Times, I tried to contact Casagrande at TKU. He failed to respond to several phone calls and e-mails. I can’t say for sure but it would not surprise me if his Taiwanese employers knew nothing of his Balkan sojourn.  

While there is no concrete evidence that Casagrande committed war crimes, there is a fair bit of circumstantial to suggest he may have been a party to them. At the very least, it’s safe to presume that a man who is paid to fight in a war has to demonstrate an aptitude for his work; and when pressed by Finnish interviewers on whether he took lives in Bosnia he has, tellingly, stonewalled.  

Regardless of his precise role, this is a public interest issue: Marco Casagrande’s colleagues, his students, and their parents, had a right to know that this charming young intellectual was once a hired killer.

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