Ultimate Currency
Milos Zec

In 1842, the young journalist Karl Marx published five articles in the Cologne-based newspaper Rheinische Zeitung under the title Debates on the Law on Thefts of Wood. The articles were a reaction to the newly established law in the Rhine Province that prohibited the poor from collecting fallen branches in the forest, traditionally used as firewood. Landowners erased the difference between collecting and stealing wood. A lot later, Marx would write about how it was this attempt of addressing the cancellation of the ritual right of using the forest that first pointed him towards the systematic study of political economy.[1] The events he discussed at the time, however, were only a part of the comprehensive transformations initiated, from the fourteenth century onward, on the territory of Western Europe. During the Middle Ages, the ground, i.e. land wasn’t observed as a means of exploiting someone else’s labor, but an existential basis for those who worked it. As Maja Solar writes, “Before capitalism, the land wasn’t goods, because it was essentially outside of any trade relations (extra commercium) and served as a source of self-preservation.”[2] Then, trade relations began to replace what used to be a feudal arrangement between the land and the farmers who inhabited it. Feudal lords became landowners and, by dislodging and relocating the population and collecting rent from the farmers-lessees, turned land into goods to be traded with. The breakup with the previous social and spatial relations at the same time enabled an accelerated growth of the capitalist economy.

At the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, attention was drawn to the landscape, which gained significance in the sense of the economic and political organisation of state territories. The reasons were very simple: in the words of the Italian philosopher of geography Franco Farinelli, reliefs were an obstacle to the “purpose for which the national states were created and for which they grew strong: the increase in the speed of the circulation of goods.”[3] Therefore, landscape implied not only modernity but also the taming of mountains that happened in this period – the subject of the landscape, the man watching from up high the panorama laid out below him, is the historically determined subject.[4] In the following centuries, the enclosed terrain was remodelled into a colourful background for the life of the newly formed privileged class. Fences and walls were gradually removed or hidden from view, and replaced by control of access, orders and … the right of precedence to their cultural exploitation. In art, landscapes were most often portrayed as veduttas seen from the windows of wealthy landowners or were used as a backdrop for their portraits.[5]

Ultimate Currency, the exhibition by Mihailo Vasiljevic, takes the visitor back to the starting position of reflecting on our local landscapes in their specific economic, social, and spatial contexts. The artist wishes to remind us that, together with the dominant concept of the landscape, there are others created due to a different intertwining of the material realities of economic, ecological, and symbolic connections with the ground. In his photographic images, Vasiljevic skillfully formulates the landscape as a document wrought with historical references.[6] The double premise of this viewpoint is that a landscape can both be shown in an objective manner and also read as a document from which we can extrapolate the meaning behind the visible. As theorists have already observed, Vasiljevic “approaches photography in a way that understands documentarity as a stylistic category in order to bring to the fore the topographic operation related to it, that is, to offer a photographic description” of an area, “which leaves the impression of a neutral, comprehensive, precise document and cognitive material for interpreting the various aspects of the intertwined relations” and contexts.[7] Vasiljevic’s photos resist easy categorisation and denaturalize the prevailing notions about the landscape genre. In the observer, they cause a projection of their own notions about the area and the acceptance of the implicit challenge of using visual engagement as a tool of critical study. To Vasiljevic, photographic practice implies permanent self-reflection of the act of taking a photograph. Despite the apparent appeal of the visual representations and the possible attractiveness of the photographic images of nature, the artist is really interested in the other side of the meaning of topographic photography, aestheticism, and documentarism.

As the most important contradiction of capitalism, David Harvy describes the one that exists between “the reality, and the image of the reality in which we are living.”[8] This is, in fact, a reflection of the change that occurred during the Second Industrial Revolution, based on the use of light alloys and electricity, and that gained terrible speed in the digital revolution, with the development of electronics and cybernetics. The greater or shorter distance between objects around the world has completely or almost completely lost any effect on the relationships managing their action – distance doesn’t even suggest any kind of relationship anymore. “Any plausible systemic correspondence between the functioning of the world and what the observer is seeing, any more or less immediate mutuality, is lost”, as Farinelli writes.[9] Despite the mentioned dematerialisation of dimensions and spatial relations, climate mutations have brought the focus back to issues related to the land on which we are living. According to Bruno Latur, today, every country on the planet is torn between the world in which it is living and the world off of which it is living.[10] Vasiljevic’s photographs are indeed a meditation on the topic of the connection between these two different definitions of the lands we are occupying – one describes the sovereign state from which human rights are derived, and the other, the hidden one, the ground from which energy reserves are drawn. There is no connection anymore between national states in the legal sense and the widely distributed sources of wealth that benefit the citizens of these states – “your wealth or misery really come from places that are invisible on the administrative map of your country.”[11] Hence the apparent absence in Vasiljevic’s photographs. In nature, these, almost generic landscapes would maybe make themselves appear to the rare visitor as idyllic hilltops or valleys strewn with agricultural fields and farms, plots, and thickets. There is almost nothing on these surfaces that would suggest that these territories are an object of permanent transactions.

Today, we see landscape photography, either contemporary or historical, like shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave. These are artefacts of what we think we know about the land and about the ways in which we have acquired this knowledge.[12] Through fragmented images of places and their carefully lit characteristics, the links and interruptions between what we see and what we know are exposed to us. Vasiljevic’s intention behind the Ultimate Currency was to create consistently structured and detailed photographs characterised by an intense calmness of the sight followed by a feeling of extended duration. Through his mutually connected long-term projects focused on everyday scenery, architecture, and the environment, Mihailo Vasiljevic’s topographic photography becomes a way of continuous reflection and image creation. These photographic images are conceived on a scale that surpasses the individual, regardless of whether they are aimed at the wonders of natural processes, intersections of humanity and technology, or towards the politically and economically-rich triangulation of the people, the state, and the land.

[1] Karl Marx, Preface in: Prilog kritici političke ekonomije, Kultura, Belgrade, 1960. https://marxists.catbull.com/archive/marx/works/1842/10/25.htm

[2] Maja Solar, Od zemlje za ljude do zemlje za kapital, article published on the portal Mašina, 2015.


[3] Franco Farinelli, Geografija: Jedan uvod u modele sveta, Akademska knjiga, Novi Sad, 2012.

[4] Ibid., p. 53.

[5] Kenneth Olwig, Gods and Humans, in: Barbara Bender (ed.) Landscape: Politics and Perspectives, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1993.

[6] We are referring to historical topographic photography and its modernist revisions, the most famous of which was the one exhibited in 1975 at the New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape art show at the International Museum of Photography in Rochester (USA).  

[7] Ana Bogdanović, Nekoliko teza o Topografiji Beograda Mihaila Vasiljevića, text in the exhibition catalog for Mihailo Vasiljević’s exhibition The Topography of Belgrade, Center for Photography, Belgrade, 2017.

[8] David Harvey, D, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, Oxford University Press, New York, 2015.

[9] Franco Farinelli, Geografija: Jedan uvod u modele sveta, Akademska knjiga, Novi Sad, 2012, p. 65.

[10] Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, Critical Zones – The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2020.

[11] Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, Critical Zones – The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2020.

[12] Stephen Longmire, Another Look At The West – View Finder: Mark Klett, Photography, and the Reinvention of Landscape, Afterimage, Rochester, New York, July 2001.

Miloš Zec is an art historian and curator based in Belgrade.

© Miloš Zec

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