Saša Janjić

“Documentary? That’s a very sophisticated and misleading word. And not really clear. You have to have a sophisticated ear to receive that word.”

Walker Evans

Although photography in the 1980s became definitely included in the world of contemporary art on a global scale, in Serbia, this process was initiated twenty years later. With the physical space of the country in which we live continuously decreasing in the past decades, the artistic space and art scene have also experienced numerous modifications, affecting the activity of artists. In response to this change and the altered cultural environment, they reacted differently – by withdrawing into their own universes or trying to establish their positions in a broader context. One of the essential characteristics of this period was the decentralization of the former monolithic socialist education system, i.e., the opening of several private art schools and academies. In one of the new academies, under local circumstances, a novel study program was introduced, which contributed to the emergence of a critical mass of artists whose practices today constitute the phenomenon that we could call the “new photography scene.” This new generation of artist photographers was the first that, at least in principle, did not have to defend and explain the position of photography as contemporary art and was instead able to explore the new transitional reality relatively unhindered.

Mihailo Vasiljević belongs to the generation of artists who were educated and trained at the Department of Photography of the BK Academy of Arts, which from 1996 to 2009 was led by artist photographer Milan Aleksić. The novelty that this professor introduced into the system of training young artists consisted in the fact that, for the first time in Serbia, photography in the university curriculum was seen as a part of contemporary art, as opposed to “artistic photography” previously practiced in photo clubs and public schools. Relying on his significant experience of studying and working in the United States of America, Aleksić was able to design a new photography study program that was fully aligned with the global trends in arts and education. Under the influence of conceptual art, history and theory of photography, along with knowledge of numerous contemporary artistic practices, a new phenomenon was formed on the Serbian art scene.

Mihailo Vasiljević is one of the artists who combine two different but mutually inseparable activities – artistic practice and theoretical research. Several aspects have come together in his work, making up a specific approach to the photographic medium – a complete commitment to creative work in parallel with research into photography’s history and theory. This combination of skills and interests allowed the artist to deal with photography as an artistic phenomenon from several interconnected positions. In addition to a large number of realized exhibitions and many other artistic activities, Vasiljević worked as a lecturer at the BK Academy of Arts (2005–2009), i.e., the New Academy of Arts (2009–2016), and was the co-founder and co-editor of the Center for Photography (2011–2019).

“I am a photographer and an artist who uses photography. My photographs are created within long-term projects dedicated to critiquing social phenomena recognized at various levels and within different scopes – from local changes to globally present codes.” M. V.

Working within media restrictions, as well as against them, Vasiljević understands photography as a conceptual tool, i.e., a medium that has the power to depict reality, despite having great potential to manipulate the scene and its meaning. We could say that the basis of his work is thinking about the world through photography, not only by making more or less conceptualized or poeticized images but by establishing complex relationships between subject and object, thus providing visibility to the different contexts of photography as an omnipresent social phenomenon. Vasiljević’s works move between extremes, constantly balancing on a fine line that leaves the observer slightly in doubt, expecting them to make a significant intellectual effort. Such an observer should know that a picture does not say everything, that its thousand words often turn into a cacophony of information, different voices and representations. In this sense, the question is no longer whether the observer can see but what he can understand and learn about the series of presented motifs and the mechanism of representation. For his works, Vasiljević seeks curious and educated recipients who can acquire knowledge independently, forcing them to reexamine photography as a multifaceted mediator of viewing, knowing, remembering and understanding. i.e., an arbiter in the dialogue between personal and collective, political and aesthetic, artistic and non-artistic.

Processes of historicization (“Turks and Romans”), transition (“Trans.,” “New Money”), mythologization (“Serbian Mythology”), urbanization (“Topography of Belgrade,” “Vernacular”), as well as issues of ecology (“Phototourism,” “Hope and Fear”), family (“R.V. knows best,” “Family Objects”) and personal experience (“Thirty-five,” “Menagerie”) are some of the intertwined themes Vasiljević has explored in various ways during the twenty years of his artistic career. His opus is layered with critical intonation and based on numerous relationships, references and visual templates. The author’s view of society, city or nature reaches further and broader than what is presented because it always captures and considers the context of culture, politics and history, as well as the changing meaning of the directly given subject. The documentary style of his work can be interpreted as a process in which specific ideas or problems are stated by the act of taking photographs for the purpose of consideration that implies, but also surpasses, criticism. In his own words: “It seems logical to state things visually because it can be the first step towards change.” Hence, his photographs only appear like documents – they are a carefully devised means of expression and critical understanding of contemporary society.

Having in mind the moment we live in and the information frenzy to which we are exposed, photography emerges as a specific form of social practice, even as a way of life with the endless clicking of cameras or mobile phones. By contrast, Vasiljević conceives his artistic practice as slow, meditative and thoughtful. Thus, his works are usually created over relatively long periods of time, during which the circumstances in which he finds his motifs often change. This simulacrum of social relations and cultural conditioning guides the artist’s gaze toward the creation of new visual and narrative relationships.

“The utilitarian use of photography is the most frequent starting point for works in which I use the act of establishing the state of things as a critical mechanism. The possible meaning of such a method depends on the perception of subtle differences between the photographic representation and reality.” M. V.

Language and text play an important role in Vasiljević’s work, primarily regarding the carefully chosen titles. Precisely selected names of photo series are pivotal for interpreting and deciphering the initial meaning and possible messages behind the pieces and offer crucial indications, signs that direct us to a wide range of problems and phenomena represented. In addition to the titles, a vital part accompanying each of Vasiljević’s works is the artist’s statement, which usually consists of short and meaningful explanations of the most important ideas. In reading Vasiljević’s series of photographs, we must rely on numerous contextual indicators outside the individual photograph’s field. Those indicators can be different and vary depending on the series, thematic frameworks or author’s interests. However, they always move in the social domain of culture and are concerned with how it adopts or modifies certain phenomena and representations. With exceptional ease, the author succeeds in deconstructing the cultural and historical system of desired but never realized values, usually based on a specific set of codes and assumed rules. Thanks to this method, the viewer is unconsciously drawn into the culturally defined space of the represented and forced to reconsider what they think they know. Such cultural visibility is shaped by observation and visuality as the main determinants that define looking (observing) as the highest stage of aesthetic and spiritual activity and visuality as a social and cultural fact.

The author employs different models of the use of photography as a starting point for his works, whose basis implies the consideration of photography as a widely recognized social practice. Whether it is the use of photography in the advertising industry (“New Money,” “Animals”), social sciences (“Serbian Mythology,” “Turks and Romans”), real estate sales (“Ultimate Currency”), the construction industry and architecture (“Topography of Belgrade,” “Vernacular”), family photography (“R. V. knows best,” “Family objects,” “Menagerie”), amateur artistic photography (“Street Photography,” “Serbian Mythology”) or postcards (“Phototourism,” “Trans.,” “Hope and Fear”), in Vasiljević’s work, on the trail of pop and conceptual practices, the crucial position of photography as a non-artistic medium of contemporary culture is recognized and directly used for artistic purposes. In parallel, the artist’s entire oeuvre was created in dialogue with the most diverse phenomena and examples from the history of photography, i.e., the history of art.

We could say that Vasiljević’s photographs always include a subjective or autobiographical element because the artist constitutes his personal view through the very process of researching different phenomena. The research process directly prompts, builds and ultimately defines each of the works; owing to such an approach, they are never illustrations of concepts or designed photo reports. On the other hand, his photographs may at first glance appear casual or laconically shot, while they are, in fact, always meticulously thought out, selected and conceptually based. Rethinking each frame, positioning it in relation to other photographs and the series as a whole and connecting the motif and its representation with a broader scope of symbolic and social meanings are some of the characteristics of Vasiljević’s opus. Another important aspect of his art is the issue of gallery presentation, i.e., gallery layout. As equipment, he most often uses simple, proportionally deep white frames of various formats, and his dynamic and balanced layouts are the final spatial execution of the works. Reminiscent of installations, exhibitions, for Vasiljević, are a unique medium that encompasses all the elements of layout, positioning, order, lighting and, above all, the specificity, history and context of the space itself.

Although Vasiljević’s portfolio includes a wide range of themes and motifs, a significant number of his pieces focus on researching various aspects of contemporary society in Serbia (“Serbian Mythology,” “New Money,” “Topography of Belgrade,” “Trans.,” “Ultimate Currency,” “Turks and the Romans”). The image of Serbia offered by Vasiljević is weighty and reduced to a balance of meaning and form. He programmatically chooses an antipoetic pictorial language, sometimes focusing on bizarre, anti-aesthetic details that he places in the center of the scene or allows them to disturb the viewer, accustomed to the clichés of overflooding idealized representations. In this sense, there is a dose of subversion in Vasiljević’s work compared to the worlds of beautified, false reality because he emphasizes the ordinary, the quotidian, the empirical, persistently reminding us of the reality that we do not wish to see but which – whether we want to admit it or not – is part of our common experience and identity. Conversely, the work of this author, who is aware of the problematic position that the media image of Serbia has in the global context, goes far beyond the one-way criticism of local opportunities which accompanies and illustrates political programs.

“Of all the artistic mediums, photography probably has the most dynamic relationship of incongruity with art. This is directly related to the mechanics of its images’ creation and its ideology – art makes up only a minimal portion of photographic production, far behind all other applications. In this sense, it can be said that photography is a tricky art, a simple technology and a complex social phenomenon.” M. V.

In The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord warns of the dehumanizing aspect of the role of the observer and the accumulation of images in today’s culture that threatens shared activities and imposes alienation and isolation as a mainstay of contemporary discourses. The self-sufficiency and passivity of our views and lives, the imposed image of reality to which we are subjected, completely change lived experiences. Contrary to the process of commodification in which photography played a key role and turned most objects into commodities, in Vasiljević, we see a process that is deliberately distanced from the banal use of photography. By confirming the status of a photograph as a gallery and museum object, he seeks foundation not only in criticizing the myth of the autonomy of a work of art but in connecting with a broad spectrum of social processes and values on which he builds his specific visual narrative.

Thanks to intensive artistic research, Mihailo Vasiljević created an oeuvre that is divergent in terms of thematic content and, simultaneously, coherent in terms of poetics. Nominally, his works are not easy to understand – his photographs mostly avoid beauty stereotypes and appear somewhat hermetic. They are not intrusive but moderate, restrained in their calmness and dignity, and require a certain degree of knowledge and a viewer who dares to go a step further. They are imbued with meaning that both includes and, to an extent, exceeds the photographic medium, the gallery or the process of exhibiting and interpreting a work of art. They capture the broader context, including society, its culture, history and the knowledge it produces. The poetics of Vasiljević’s works is equally lyrical and epic. It relies on artistic tradition as much as on the contemporary moment, from which his photographs emerge as pictures made to last, without haste or turmoil, with sincere respect and understanding of life’s circumstances.

Saša Janjić is an art historian from Belgrade.

© Saša Janjić

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