Serbian Mythology – Mihailo Vasiljevic
By Mara Prohaska Markovic


Motivated by his interest in notions of Serbian ancestry, heritage and continuity, in 2005, Mihailo Vasiljevic began his series of photographs entitled ‘Serbian Mythology’. By taking photographs throughout Serbia, Vasiljevic has created an open structure of photo-notes inspired by the remnants of pagan myths, whose fragments still remain today and are partially incorporated into Christian religious discourse. The author has documented the motifs of everyday visual experience outside the big cities, which, presented in an apparently ordinary way, indirectly point to the contents of pagan mythology and their magical meaning. Thus, for example, a hundred-year-old tree standing surrounded by a fence and dominating the flat landscape around it, found its way into the focus of Vasiljevic’s camera. The summaries of Serbian mythology indicate that each village had its own ‘Zapis’, a cultic locus by a sacred tree where prayers were recited. According to local beliefs, the tree protected the village from diseases and from thunder and represented the habitat of the deity of the fields and forests. Apart from the ‘Zapis’, the photographs also show a young oak, a hand carder, a molehill, a blackberry, an anvil, a branch of basil, rabbit fat, coal dust, wind, rainbow, a ravine, etc. Each of these objects or phenomena has its own narrative, founded on Serbian beliefs and traditions. This particular record is based on the author’s recognition and selection of such motifs, the result of a year-long study of myths from the past. Although these photographs could be classified under the genres of ‘still-life’ and ‘landscape’, their deceptively ordinary appearance underlines the common presence of mythological motifs.

The structure of myth was one of Roland Barthes’s subjects and he recognized it not only in historical objects, but also in the phenomena of popular culture: wines, foods, wrestling, exhibitions, films, reportages, magazines and toys. The art system still upholds the myth of the artist as a misunderstood genius, while the mere title of the work ‘Serbian Mythology’ also alludes to the process of the centuries-old dissemination of Serbian national myths, which are still being politically exploited today. “Myth is speech”[1], wrote Barthes; it is a way of communicating and transmitting models and messages. Although myths are closely tied to objects and phenomena, objects and phenomena do not define myths. Myths are mostly defined by the intention behind them, which is ambivalent – it is present and absent at the same time. The mechanisms by which myths operate are complex; they are based on the contradictory signifier, the ambiguous and twisted meaning, the irrelevant factual status, and the function of reinforcing ideological systems. “Myth is a value; truth is no guarantee of it.”[2] Also, the reception of myth is manifold. The producer creates myth, attending to its purpose; the mythologist analyses and deciphers it; while the reader, in his dynamic and constructive approach, breathes life into it, experiencing and accepting it as “a story simultaneously true and false”.[3]

Having in mind that Mihailo Vasiljevic is also well acquainted with the photography theory and that from this perspective he ‘thinks photography’, the project ‘Serbian Mythology’ covers the relationship between text and image, and between conceptual and magical thinking. Vilém Flusser has pointed out that the entire history of humankind is coloured by the commotion arising from the conflict and interweaving of images and texts. Text was created in order to determine the intention behind the image; little by little, image became crucial in making text understandable; while the discovery of the photographic camera marked the era of the domination of images. “The photo-graphic universe is a means of programming society – of absolute necessity, but in each individual case, by chance (i.e. automatically) – to act as a magic feedback mechanism for the benefit of a combination game, and of the automatic reprogramming of society into dice, into pieces in a game, into functionaries.”[4]

Even though they seem unpretentious, it is clear that the photographs included in the ‘Serbian Mythology’ project were created in the broader context of photography as contemporary art. It could be said that these photographs are communicative as regards an easy identification of the viewer with the position of the camera, but after a short while, the difference between the photograph/signifier and the reality/signified becomes visible and creative, i.e. intrinsic, because that is the difference which initiates the unfolding of the game. Photography as a medium is positioned in the centre of Flusser’s magical world of images, in the process of encompassing reality with the tendency to project undeciphered images into the world, which, in that way, “becomes the context of scenes, the state of affairs”[5], without possibility of analysis.

By participating in the project of reviving the old myths, Mihailo Vasiljevic reminds us of the notion of continuity in the historical sense. He relies on significant ethnological research[6], in which it has been deduced that certain models have succeeded in maintaining their vitality within the new paradigms. By the way in which he positions his work within an actual theoretical constellation, he calls for an analysis of the mechanisms of the function of the myth in the processes of the functioning of society. He particularly encourages the rethinking of the intention of myth production, which is the thematic focus of this work, and a rethinking too of the programmes inherent in the medium of photography.


[1] Rolan Bart, Književnost, mitologija, semiologija, Nolit, Beograd, 1971.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Vilem Fluser, Za filozofiju fotografije, Kulturni centar Beograda, Beograd, 2005.
[5] Ibid.
[6] It is referred to the research of Veselin Čajkanović and his key publication O srpskom vrhovnom bogu (Beograd, 1941).


Mara Prohaska Marković, “Srpska mitologija”, in catalogue for the exhibition “Srpska mitologija”, Galerija Centra za kulturu Sopot, Sopot, 2013; trans. K. Radovic/J. Boulting

Mara Prohaska Markovic is an art historian and curator.

© Mara Prohaska Markovic


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