March 30th – April 13th
The Bright Side of Stratification
“The world is unjust; face it!” People (including the poor and the underprivileged) tend to look down at the rising problems of unequal distribution of wealth and income with just this kind of resignation. The worldwide stratification of societies seems to be the ultimate consequence of globalisation. This true new order, supranational and universal, imposes a certain set of values and rules upon individuals, societies, and entire states, indiscriminately. Parliamentary democracy (or rather partycracy) combined with free market economy is not only the prescribed, dominant model, but also one that few states dare reject. When they do, they end up living in constant fear of invasion or internal destabilisation leading to civil war. Stratification is a side effect of the widespread turn to the corporate mindset, to the new religion of the invisible hand of the market that solves all problems within societies, and as such, it seems to be inevitable.
But how did we get here? Why have people given up on the idea of social and economic equality so easily? One answer lies in the recent history of Yugoslavia and its successor states where it seems that people simply wanted it. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, an ordinary citizen of Yugoslavia believed that the freedom to do business was far more important than the right to healthcare, education, and a home. People strove for an unregulated market. Commodities from the West were commonly associated with a freedom of choice (in a very material sense): freedom to own, to consume, to have and to have more, and ultimately, freedom to show it all off. And then, quite ruthlessly and violently, the new world order came in successive waves to the former Yugoslavia. Nowadays, two decades later, it has succeeded in changing the cultural landscape immensely.
In his photographs, Mihailo Vasiljević documents symbols of socio-political shifts across Serbia in order to reflect the profound discontent of the majority who have learnt that not everyone has the chance to become a part of the elite. Moreover, they quickly learnt that capitalism does not necessarily lead to healthy competition where the best always wins out, and that the vision of a self-made man who started from the scratch and built empires is a fairy tale. In his series of photographs such as Trans. (2011-2014), Belgrade Topographics (2013-2015), and New Money (2011-2015) Vasiljević explores different facets of social and economic decay otherwise known as transition.
His most recent long-term work entitled New Money is similarly distinctive and ambiguous as it averts its gaze from the bitter reality of the new society. Instead, he follows and documents the splendour of the Serbian nouveau riche, their houses, cars, neighbourhoods, and security systems. He penetrates into a world most citizens of Serbia do not have a chance to experience or even see with their own eyes. Yet, this is the world that one sees and lives every single day through watching television, reading the press, and surfing the Internet. Mass media and popular culture have become harbingers of the lavish lifestyle, celebrity culture, and glamour of the upper class. People are being bombarded with propaganda rousing in them a desire to own, to be part of the caste that can afford a comfortable life free of stress, day-to-day concerns–even freedom from work as means of subsistence. Suddenly everybody wants to be rich and famous–the desire and the hope of achieving keep people going. Thus, there isn’t any serious resistance to the ever-increasing stratification.
But the things Vasiljević depicts have another, slightly darker side. The photographs display attributes of new wealth such as designer houses, luxury accessories, yachts, SUV cars, and golf courses and yet, at the same time, they focus in on the signifiers of paranoia arising from a fear of the world outside: A world rife with poverty, crime and all manner of vile things. As with many third world countries, the elite in Serbia wishes to live a secluded lifestyle, away from the gaze of ordinary people who pose a potential threat to their material possessions. Their houses and cars are bastions equipped with surveillance and advanced security systems serving to ease their fear of losing their privileges. Personal safety however is not the only reason to live in a protected compound surrounded by like-minded people of similar material status. The true reason is that the elite do not want to see disturbing images of poverty and injustice. They bother them when they sleep. They frighten their children. They cause long-lasting traumas. Stratification is indeed beautiful, but only if you stand on the bright side of it.
Text: Miha Colner
Photo: Mihailo Vasiljević