As soon as we enter, we’re confronted with a photograph of a beautiful old Austrian library decorated with wood panelling and frescos synonymous with the European Enlightenment. ‘An old library might be a strange place to begin an exhibition about civilisation in the 21st century’, the exhibit label accompanying the photo quips, ‘but we must begin by reminding ourselves where our civilisation came from’.
The next photo in this entrance space depicts the reconstruction of an ancient Grecian temple inside a large modern warehouse, complete with tourists. This represents both our modern reverence for our roots in the ancient Greek world and our hubris in surpassing them on such a scale.
The Saatchi Gallery’s ‘Civilisation’ photography exhibition thus begins very much how it goes on. Civilisation is a fundamentally European idea derived from the ancient Greeks but more recently upheld by the United States of America, with China emerging as a challenger to the throne in our current century.
In this limited sense, the exhibition is impressive, depicting a nearly completed transition from the ‘heavy’ modernity of the twentieth century into the high-tech ‘liquid’ modernity of the twenty-first. Zygmunt Bauman, the sociologist to whom we owe these terms of reference, is quoted prominently, stencilled on a wall, just to reinforce the point.
The exhibition is thematically arranged, with the first room dedicated to the ‘hive’ of modern urban living, with subsequent rooms dedicated to themes like individualism and alienation, transport, leisure, consumerism, and crisis. The framing is coherent and impressive, and the exhibition captures both the astonishing scale and even more astonishing complexity of late capitalism.
Despite occasional questioning glances at difficult subjects like the global refugee crisis, the exhibition seems entirely comfortable with the contours of monumental neoliberalism. The wall text confidently asserts that global corporations like Apple and Samsung are forming the outlines of our twenty-first-century global civilisation, supplemented by non-commercial institutions like the Olympic Games and the World Health Organisation. For an exhibition ostensibly designed to help us reflect on our civilisation, it is surprisingly non-reflective, inviting little genuinely critical dialogue. The climate crisis is calmly depicted as a challenge among many rather than the existential disaster it is.
Among the 150-plus photographs, images of Latin America, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent appear hardly at all and usually as a foil or kitschy reflection of Euro-American modernity. North Korea, the kitschiest foil of them all, appears as many times as the entire African continent. Indeed, one of the few images depicting African civilisation is a photograph of a DPRK-built monument in Zimbabwe. The other explicitly African image depicts a Nigerian Pentecostal megachurch, ‘Mountain of Fire & Miracles Ministry’.
Nothing of India’s vast and ancient civilisation is considered worth including other than a massive image of a slum taken by a photographer with a distinctly European-sounding name, who apparently wishes to communicate the dangers of overpopulation. Incidentally, India recently conducted the first successful landing on the southern pole of the Moon.
Russia’s infrequent intrusions revolve around themes of emptiness and desolation, menacing but impotent. The horizon of a nuclear testing ground on the Russia-Kazakhstan border glows ominously. The largest diesel-powered submarine ever built lies abandoned, Ozymandias-like, in the lone and level of the Russian Arctic. Ukraine appears briefly, with an even more menacing image of torch-waving ultra-nationalists, a notable inclusion considering the current political context.
China, alongside the ‘little tigers’ of the Asian Far East, are the only places to be depicted with similar seriousness as the Euro-Atlantic civilisation. The theme of these inclusions is Asia’s catching up and coming to terms with neoliberalism and all the technological and social dislocation that this transition demands. China is nipping at our heels, the exhibition seems to say, but can it throw off the weight of its own civilisational hang-ups to successfully compete with us in the long term?
Civilisation is not a bad exhibition. In fact, it’s an excellent one, and therein lies its danger. The photography is stunning, the commentary is engaging, and the curation takes us on a compelling journey. But for all the apparent diversity, its lack of underlying plurality is striking. Like a walk around Ikea, we’re bedazzled by unlimited possibilities but left with a vague sense that nothing differed very much from anything else in its fundamental substance.
For all our differences, Civilisation seems to preach, we people of the world are essentially the same, and we’re all trying to make the best of life within the inescapable confines of US-exported late capitalism. Perhaps it’s right.