Civilization: The Collective Life is a major exhibition, featuring the work of 100 of the world’s finest photographers. It addresses and illuminates major aspects of our increasingly global 21st century civilization. It stresses the fact that contemporary civilization is an extremely complex collective enterprise. Never before in human history have so many people been so interconnected, and so dependent on one another. In science and art, at work and play, we increasingly live the collective life. The Olympic Games, the giant Airbus, CERN, MRI, the Trident Submarine, Wikipedia, the Academy Awards, the International Space Station, Viagra, the laptop computer and the smartphone... However we feel about any of them, none of these complex phenomena would have been possible without superlatively coordinated efforts involving highly educated, highly trained, highly motivated, highly connected people.
Though photography has always embraced investigations of the self, looking inward to existential questioning and individual poetics (what curator John Szarkowski called “mirrors”), it can also be said that many of the world’s greatest photographers deal with the real world (Szarkowski’s “windows”). Their work may revolve around the functional aspects of society and culture (home life, pleasure and leisure, travel, religion, the workplace, production and consumption); or revolve around its dysfunctional aspects (alienation, crime, pollution, social breakdown and war). Andreas Gursky’s supermakets and rock concerts, Edward Burtynsky’s oil fields, Raimond Wouda’s high school, Reiner Riedler’s families at leisure, Lauren Greenfield’s ostentatious displays of wealth – these are only a few of the many subjects covered by the exhibition. Obviously each category will feature the work of several artists. Whatever their particular focus, the photographers have chosen to depict, reveal, examine, critique and otherwise reflect upon our hyper- modern, technologically complex human ‘hive’, to adopt Tom Wolfe’s apt metaphor.
Taken as a whole, this exhibition takes stock of our civilization’s material and spiritual culture, ranging from the ordinary to the extraordinary, and from civilization’s great collective achievements and its ruinous collective failings, expressing thoughts and feelings in the richly nuanced language of photography. And though it features photography of the real world, it embraces different ways of dealing with it, from the ‘straight’ document to the mise en scene.
It must be stressed that this is decidedly not a didactic exhibition; images, not words, tell the story of civilization – i.e., the photographs do not illustrate a thesis – they are the thesis.
Civilization: The Collective Life focuses on shared human experience. We may have never been on a Dreamliner or attended the Academy Awards or met Paris Hilton, but we know all about them, whether we want to or not. Most of us have never come face with an Al Qaeda operative either, but we all have to take off our shoes at security. In his book Civilization (2011), the historian Niall Ferguson notes: “These days most people around the world dress in much the same way: the same jeans, the same sneakers, the same T-shirts... It is one of the greatest paradoxes of modern history that a system designed to offer infinite choice to the individual has ended up homogenizing humanity.” This strange paradox is at the heart of Civilization: The Collective Life.