|Installation view of "Civilization: The Way We Live Now" at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Gwacheon / Courtesy of MMCA|
By Kwon Mee-yoo
Photography has become an inseparable part of human civilization. There's no corner of this world without photographers documenting, recording and interpreting the world through the lens. "Civilization: The Way We Live Now," a new exhibition at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Gwacheon (MMCA), takes a peek into the complex lives of humans.
Outgoing MMCA director Bartomeu Mari took part in organizing the large-scale exhibition held in collaboration with the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography (FEP).
"Photography was invented in the 19th century and has close relations with contemporary art since it defined the visual culture of the 20th century. However, photography of our generation is very different from the past. This exhibit is evidence we are committed to understand present for imagination of future," Mari said of the exhibit.
Mari said "Civilization" is a subject that can draw interest from audiences from any parts of the globe. "Making this museum part of the international art landscape as a producer was one of my aims when I started my job here," the director said.
FEP curator William Ewing started with the definition of civilization to introduce the photography exhibit.
"Civilization is the highest social form humans can achieve. We've built villages, towns, cities and countries. We invented the wheel, writing, math, science and art. The human species lived in a simple state for millions of years, but developed civilization only in the last 5,000 years," Ewing said. "I ask you to consider this. I am 75 years old, very young. If you take my life as a measuring tool, 66 men like me take back to the history of civilization from wheel to space exploration."
|Natan Dvir's 'Desigual' / Courtesy of Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography and MMCA|
The exhibit captures various aspects of civilization, which takes form in front of human every moment.
For the Seoul exhibit, the FEP and MMCA curators selected 300 photographs by 135 artists from 32 countries and displayed them under eight themes ― Hive, Alone Together, Flow, Persuasion, Control, Rupture, Escape and Next.
"We are curators of photography. There's no agenda, but we collected and saw from the pictures. We didn't start with themes ― they emerged. We saw hundreds and thousands of pictures and the sections flew organically out of our research," Ewing said of the eight sections of the exhibition.
The exhibition begins with two contrasting photos showcasing the heritage of civilization in very different ways. Thomas Struth's "Pergamon Museum 1, Berlin, 2001" shows how ancient Greek civilization is absorbed in a modern environment, accommodated within a museum.
Richard de Tscharner's 2010 black-and-white photo "Coexistence dans l'indifference" is small, portraying ancient Egyptian kings and queens coexisting with modern technology such as road and communication facilities.
"Architects 3,000 years ago didn't know their creation would be absorbed like a toy," Ewing said.
The exhibition is held at the Circular Gallery 1 of MMCA Gwacheon and is designed to make the images talk to each other as a viewer moves around them.
The "Hive" section showcases cities as the collective future for humans as more and more people live in urban areas.
Korean photographer KDK's "sf.M-1" captures a futuristic-looking space, which in fact is a parking lot of Munich Airport. Candida Hofer's library photo is a reminder of the great treasure of information we keep in the world's libraries.
"Now this information can be scanned and spread like a wildfire on the internet, not just for the few privileged who could visit the library," Ewing said.
Bustling scenery of Times Square in New York City captured in Robert Walker's "Time Square" series is a nod to advertisements and images in the "Persuasion" section.
"It is an epicenter of advertising power where a real person gets dwarfed, immersed by advertising messages and fake people are on bus advertising," the curator explained. "Humans produce story, fiction and gossip and this is how we define who we are."
|Jeffrey Milstein's 'Newark 8, Terminal B' / Courtesy of Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography and MMCA|
The "Escape" section shows various aspects of leisure, reflecting people's desire to get away through the development of tourism.
Jeffrey Milstein's "Cruise Ships" series portrays the world's most luxurious cruise ships seen from above, as objects of desire. In reference to a picture depicting photographers in the Arctic, the curator said it could be about travel, exploration and global warming, signaling how pollution is everywhere.
In the "Control" section, photographers imply collective efforts behind big sporting events such as the Olympics and power and corruption of sports bodies such as FIFA.
|Dona Schwartz's 'Expecting Parents' / Courtesy of Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography and MMCA|
"Alone Together" returns to one of the basic uses of photography ― accurate portraiture.
"How people interact with each other changes as technology develops, and now we are simultaneously alone and together," the curator said.
Dona Schwartz's "Expecting Parents" and "Empty Nesters" series reflect two different times of a family by capturing parents in their child's room, while Jung Yeon-doo's "Evergreen Tower" series portrays lives of common people living in an apartment complex in Korea.
Chinese photographer Wang Qingsong staged a series of photographs of laborers in hospital clothes at factories, questioning their role in industry.
The "Flow" section features vigilant movements of goods and people in the 21st century.
"We drink coffee from Africa and tea from Sri Lanka in the morning, but we don't really care where they came from. These photographers captured unexpected beauty from industry infrastructure and movement," Ewing said.
Olivo Barbier's "site specific_ISTANBUL 11" shows the city where the East and West meet.
The "Rupture" section deals with civilization's failures and blind spots such as pollution, migration, war, borders and waste.
Richard Mosse' "Heat Maps" repurposes military-grade thermal cameras to convey humanitarian messages, while Francesco Zizola approaches the same theme in an intimate scale by taking closeup of the faces of refugees showing hope, fear and resignation in a boat.
|Olivo Barbieri's 'site specific_MEXICO CITY 11' / Courtesy of Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography and MMCA|
The exhibition gives a peek into what is coming and what we will look like in the future in the "Next" section.
Michael Najjar's "Outer Space" series gives a critical look at technological forces of the 21st century through the rocket launch pad and radio telescope.
"We looked at photos and picked what touched us. It is a kind of poem to civilization, but neither perfect nor complete. We didn't steer it to a positive or negative side, but in the end, it came out positive but realistic," Ewing said.
The exhibit runs until Feb. 17 at MMCA Gwacheon and will travel to the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia and the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations in Marseille, France, afterwards.
For more information, visit mmca.go.kr or call 02-2188-6000.