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Review: 'Civilisation: The Way We Live Now' at the Saatchi Gallery

Siân Davey, After the Swim (ii), 2015-2016 © Siân Davey. Saatchi Gallery, London presents CIVILIZATION: THE WAY WE LIVE NOW (2 June – 17 September 2023).


Almost eight billion people live on Earth, which means there are nearly eight billion different shades of life. Some see the refugee camp they helped build going up in flames (see Lima, 2016), while others attend a prestigious procession of boats (see Roberts, 2016). Ruminating about these disparate examples of human life can provide some context to how yours and others’ acts of living came about. This opportunity to meditate on life and human existence is what I found in the excellent, sprawling new exhibition ‘Civilisation: the way we live now’ at the Saatchi Gallery.

The exhibition progresses through eight chapters: hive, alone together, flow, persuasion, escape, control, rupture, and next. In each, we see how our lives connect and contrast with each other through the lenses of 150 photographers. Traversing Europe, the Americas, Asia and Australia, the exhibition explores our developments and failures and the strength and frailty of humanity.

The first chapter, Hive, takes the audience to different cities across the globe. Among the multitude of urban images, Olivo Barbieri’s Site Specific-Istanbul (2011) best exhibits the hive-like essence of city life. This glitchy aerial shot of Istanbul is not a documentary photo, but it captures a buzzing city's frenetic, vibrating, and tireless energy. The overexposure reminds us of the artificiality of the metropolis, yet, Barbieri's signature tilt-shift technique distorts the image in a way that it almost looks alive.

Alex MacLean, Shipping Containers, Portsmouth, VA, 2011 © Alex MacLean. Saatchi Gallery, London presents CIVILIZATION: THE WAY WE LIVE NOW (2 June – 17 September 2023).

The following instalment, Alone Together, explores the ways in which we relate and differ from one another. From photos documenting religious gatherings to private spaces, this chapter vividly depicts the social fabric of civilisations. As the chapter label notes, “The essential human condition is to be alone – as we come into the world and will go out of it. But whilst we are alive, we live collectively.” The artworks in this section of the exhibition plunge the viewers into a reflection on our independent and interdependent existence. The curators William A. Ewing and Holly Roussell Perret-Gentil made a deliberate choice to place the photos of collective and individual acts on the opposing walls as if these pictures were in conversation. The distinction between private and public therefore blurs seamlessly in this room.

Although Alone Together demonstrates the prominence of communal sense in human civilisation, Rupture is where the exhibition’s notes on the current state of humanity lie. In this part, we face heart-wrenching testimonies of humanity’s various failings ranging from ecological breakdowns to political and ideological failures, resulting in war and violence, further engendering mass migration and border conflict. While viewing these photographs, one is confronted with the hideous reality. We cannot look away from the animal carcasses in Chris Jordan’s (2009) photo series that look more like a collection of plastic rubbish than organic remains. Furthermore, we see two young children crying in terror and agony in Gjorgji Lichovski’s capture of Macedonian police clashing with refugees in 2015. This is our ever-so-prospering, robust civilisation.

The rest of this ambitious exhibition presents photos delving into technological advancement, all-intrusive commercial interests, escapism, and means of maintaining order. This is certainly an all-encompassing and multi-layered attempt at encapsulating human civilisations in the 21st century. However, the lack of social media in the exhibition seems a missed opportunity, considering how much it permeates and dictates our culture. The Alone Together chapter could have been inclusive of more artworks exploring different minority communities. Nonetheless, ‘Civilisation’ covers an impressive amount. The scope and ambition of the exhibition alone deserves praise, and the work on display, presented within these cohesive, compelling ‘chapters’, is more than capable of carrying the exhibition. The curators set themselves a towering task with such a broad title and ambition, but they have, somehow, pulled it off.

CIVILIZATION: THE WAY WE LIVE NOW at Saatchi Gallery, London (2 June – 17 September 2023). Tickets from £10.

Students go for £10.


Edited by Samuel Blackburn

All images courtesy of Saatchi Gallery


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