November 2019

Noted

‘Civilization: The Way We Live Now’

By Quentin Sprague
Image of ‘Wild River, Florida’

Wild River, Florida (2005). © Reiner Riedler. Type C photograph; 100 x 120 x 4cm

The beautiful photographs of often grim subjects in NGV Australia’s exhibition raise questions over the medium’s power to critique

Recent years have seen an ever-increasing flood of images wash over us that can’t help but symbolise the treacherous fragility of systems – political, environmental, planetary – we have previously accepted as inviolable. Cast your mind back, even over recent months: picture the plumes of smoke over the Amazon rainforest, the destruction left in Hurricane Dorian’s wake, the bigoted pageantry of any number of Trump rallies. Even the most optimistic among us would surely agree that such images, to put it mildly, speak of an uncertain future.

Consciously or not, Civilization: The Way We Live Now, an international survey of contemporary photography at NGV Australia, conjures such images as a kind of shadow narrative to what is actually presented on the gallery wall. Even the more apparently innocuous photographs, which include (as two examples among many) the German photographer Thomas Struth’s image of a museum interior (Pergamon Museum 1, Berlin, 2001), or Australian Simon Terrill’s image of a swarming crowd (Huddle, 2007), are threaded through with the very real anxieties that attend our moment. The exhibition’s curators play into this – a section titled “Escape”, for instance, is used to contrast the notion of play (escape for a holiday) with that of fear (flee for your life) – but at times it comes across as too even-handed an approach. Sure, the exhibition seems to tell us, civilisation is wrought with problems, but it is a thing of awesome achievement.

For this reviewer, it suggests a bind inherent to contemporary photography: the medium’s ability to render even the mundane or the sinister formally beautiful can at times defuse its power to critique its subject. An image by the Canadian Edward Burtynsky of a chicken processing plant in the Chinese city of Dehui clearly points to the problems of industrial food production, but in light of this its beauty is unsettling. This might of course be the point, but is it enough? Andreas Gursky, another German photographer, and a figure emblematic of the medium’s surge on the world art stage during the 1990s and 2000s, is not included in Civilization, but his work nonetheless echoes throughout. Gursky’s digitally doctored photographs famously reach for the awe of the sublime that artists once sought in nature, but replace it with the work of humans: large-scale factories, immense housing towers, ribboning highways. Similar images appear throughout Civilization, but it’s the human-scale counterpoints that often carry the most power: Katy Grannan’s anonymous portraits, for example, or a small selection from Trent Parke’s 2006 The Christmas Tree Bucket series. They betray something more personal and fragile. In doing so, they suggest that any examination of civilisation now, at this moment in human history, unavoidably evokes the spectre of its demise.

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer. His first book, The Stranger Artist, won the 2021 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for nonfiction.

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