‘Civilization’: Alex MacLean and Olaf Otto Becker at Saatchi Gallery
We are thrilled that Saatchi Gallery in London is currently exhibiting work by Alex MacLean and Olaf Otto Becker in the new landmark exhibition, ‘Civilization: The Way We Live Now‘. The exhibition features 150 of some of the world’s greatest contemporary photographers, with images that respond to the complexity and contradictions of modern civilisation. In a global society connected through technology and free-market economy, these photographers are united by their commentary on humanity’s collective production.
Divided into eight thematic chapters, ‘Civilization’ explores the domains of life that are defined by participation in global society today, including where and how we live and consume, how populations are distributed, and how order and discipline are maintained. While a shared society forces a degree of homogenisation (and so anonymisation), ‘Civilization’ acknowledges the enduring particularities of material and spiritual cultures that interact with and develop within a global society. Although the individual and larger social groups are recognised as agents in civil development, the exhibition focuses on what is shared universally.
‘Civilization’ consists of over 350 prints and features images from emerging young photographers alongside works of established artists, including Alex Maclean and Olaf Otto Becker. Both photographers have long been engaged in their own visual explorations of world-shaping forces.
MacLean is a pilot who has built his photographic career capturing, from a unique aerial perspective, processes integral to our civilisation. Often using the visual language of urban, commercial and industrial environments, MacLean creates images that offer new perspectives on familiar objects and circumstances. He plays with scale to reveal the vastness of his subjects and to comment on the magnitude of human activity. His featured work, ‘Shipping Containers, Portsmouth, VA, 2011’ is arranged in seemingly perfect lines, appearing as children’s playing blocks or bright threads in a woven tapestry. MacLean creates the impression that the containers are individually insignificant in a much vaster pattern and process. His deliberate and careful composition adds to the received incomprehensibility of global networks of commerce, as the sharp diagonal lines suggest movement—a mechanical and uninterruptible flow.
Becker has photographed primarily in the Arctic for over a decade, and his work acts as a wake-up call on the disasters of climate change. We think of the Arctic as boasting majestic vistas of pristine snow with prowling polar bears and basking seals. However, today you are more likely to find submarines and icebreakers looking for profitable routes for exploration, or tourists from cruise ships seeking photographs of their exotic travels. In this ‘street photography’ style of documentary, Becker communicates the crucial need to understand and protect these natural environments.
From a different series, ‘Reading the Landscape’, Becker presents a number of artificial ‘forests’ conceived by international architects to insert greenery into urban spaces. Photographing in various locations around Singapore – a mere 500 km from the devastated rainforests in central Malaysia – Becker documents hotels, sky-gardens and nature parks laden in fake foliage. These images reflect on a tragic dichotomy – while the world’s wealthiest nations develop technologies that create artificial ‘natural’ environments, the poorer nations face deforestation.
‘Civilization’ draws an expansive and nuanced sketch of the contemporary anthropo-centric world, acknowledging the complexity of the structures it is built upon. It also highlights the contradictory nature of a society that has simultaneous excesses and waste, as well as poverty and material insecurity. Our collective failure to protect the natural world—resulting in our own existential insecurity—are issues explored with little sentimentalism. The rise of the global economy has meant vast collections of material wealth, as well as the near destruction of human habitability on Earth. In our contemporary moment, the paradoxical capacity for our civilisation to both create and to destroy is of vital importance.
‘Civilization: The Way We Live Now’ runs until 17th September.