What does it mean to be human? The present exhibition seeks to shed light on this age-old philosophical question through the art of John Akomfrah, Per Inge Bjørlo, Anders Holen, Harminder Judge, Amy Karle, William Kentridge, Lawrence Lek, Britt Sorte, and Liv Dysthe Sønderland.
The notion of humanity’s inherent dignity underpins the humanist worldview and our democratic institutions. There is much to suggest that the human species has never enjoyed better living conditions than at present. Official statistics reveal a significant decline in child mortality, an increase in life expectancy, fewer hunger disasters, and less war and poverty. But the legacy of humanism is not only one of progress and prosperity. Ever since humanist thinking emerged in Italy in the fourteenth century, atrocities have continued to be committed all the way up to the present day, against both individuals and groups, under a thin veneer of humanist values. Sometimes the dehumanization has been driven by an instrumental logic where the goal has been to profoundly transform society through various modes of social engineering. Two extreme examples from our immediate past are the grotesque human costs of Nazism and communism, whose failed social experiments also purported to create ideal societies.
In parallel with the rise of humanism, we humans have also cast a shadow on other lifeforms. The belief in humanity as the measure of all things has legitimized the massive exploitation of our natural surroundings on a global scale, and with unpredictable consequences. Given the climatic, geological, and – most recently – viral threats to our (co‑)existence, humankind is clearly not the centre of the universe.
We are currently transitioning to a post‑humanist age where humanist ideals are being critically re‑evaluated. Might this ultimately play a part in dissolving established truths about the inherent value of humanity? The question is urgent in our day and age because our bodies are becoming ever more closely intertwined with the machines. Human ingenuity, as promoted by humanist ideals, has in other words created a situation where we can use science and technology in order to increase our intelligence and make our bodies less vulnerable. What will the consequences of this development be for the future of Homo sapiens? Will the unequal distribution of empowering technology, to the advantage of a privileged few, hurl humankind into endless cycles of violent conflict? Or can we, through the prudent use and sharing of such knowledge, promote co‑existence between our fellow humans and our natural surroundings?
The works of art in this exhibition assume a variety of standpoints in order to examine this topic from a wide-ranging, historical perspective, extending from past to future. The aim of this juxtaposition is not to provide definitive answers but to stimulate the viewers’ ability to reflect, and also to motivate them to actively take part in shaping a common future for all of humankind.