To Shanghai, Perchance to Dream
A mating display writ large? The ultimate in onanistic national one-upmanship? Or can World Expositions help us discover and share those parts of our humanity that aspire to a greater future. Lofty goals, perhaps, for an institution that is more kitsch than progressive. But the bile thrown out by some of the more player-hating ends of the international media (here, here and here) is not the whole story.
Last month may have seen the opening of the largest and most expensive world’s fair ever – Expo 2010 in Shanghai. Over 190 countries are participating and 70 million visitors are expected by the end of the expo’s run on October 31 2010. But it also saw the opening of the more modest exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris, ‘Dreamlands’, which takes Paris’ Exposition Universelle of 1889 as its starting point and explores some of the more extravagant architectural experiments, theme parks and artists’ impressions of this thoroughly modern phenomenon. Taking its title from the Coney Island theme-park, Dreamland, which burned down in 1911, the show is loosely thematic and takes us on a journey from a film of Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton in Dreamland’s replica of Venice, to Las Vegas and the dizzy heights of Dubai.
The tradition of world’s fairs was inaugurated with Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition, which took place in London in 1851. The idea was to showcase Britain’s industrial and manufacturing achievements and to show the world that technology was the key to future success. Stuffy Brit utilitarianism was eclipsed in the late nineteenth century expos by a more “fun” dimension – the Eiffel tower in 1889, the first Ferris wheel in Chicago in 1893 – which would evolve throughout the early twentieth century.
The New York World’s Fair in 1939 included a pavilion designed by Salvador Dali, ‘The Dream of Venus’, which has been partly recreated for ‘Dreamlands’. The melted-looking facade and protruding forms of the pavilion give it the air of a haunted house. It was not haunted by ghosts, however, but by sensual fantasies. Reproductions of Botticelli’s Venus and the Mona Lisa invite visitors in to discover a choreographed “water ballet”.
Also at the New York World’s Fair was the General Motors pavilion, which revealed “the world of tomorrow” through its ride, the “Futurama”. Although GM did have an industrial agenda (showing how technology would alter lifestyles 20 years in the future – the 1960s!), world’s fairs had arguably become more concerned with spectacle and less with utility.
The fun part is the thread the Pompidou’s show picks up: the modern spectacular. It is a multifaceted exhibit, including some important architectural moments – Cedric Price’s designs for the Fun Palace (plans are curiously similar to today’s music festival site maps), the publication of Denise Scott Brown’s and Robert Venturi’s ‘Learning from Las Vegas‘ in 1968, Rem Koolhaas’ ‘Delirious New York‘ and Richard Rogers’ design of the Pompidou Center in the seventies.
But beyond architecture, it also deals with collective mythologies. Building on Koolhaas’s ‘Delirious New York’ legacy of eerily animist architecture is Malachi Farrell’s installation ‘Nothing stops a New Yorker’. As you hear the sound of an aerobics instructor starting up a class, cardboard skyscrapers come to life, raising their hands according to the instructor’s directions. The simulated aerobics class is broken up as the sounds shift from sterile aerobics class to crashing disaster and screaming, with 9/11 now firmly bound into the mythology of New York. It is a weird but interesting comment on how a city becomes more than just a sum of its architectural parts. Next to the installation a street scene from ’42nd Street’ is playing on a loop as if to remind us of New York’s cult status.
Alongside mythic cities, ‘Dreamlands’ explores our darker fascination with recreating the world in miniature, with controlling and shaping the world. A controversial part of early world expos were the colonial fairs, a propaganda tool used to paste a cheerful face on the harsh colonial realities (there is another show at the National Archives, in Paris, on the subject). ‘Dreamlands’ does not engage with the colonial side directly. But the urge to gather the world together, to control and display it, is mercilessly dissected.
Technology has pushed the limits of possibility in places like Disney’s ‘Its a Small World’ or Vegas’ reconstructions of Venice and the Eiffel Tower. The Window of the World theme park in Shenzhen, China recreates models of the wonders of the modern world; Ski Dubai offers indoor skiing with real snow in the Middle Eastern desert and the whole world has been recreated as a series of islands in the sea off the coast of Dubai.
This procession of kitsch pastiche inspires photographers Reiner Riedler and Martin Parr, featured in the Pompidou’s selection. Parr delights in the gaudy and colorful world of tourism while Riedler’s series ‘Fake Holidays’ capture the strangeness of a “tropical paradise” recreated indoors in Germany, or of a man posing in front of a mini Capitol Hill, with a mini Mount Rushmore in the background, at Shenzhen.
While Shenzen and Vegas offer neat replicas of the wonders of the modern world, ‘Dreamlands’ is an ambitious and diverse show, not easily reined in by one unifying theme. It is both utopic and outlandish, sincere and fanciful. The multiplicity of exhibits represent the imaginary spectacle and the encroaching of the spectacular on our quotidian.
So does Shanghai’s World Expo 2010 close itself down into the limiting and the conventional, or does it seek to explore? There is still a danger of fostering national stereotypes. The theme of the French pavilion is “the sensual city” including, amongst other things, French cuisine; the American pavilion focuses on 4D audiovisuals, with a restaurant serving burgers; and the Cuban pavilion sells Cuban cigars.
But it is not all clichés – escaping the image of bad weather and bad teeth, or red buses and bowler hats, the British pavilion looks more like a UFO. Known as the “Seed Cathedral”, designed by Thomas Heatherwick, the structure is made of thousands of fibers, all containing seeds, which take in light during the day, using it to illuminate the structure at night. Prominent Shanghai blogger, Adam Minter, also highlights the weirdness of the Hungarian pavilion, which is based entirely around the discovery of the geometric curiosity, the “Gömböc”. And, true to form, the SAIC- GM pavilion projects a 4D imagining of Shanghai in 2030. Futurama here we come.
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