This year, in addition to the national pavilions, Expo features six specialty areas or “clusters,” as they’ve been named, focusing on a natural ingredient such as rice, cocoa, or spices. illycaffè oversaw the presentation and experience of the coffee cluster. As Robert Morelli, illy’s business development director, explained during a press dinner: “Many people who grow coffee have never tasted a coffee in their life—and countries that consume coffee don’t know what coffee growing is like. 90% of Expo-goers have never seen a coffee plant in their life.” The resulting multi-tiered exhibition provides, as theorist Boris Groys writes, “something about our lives that aren’t framed in the ordinary experience.” illy commissioned photographer Sebastião Salgado to shoot numerous black-and-white portraits of fincas, or small agricultural plots, and the many farms across the 10 countries from which they source their beans. Hanging high above the cluster were large-scale prints of these portraits that guided viewers through a video-augmented tour of the seven stages of coffee production. There were interactive features, including a greenhouse wherein coffee plants grow, as well as brewing stations and a display of the evolution of the espresso machine. illy also sponsored 10 coffee-producing countries to present at Expo, nations which otherwise would be too poor to attend.
As Hoffmann urges in his book Showtime, exhibitions “are an important social ritual, with vast possibilities. Exhibitions, just like artworks, do not emerge from nowhere. They appear in particular moments, under their own sets of historical conditions.” If exhibitions are a product of our time, and we are in an age of shifting expectations (from what we demand of an exhibition and also how we desire to be entertained), Hoffmann’s counsel certainly feels aligned. However, what sticks out after exploring the pavilions of Expo—laden with promotional agendas and favoring gimmick over content—is that if these are the exhibitions deserving of our time, that’s not necessarily a good thing.