Experience Is Everything at Expo Milan

Julie Baumgardner
Jun 22, 2015 11:03PM

Photo Pietro Baroni / Expo 2015.

In a fight between food and art, Italy would have a difficult time choosing allegiances. After all, both Michelangelo and mozzarella are on first name-bases with most of the world. So when Milan, the Italian banking capital, won the bid for the World’s Fair, known as Expo these days, the international exposition leveraged its culinary heritage as the lens through which to explore just how multifarious food is in today’s social, political, and cultural landscape. The overarching theme boldly asserts, “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.”

The topics of food security and sustainability may have been the order at hand, but this being Italy—and maybe this, an exhibition, being the global format in which people are exposed to new ideas—art wasn’t quite left out of the Expo experience. In fact, far from it. Major architects spearheaded the construction of freestanding pavilions—from Foster + Partners for the United Arab Emirates, Nendo for Japan, and James Biber’s outfit for the United States—bringing parallels to Venice’s Giardini to mind. And artists were used as a conduit for expression, from Gaetano Pesce’s hideous spaghetti monsters for Eataly to Philippe Pastor’s charred logs for Monaco’s pavilion.

UAE Pavilion. Photo Pietro Baroni / Expo 2015.


But, interestingly, for today’s answer to the World’s Fair, an exhibition ground that historically served as a convention of innovation and introduction to new ideas, there was a striking lack of, well, innovation. While, yes, there were a few countries whose interpretations of the theme were grounded in seriousness, many of the pavilions treated the opportunity as one for diplomatic promotion, and especially for entertainment: interactive installations with buttons to push, gadgets to tinker with, and biomaterials to stick (little) hands in. With large parades of dancing life-sized vegetables and fruits down the main roads of the Expo (named Decumano and Cardo after the standard Roman urban thoroughfares), the message quickly became clear: Expo was geared for the under-18 set—and the throngs of Italian teenagers also abundantly reiterated that the Italian public school system agrees. Expo is generally one big promotional campaign for tourism. Most pavilions followed a familiar format—presenting sweeping videos of national agricultural achievements inside—while on the ground floor, restaurants flaunted native dishes and shops brimmed with domestic exports eager to tempt foreigners.

Italian Pavilion. Photo Pietro Baroni / Expo 2015.

One wonders, in the age of the internet, if this strategy was the best use of such a grand stage. Merely Googling a country produces similar stock imagery depicting the natural and cultural wonders of a given place. Granted, the Italian government is counting on 20 million visitors (with 11 million tickets already purchased). But lest one forget, nearly $11.2 billion dollars (€10 billion) has been spent to put up the whole show. That’s a figure that many Italians and concerned citizens elsewhere find wasteful. There have been protests with 30,000 attendees by activist groups such as “No Expo,” which believes the event has purposely excluded small farmers in favor of corporate sponsors like Coca Cola, McDonalds, and Monsanto. (The American pavilion boldly boasts its corporate sponsors of Walgreens and GE.) Pope Francis, too, has decried the event as erring on the specious. “In certain ways, the Expo itself is part of this paradox of abundance, it obeys the culture of waste and does not contribute to a model of equitable and sustainable development,” the Catholic leader told NBC News. His Holiness isn’t emptily surmising. After all, the Vatican itself participated with a pavilion, one in which they humanized the reality of starvation, even finding a way to pull out Tinteretto’s The Last Supper from their vast, incomparable collection. Images, even the old ones, still work as a conduit for empathy.

American Pavilion. Photo Pietro Baroni / Expo 2015.

Curators know the power of images—and while Expo isn’t billed as a traditional exhibition found in a museum, the experience isn’t all that different. This year, Armory Show director Noah Horowitz stated the art fair is “not much differentiated than what one could potentially do in an academic or museological context.” While Expo isn’t an art fair either, the lines of these sorts of events are fundamentally blurring together. There were artworks on display and then artworks (or crafts and artisanal products of individual countries) that were very much for sale—including, as one should expect, plenty of food-related products. Jens Hoffmann, director of the Jewish Museum, identified a trend in museum exhibitions that correlates closely to the format of Expo: “Too many curators seem to think exhibition making is a thing of the past and that today it has to be all about what I call the ‘paracuratorial’: lectures, screenings, exhibitions without art, working with artists on projects without ever producing anything that could be exhibited,” he said in a conversation in Mousse Magazine.

Japanese Pavilion. Photo Pietro Baroni / Expo 2015.

With countless museums nationally and internationally drawing visitors with splash, flash, and megawatt product design—think talking mannequins (Jean Paul Gaultier at the Brooklyn Museum), touch-screen device guides (Björk at MoMA), playground-esque installations (Big Bambú at the Met)—it’s no hidden secret that museum’s ache to appeal to more than simply high-brow, intellectual audiences. But this new shift towards museums-as-entertainment permeates today’s curatorial and programing decisions. So much so that last year at Art Basel Hong Kong, Lu Xun, the owner, developer, and director of Nanjing’s Sifang Art Museum, expressed that having a contemporary art museum isn’t enough to wrangle crowds. He has plans to build large hotel complexes complete with water and amusement parks to augment the visitor experience of his museum. Nanjing aside, as institutions tack on all these “paracuratorial” opportunities, the viewing public has, in turn, shifted its expectations of these types of events. Institutions care deeply about enticing and entertaining exhibition goers as much as exhibition goers demand being amused. Much like museums, many of the official government agencies that oversaw the strategy and execution of their Expo pavilions have overarching agendas and interests to uphold.

Zero Pavilion. Photo Pietro Baroni / Expo 2015.

Combing through Expo, it became increasingly clear that the only exhibitions that eschewed any overt promotion of tourism or national interests were those mounted by brands. The irony of ironies: we’ve entered into a new phase where the privately funded operations not only have the capital but the internal power to create independent ventures. In the case of Expo, Coca-Cola created an interactive dancing game for kids to simply jump around and be kids. Sure, there was signage everywhere, which recently has turned towards the fun-oriented #ShareaCoke slogan, but there wasn’t an overt brand-pushing message that suggested Coca-Cola is saving the planet. And illycaffè, the family-run Italian coffee company and the official coffee sponsor of Expo, hung what might have been the most impactful exhibition—from an artistic and content-related standpoint.

Coffee Cluster with works by Sebastião Salgado, supported by Illy. Photo Pietro Baroni / Expo 2015.

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. 

Julie Baumgardner
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019