uncube contributing editor Elvia Wilk arrived hungry and full of anticipation at the Milan Expo 2015 and encountered a global scale food-bonanza-consume-fest, but nothing worth eating.
Arriving hungry at the Milan World Expo was not a good idea. By the time I had wrangled my press pass from the bureaucratic jungle deep in the newly built train station that serves as a landing pad for visitors, it was already afternoon, and my three companions and I were famished. Sating ourselves should have been a simple task at a major event whose theme is “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” but two hours later we were still dragging ourselves around among 10,000 other visitors in search of lunch.
Where we might have expected the smells of cooking, we found pre-packaged seaweed snacks priced at 17.99 euros; where we might have hoped for fresh produce, we found painted wooden pigs and cornucopias of waxy plastic grapes. Thwarted by endlessly long queues at popular venues like the Belgian Fries pavilion, we were impeded by costs at others like the Michelin star Italian restaurant with a 70 Euro prix fixe menu. Some pavilions representing nations not necessarily known for their abundance – Sierra Leone, Togo – had “run out of food” entirely by the time we got there, or, like North Korea, offered nothing more than Ginseng-flavored candy. The Nutella Concept Bar could not offer any semblance of balanced nutrition. The Gambian pavilion was a momentary candidate, but one member of our group was reluctant, having actually been to Gambia and gotten a stomach virus there.
As if to remind us of our privilege, a representative at the Techno Gym Pavilion leapt out at us to ask if we wanted to work off some calories and “donate” them to starving people somewhere. (One friend asked whether this was actually a Yes Men project in disguise.) Fleeing the scene, we were overtaken by the hallucinatory spectacle of a dancing vegetable parade, a procession of workers in veggie costumes barreling down the central axis to live drums and trumpets.
A semi-successful snack was obtained at the Bahrain pavilion, where we stole an unripe fig from a tree planted in its courtyard. Practically spartan in comparison with its neighboring architecture, Bahrain’s oasis, designed by Dutch architect Anne Holtrop and Swiss landscape architect Anouk Vogel, is assembled of cool concrete panels that will eventually be repurposed as a botanical Garden in Bahrain. It is one of the very few pavilions where anything edible is actually being cultivated, or with any attention paid to its own structural sustainability.
Expo Milano’s lack of plant and animal life represents a stark contrast with the fair’s original masterplan drawn up by commissioned architects Herzog & de Meuron. In that proposal, each country was given an equally sized narrow plot of land on which to build a humble shack and a region-specific garden – all arranged along a two-axis grid resembling the orthogonal layout of an ancient Roman city.
Herzog & de Meuron’s attempt to rethink the nearly two centuries of World Fairs’ competitive, capital- and war-driven spectacle from the ground up was promptly quashed by officials, but, in what the architects refer to as “an absurd reversing of our ideas”, elements of the rejected layout remain. For instance, the plots are still roughly the same size, but in place of shacks, rich nations and companies have squeezed flashy multi-million-euro constructions onto their allotted areas like luxury organic supermarkets, attracting customers away from their modest neighbouring stores who have nothing competitive to sell but their own authenticity. (What could be a better metaphor for urban gentrification?). A layout that was supposed to harken back to original concepts of democracy has been perverted to resemble a mall of late capitalist mediocrity.
This 1:1 levelling has led to something of an ontological breakdown among the pavilions – a world in which Cereals & Tubers, Coca Cola, Etihad Airways, Save the Children, and #Poland (the country formerly known as Poland) belong to the same category. To thread the multinationals and the green/ethical initiatives and the countries together like beads on a necklace is quite clearly to homogenise them: sustenance, brand offering sustenance, brand offering anything, nationhood, and hashtaggable identity. The interchangeability of such categories becomes undeniable, they spatially collide: the coffee pavilion, where it’s very hard to find a cup of coffee, is actually a conglomeration of national pavilions all represented by Illy. An item of global consumption is symbolically sorted through nation-states and proffered by a multinational brand. There’s no item I found to buy at Expo that hadn’t been channelled through this process.
We finally decided to succumb to our own clichéd fate and agreed on a lunch destination: North America, specifically “Food Truck Nation.” A kind of subsidiary of the USA pavilion – the parking lot outside the football stadium, if you will – Food Truck Nation serves a menu of Black Angus burgers, hot dogs, fries, and kale salad. Apparently none of these ingredients are sourced from the USA pavilion’s “living green façade” nearby.
The burger should have resuscitated me, but our lunch seats were positioned directly under a booming loudspeaker through which a neutral woman’s voice repeatedly implored us to enjoy ourselves and reminded us that Expo is a non-smoking venue. The message was punctuated by an airport chime that induced a Pavlovian “head to your departure gate” response in me.
This response led me to the conclusion that if the Expo is meant to represent human progress, we are quickly speeding towards a future in which the whole world looks like an airport duty free section. (Writers like Keller Easterling have made similar predictions.) There’s no direct authority, just a friendly voice echoing from the speakers above, gently reminding you of how to behave, while at the same time you’re so distracted by overpriced eco-chic handbags that you almost miss your flight. The future, the loudspeaker seemed to announce, is a place where you can buy tax-free cigarettes whose packaging is 98 percent recyclable. The only possibility of rebellion in this future will be to shove your recyclables into the trash slot, thereby defeating your own goals.
Food Truck Nation’s closest neighbour is not in fact America; it’s the Chinese Corporate United Pavilion. After eating our defrosted burgers in silence, we trundled over to the giant white-sheeted, windowless structure to view the exhibition themed “Seeds of China”. On view were a jumble of models representing the greatest achievements of Chinese industry – high speed trains, genetically modified food – adorned with such bizarrely translated platitudes about the future as “Awaited Vacancy, Unlimited Profit” (this sort of International Expo English / concrete poetry is the primary language spoken across the fair). Next we were ushered into a dark, round room where we were shown a ten-minute surround movie depicting 3D-rendered pandas dancing to a pumping soundtrack. At the height of the spectacle, white foam rained down on us, and a worker dressed in a panda costume entered the room, exhorting us to dance along.
There is no critical perspective I can offer regarding the 3D dancing pandas. They were very entertaining. It’s worth mentioning that I came to Expo directly from a visit to the Venice Art Biennale, where corporate nationalism is still covered with at least a thin veil of criticality. In contrast, at Expo Milano I felt relieved of the burden to try and critique the mechanics of capitalism behind the façade: reality was loudly and proudly hitting me in the face.
What makes the techno-entertainment of the contemporary Expo different than the famous corporate-nationalist spectacles of Expos past? The Chinese Corporate United pavilion presents the same marriage of industry and nation building and “fun” as, say, the Eiffel tower or the Crystal Palace did. But it’s the very lack of monumentality, the banality of it all, that I think makes the event uniquely twenty-first century. I’ve never been so over-stimulated and so bored at the same time.
If the 2015 Expo does have a central monument, it’s the utterly hideous Tree of Life. This 37-metre-tall monstrosity designed by Orgoglio Brescia is a light-up fountain made from entwined loops of wood and steel, plastered with pop art flowers and embedded with sprinkler hoses. It is supposedly based on Renaissance designs. A certain controversy has arisen surrounding its proposed relocation after the Expo to Piazzale Loreto, a not-historically insignificant public square in Milan where, in 1944, the bodies of 15 murdered civilians were laid as a message from the Fascist regime to the resistance. The following year Mussolini’s corpse was hung on the same spot. A city council member insists that the commemorative implications of the Tree of Life refer to the former deaths, not to the latter.
On the other end of the monumentality spectrum are the pavilions trying to look invisible – namely, those that weren’t finished in time for the opening, like Nepal, whose massive April 2015 earthquake made a pavilion in Italy seem like less of a priority. As the grand opening neared and general construction lagged behind, Expo officials launched a public tender for the design of new pavilion façades to camouflage the unfinished buildings, the obfuscation of which ended up costing between one and three million (according to different sources). The result was relatively successful – I barely noticed the pink and blue gradient panels looming behind other buildings until we were leaving.
Due to delays and also to some worker strikes, routine safety inspections on many buildings were skipped entirely. I experienced the repercussions when I was evacuated from the Turkmenistan pavilion when, according to an announcement, part of the building caught on fire. I did think that the 1.3 billion euros spent in total by the Italian government on the Expo should have been enough to install a sprinkler system. So did the 30,000 protestors who took to the streets of Milan on opening day.
Debacles like extreme delays have been connected to apparent deep-seated corruption within the Italian planning commission. As journalist Beatrice Faleri summarises, “In May 2014, seven [Italian officials] were arrested for corruption charges. All have been indicted for activities related to the EXPO.” However, delays that might have initially seemed like incompetence turned out to be intentional, as visas, work permits and press passes for numerous workers, volunteers, and journalists were ultimately denied. Antonio Lareno, the leader of Italian trade union CGIL, estimates that the Italian police screened 50,000 people before deciding who had a clean enough political history to be admitted.
At the end of the day my friends and I found a table in the Slow Food pavilion’s mostly vacant courtyard to share a bottle of 16 Euro local white wine. Positioned on the cul-de-sac at the end of the Expo’s main boulevard, the pavilion dedicated to local production, which Herzog & de Meuron consented to build even after losing the masterplan battle, is sandwiched between highways at what feels like the end of the world.
“What if the zombie apocalypse has happened while we were here, and there’s nothing left in the world but Expo?” one friend asked. “Which pavilion would you hole up in?” Everyone agreed that Slow Food, with its herb gardens and pleasant wooden architecture, would be the best bet. But secretly I was thinking I’d head to McDonalds to ride out my final days. In the end, what’s the difference?
– Elvia Wilk, contributing editor
Thanks to Clemens Jahn, Vincenzo Latronico, and Martti Kalliala for the knowledge and insight.
Further reading: uncube magazine issue no.32: Expotecture and Putting an End to the Vanity Fair, interview with Jacques Herzog about the Expo 2015 masterplan.
May 1 - October 31 2015