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World’s Fairs and Exhibitions: A journey through Olivia Plender’s World’s Exhibitions, The Metropolis of Tomorrow and Le Corbusier’s 1958 Phillips Pavilion.



Posted on Arnolfini website August 29, 2012  by Sacha Waldron, freelance writer and curator.



For Olivia Plender’s current exhibition at Arnolfini, Rise Early, be Industrious, we decided to produce a glossary to explore in depth the themes of the exhibition. These included, amongst many others, the Modern Spiritualist Movement, the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, David Cameron/Rebekah Brook’s police horse scandal and the Open University’s Art & Environment course. Researching themes and topics of new exhibitions is one of the most interesting parts of working at Arnolfini. The process always opens up new facts, stories and perspectives I had not previously considered or come across. Often this  exhibition research results in long-standing fascinations with a particular theme or artist and feeds into projects or exhibitions I do outside of Arnolfini.


One topic that I became particularly interested in with Rise Early, be Industrious was history of World’s Fairs and Exhibitions. Plender has made a model of the British Empire Exhibition of Arts and Manufacturing that was staged in Wembley, London in 1924 that we are exhibiting in Gallery 1 as part of an installation called The New Jersusalem. The British Empire Exhibition displayed trading relationships between Britain and its colonies and also demonstrated new industrial processes. Each Empire country had its own pavilion and there was usually some interactive elements for the audience, for example the Indian pavilion created an Indian restaurant where food was served which was still a novelty in the UK at the time. The exhibition was supposed to have an educational focus for those attending but some of the exhibits were more of a spectacularisation of industry. In the Canadian pavilion, for example, a life size sculpture of the Prince of Wales made out of butter was displayed, refrigerated so that it wouldn’t melt and supposedly demonstrating the major export of Butter from Canada to the UK at the time. Plender said she is interested in World’s Fairs and Exhibitions as ‘a mass education format of the 19th and 20th Centuries, I’m specifically interested in it partly because it’s connected to the history of British Colonialism and Imperialism. These exhibitions say a lot of about hierarchy and the relationship between England and its colonies at specific times. It’s also an attempt to visualize trade.’


There is a long history of World’s Exhibitions and fairs and these have influenced our contemporary cultural understanding of exhibitions. In 1851 the Great Exhibition in Knightsbridge, London, was seen as the first of such events. Built in a ‘crystal palace’, the idea came from Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, who wanted to showcase industry and manufacturing of the Empire to the British public. The exhibition had admitted, by the time it shut its doors, over 6 million people. It had also made a substantial profit which went on to finance the museums in South Kensington such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Royal Albert Hall, Science Museum, Natural History Museum and The Royal Colleges of Art & Music. These institutions went on to become corner-stones of the British cultural landscape.


During my research into Olivia Plender’s exhibition I was also working on a short pop-up exhibition for Spike Island and spent time there visiting the Sculpture Shed Studio artists. Two of the artists based there, Marcus Jefferies and Colin Higginson, had started collaborating and it happened that the first work they had made together called The Metropolis of Tomorrow was a miniature replica of a structure from the 1939 New York World’s Fair. This World’s Fair was the first World’s exhibition that concentrated on displaying visions of the future. The slogan of the fair was ‘Dawn of a New Day’ and the guide encouraged visitors to ‘look at the world of tomorrow’. Exhibits and displays introduced the public to technologies that would become commonplace such as fluorescent lighting and air conditioning. Some of the innovations would end up fairing less well in modern society such as Smell-O-Vision which introduced smell into the cinema experience.


Higginson and Jefferies replica looked at one of the main pavilions of the fair, a modernist structure called The Perisphere. The Perisphere had circular moving walkways along its interior walls and looked down on an illuminated diorama exhibit of a visionary city of the future called The Democracity. Spending time in their Spike Island studio, I had the opportunity to ask Higginson and Jefferies what stimulated the production of the work and their collaboration and what was the fascination with World’s fairs and events of this kind.


‘After being curated in several shows together, we realised there were similar themes running through our work that included the use of archive photography as a starting point for sculptural investigations. We also shared a strong interest in using the architectural model in a fine art context, and the incorporation of ambiguous narratives. We used elements of nostalgia as subject matter, especially nostalgic visions of the future from the modernist era” says Jefferies, “After several conversations, we both agreed that all our shared interests seemed to coalesce in the symbolic narratives of future orientated world fairs.’


What, for them, was interesting about World’s Fairs/Exhibitions and in particular the 1939 New York World’s Fair? ‘One of the elements that attracted us to the phenomenon of World Fairs was the remaining pavilions and constructions that are dotted over the globe such as Buckminster Fullers Geodesic dome in Montreal, the Atomium in Brussels or the Seattle space needle. These remnants appear like memorials to the failed utopian dream of their era. Apart from these decaying follies, the only lasting legacy is in documentary archive, which seen out of context engenders a wonderful blurring of fantasy and reality. I also like the idea of entering into a symbolic representation of the world through fictional national narratives, consequently creating a physical reduction in scale through models and pavilions contrasted with the grandiose themes they extoll. We chose the Democracity exhibit from the 1939 New York World’s Fair initially because we both selected the same image, independently, as a starting point for our collaboration. The image depicted a huge futuristic model city encircled by viewing balconies that seemed to hover judicially above the earth. This World Fair was the first to promote cultural exchange and utopian ideas with a future orientated outlook. The Democracity was heavily influenced by Le Corbusier’s radial city proposal and modernist ideologies of the time.’


Both Higginson, Jefferies and Plender have been attempting to piece together or recreate these forgotten or demolished structures and events. My fellow graduating students on the Royal College of Art Curating course and I have been looking recently at what audio-visual documents exist of these types of World’s Exhibitions and Fair pavilions and how they try to recreate an experience which is very much about physical presence of the audience, immersion in a set of ideas and the idea of the ‘event’. We are just about to open an exhibition titled Brick Wall, Waterfall at Hackney Downs Studios. The exhibition is an attempt to explore the construction and deconstruction of physical space through sound and image. The original idea for the exhibition and now the central work in the show is documentation from The Phillips Pavilion, a tent-like cavernous structure commissioned by the Dutch electronics company Phillips. The Phillips wanted the creativity and expertise of Le Corbusier’s studio to act as the ultimate corporate advertisement for the company.


Le Corbusier was asked to design both the pavilion and the audio-visual display of technological innovation that would be exhibited inside. Due to le Corbusier’s other architectural commitments the pavilion was given to Iannis Xannis, both an architect from the Le Corbusier studio and an experimental musician and composer. Teamed with Edward Varese, another experimental composer, they created Poeme Electronique- an audio spatialised installation made up of surreal moving images projected onto the full height of the pavilion walls. Speakers were set into different areas and heights and would direct the 500 visitors attention to various locations within the pavilion. The sound was controlled under a process called ‘acousmonium’ which involved having the audio controlled by multiple telephone dials. The collaged document that we will be exhibiting as part of Brick Wall, Waterfall was an attempt to recreate this experience with still images from the pavilion overlaid with moving image and sound effects. The result is a surreal type of structuralist film in its own right.


It seems fitting to look into these large scale exhibitions, fairs and events at a time when the UK is taken over by the Olympic Games. Although sporting events have a different history and trajectory of course, today they are also inextricably tied into arts, culture and corporatization in the same way as World’s Fairs and Exhibitions. The event is a vehicle for mass communication and an opportunity to both unify and spectacularise countries, highlighting world relationships in terms of geography and politics. Sold to the general public as being for the ‘greater good’ and general betterment of society, the event is also a tool to understand modern hierarchies and power structures. The messages it relays, however, are simultaneously encouraging and worrying. It remains to be seen what the legacy of this particular event will be. 

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