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MILAN — Why, in the age of the internet, should we convene by the millions in a giant fairground to learn how people in every other part of the world live? How can a six-month festival with a price tag of at least €3 billion (~$3.4 billion) and hundreds of elaborate, temporary buildings meaningfully engage with its stated themes of environmentalism, sustainable agriculture, and clean energy? These were foremost among the many questions that drew me to Milan this summer for the 2015 World’s Fair, Expo Milano.
Though genuinely curious, I expected to find a grotesque and tacky spectacle in keeping with what Jacques Herzog — co-founder of the architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, which co-designed Expo Milano’s masterplan — called “a model from the last century” and “a bore and a waste of money and resources.” I longed to see, with equal measure of dread and relish, this sustainability-themed boondoggle so flagrantly extravagant that its opening set off massive protests. Expo Milano did not disappoint. To convey the maddeningly contradictory and bizarre experience of visiting the fair, let me guide you, as Virgil did Dante Alighieri in the Italian poet’s epic Inferno, though the nine circles of hell of Expo Milano.
Limbo: The fair’s 100,000 daily visitors arrive through four entrances, each of which involves passing through pre-9/11 airport-level security checkpoints. The entrance I used, which connected to a stop on Milan’s subway system, required a bonus 10-minute walk on a pedestrian bridge that snaked over a half-dozen train tracks and underneath a highway overpass. Visitors arriving this way descend into the fairgrounds alongside another entrance where, on the day I went, crowds 20 people deep had formed within an hour of Expo’s opening. Lines and queues would prove to be the fair’s most consistently recurring features.
Lust: Another unintended but very prevalent trend at Expo Milano is bad art. It is everywhere and it is impressively inventive in its badness. There’s even a central exhibition of it, The Treasure of Italy, which was curated by art critic Vittorio Sgarbi and includes works dating from Medieval times up to the present. Right at its entrance is where I stumbled upon the most gratuitous conflation of female nudity and food I have ever seen in “art,” Luigi Serafini‘s “Persephone C. (alias Lady Carrot),” a hyperrealist sculpture of a nude figure who is half-woman, half-carrot. This root vegetable-themed mermaid resembles a farmer’s delirious wet dream.
Gluttony: Admittedly, there are plenty of potent symbols of gluttony at this overpriced, food-themed tourist attraction, but my favorite was the platoon of Arcimboldo-inspired statues greeting visitors just inside the fair’s west entrance. The enormous figures, “The Food People” (2015), are the work of production designer Dante Ferretti, and include a wine man with a barrel for a chest and a beard made of grapes, and a dessert woman with a collar made of cannolis.
Greed: Conspicuous money-grubbing and shameless price-gauging run rampant at Expo, but one of the most startling instances I came across occurred — perhaps unsurprisingly — at the Russian pavilion. There, after navigating displays touting the rich variety of Russian crops and the graphic design history of Soviet agricultural posters (and making a stop at the futuristic vodka bar), visitors end up in the official pavilion gift shop, where T-shirts featuring Vladimir Putin (looking either cool in sunglasses or pensive while stroking his chin) are priced at €99 apiece (~$110).
Anger: Most of the 145 participating countries interpreted Expo’s theme, “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” as a pretext to flaunt their agricultural industries and staple foods. The food I ate in my 11 hours at Expo was uniformly disappointing (with the notable exception of the Korean pavilion’s café cart), but one country’s offerings angered me so much that I opted to go hungry. Just beyond the multi-headed serpent that greets visitors to the Thai pavilion is a building marked with the words “Food for the Future,” but apparently the future of Thai food involves exclusively packaged meals and lots and lots of microwaves.
Heresy: While visitors can easily bypass or entirely miss the indoor portion of Vittorio Sgarbi’s The Treasure of Italy — thereby remaining safely out of range of the carrot mermaid’s bewitching song — there is also an outdoor component of the show that is just as bad and much harder to avoid. It includes a three-panel stencil piece by the Mr. Brainwash of Italy, Mr. Savethewall, that heretically replaces Jesus with the Italian flag in a traditional pietà composition then shows the figure of Mary tossing the flag into the air.
Violence: Being that it is a billion-dollar device for extracting as much money from as many tourists as possible, there is relatively little outright violence at Expo Milano — save the violence of its unfeeling capitalist machinations, of course — but it does feature one rather violent artwork, and it’s not even one of those selected by Vittorio Sgarbi. In the plaza beneath the enormous Italian pavilion sits a specially commissioned marble sculpture by, of all people, Vanessa Beecroft. It consists of a headless female figure, bound and suspended upside-down between four enormous blocks of stone. Titled “Jennifer Statuary” (2015) and seemingly intended as a tribute to Italy’s rich history of marble sculpture, it comes off instead as a weirdly violent and misogynist contraption, one made all the more jarring because it’s now cordoned off behind red security ropes.
Fraud: At a fair whose most impressive feature may be its ability to balance a seemingly infinite number of contradictory ideas, impulses, and positions, the Turkmen pavilion doesn’t even try. It touts the country’s ornate rugs, its exceptional horses, and, above all, its mighty oil industry. It features shoddily photoshopped images of sand dunes dotted with oil derricks, scale models of oil wells, holograms of horses displayed in gilded frames, photographs of gleaming refineries, architectural maquettes of Ashgabat’s airport and highway interchange, and honest-to-goodness canisters of oil displayed on plinths. While every other pavilion struggles to play along with Expo Milan’s sham of a theme, the Turkmen pavilion embraces the fraud wholeheartedly.
Treachery: Americans and Italians are not the only perpetrators of terrible art at Expo, far from it. The sculpture sitting in the shallow pool outside the Czech pavilion, by Lukáš Rittstein, is another standout. It seems a natural fit for the “treachery” circle of hell because, as I moved around it, I was continually reminded of René Magritte’s famous pipe painting, “The Treachery of Images” (1928–29). Like that artwork, which is not a pipe, Rittstein’s sculpture is neither a giant bird nor a car, but from certain angles it certainly looks like one or the other. The dinosaur-length tail inexplicably projecting 30 feet from the back of the car only extenuates this surreal monstrosity’s treachery.
It’s a shame Dante only gave hell nine circles, because there are many more amusingly infernal things at the fair that deserve to live on past its October 31 end date (consequently, I’ve included some more highlights below). Though it proves at every turn that the very notion of a World’s Fair in 2015 is redundant and antiquated, it does so with entertaining gusto. Expo Milano puts the “super” in “superfluous.”
Expo Milano 2015 continues through October 31.