The word “expo” conjures big visions: grand pavilions, ferris wheels, exotic exhibitions, a world’s fair. But last Sunday, a different kind of expo opened at MoMA PS1, in Long Island City, Queens — Expo 1: New York, the latest curatorial effort of the institution’s director, Klaus Biesenbach. It’s not quite a world’s fair, but Expo 1, which is the result of a ongoing partnership between MoMA and Volkswagen, riffs on the idea by comprising many pieces that fit loosely together as a whole. It might best be described as an exhibition of exhibitions, or an extremely multifaceted exhibition, or an exhibition that’s “not only an exhibition,” as Biesenbach said at a press preview last week. He also talked about it in terms of wrapping “an envelope around the building [MoMA PS1],” while curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, a co-organizer of the show, called it “almost like a Russian babushka.” This was shortly after Obrist posed the essential question from which Expo 1 sprang: “What is a large-scale exhibition for the 21st century?”
Obrist’s answer was that it should take its form from an archipelago rather than a continent, which is to say, a grouping of separate but related islands rather than a continuous landmass. The 21st century is a fragmented one, and for curators it demands a similar approach.
It was fitting (and no doubt intended) that Obrist used an ecological term to explain the concept, since the environment — both natural and built — is the overarching subject of Expo 1 (the envelope in which Biesenbach wrapped the building, if you will). “An imaginary contemporary art museum dedicated to ecology,” Biesenbach explained in a recent phone conversation. “I basically curated the whole building according to what would normally be there” — group shows, solo shows, installations — “but as an imaginary museum devoted to ecology.”
Biesenbach said that he and Obrist had been wanting to do a show on the subject for a while, “and then the hurricane [Sandy] happened. And then it was not a topic anymore — it was an urgency.” What’s more, after the superstorm, “it became clearer that our concept of social practice was much more important. It became very clear that this show cannot be symbolic. It has to be real.”
That realness includes a garden on the roof of the building that staff and visitors will tend; the resulting fruits and vegetables will be incorporated into the menu at MoMA PS1’s cafe/restaurant, the M. Wells Dinette. It includes a school run by members of online art magazine Triple Canopy, which is set not only in a series of classrooms on the institution’s third floor, but also in an exhibition space that artist Adrián Villar Rojas has turned into an incredible amphitheater by way of a massive clay sculptural intervention. The installation is massive yet weathered, strong but cracked, looking simultaneously like a ruin and a dystopic set from the future.
There’s also a colony being built in MoMA PS1’s courtyard; the geodesic dome-cum-community center in the Rockaways; at MoMA proper, the Rain Room, a space filled with falling water than stops when it detects a human presence; and a cinema showing a wide range of programming (features, documentaries, shorts, video games) from 2004 on. And, of course, since this is an art museum after all, a series of more traditional exhibitions and installations, including a tech-focused group show called ProBio, curated by artist Josh Kline, and an Ansel Adams show organized by MoMA photography curator Roxana Marcoci. Biesenbach spoke of it all as “a kind of coexistence — a simultaneity of an aesthetic and social function.”
When Biesenbach and Obrist began discussing the show, before Hurricane Sandy, they were thinking a lot about artist Joseph Beuys (a video of his “Sweeping Up,” in which the artist and two students swept Karl-Marx-Platz following the 1972 May Day parade, is on view) and the German concept of erweiterter kunstbegriff. What that means, Biesenbach explained, is that “art has to be responsible in society and activist. It’s a political necessity. The political dimension of art is always applied in contemporary art, so contemporary practice is always social practice.”
That interpretation is more easily applied to some elements of Expo 1 than others — at the press preview, Biesenbach referred to the Rockaway dome as the most successful example — but the overarching ecological activist theme comes through even in many of the more static art objects on view (Mark Dion’s tree of tarred and taxidermic animals, “Killers Killed” [2004–07], for instance). And while it’s sort of exasperating to think it’s taken us so long to get to this point of critical mass — Beuys was already sweeping up four decades ago! — the view, at least according to Biesenbach, isn’t totally hopeless. “Dark optimism” is the show’s theme. As he explained at the preview, it means “you have a future if you do something.”
Expo 1: New York is on view at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, Queens) through September 2, with other end dates for other venues.
Klaus Biesenbach will be speaking at our inaugural Hyperallergic ArtTalk on Monday, May 20, at 7 pm. Tickets are available online.