Gardens of Technically Constructed Naturalness. Views of the Expo Milano 2015

Heiko Schmid
Expo Milano, 27.07.2015

Expo schmidFig. 1

The zeitgeist, the “trends” in meaningful cultural assumptions and posits determining our present age, seldom reveals itself directly. The present is characterized by the fact that it becomes visible or comprehensible only at a distance to the immediacy of experience. Cultural media for contemplation exist precisely for this reason; they can be used to reflect upon the most various manifestations of knowledge in the “as if” of constructed displays. And art exhibitions are rather marginal formats in this context, for the megalomaniac events that have been regularly staged since the mid-19th century under the label of “world exposition” are a far bigger attraction as far as both attendance figures and media attention are concerned. These exhibition events were and are meant to address a mass audience, therefore representing attempts at marking historical milestones and society-wide developments.
  But beyond this claim, which is already formulated by the label of “world exposition,” the format also has its own history. As Utz Haltern wrote on the first world exposition held in London in 1851, the declared objective was to “gain an overview of the respectively achieved cultural-industrial state of development through the public display of numerous commercial-industrial products, new technologies and useful ‘inventions,’ art objects and curiosities, and thus to indirectly contribute to teaching and disseminating information (education), to increasing sales and the promotion of general competition.”[1] The format of the world exposition can therefore be called a child of industrialization. The participating nations—especially the hosts—were and are enabled to present to a wider public the current state of technological development and, of course, their commercial goods as well.
  During the course of the 20th and 21st century, the format of the expo has naturally undergone numerous transformations. Yet the original conception of a Western, colonially shaped, technological, competitive fair has essentially been retained until today, as can be shown based on the current Expo Milano, Feeding the planet, Energy for life. The show reveals numerous references to the thematic origins of the format of the world’s fair. For example, at the beginning of the central Expo boulevard (the Decumano) leading to the individual national pavilions, restaurants, and thematic exhibition halls, one encounters a unique installation. On wooden structures suggesting historical scenes, various types of vegetables and fruits were arranged in a way meant to give the impression of an ancient market. And this arrangement at the entrance is repeated along the Decumano with meat products and baked goods. (Fig. 1) Since there is apparently no direct relation to the various pavilions etc., it must be assumed that the installation is meant to simulate the appearance of an historical market. And when one then questions the possible relevance of these interventions, one sees that almost all of the displayed foodstuffs and even the exhibited animals are made of plastic. What can be understood as the romanticizing attempt at representing the naturalness of historical food production is reversed by the selection of material. We see a contradictory posit whose effect is even increased when taking a parallel look at all the food stands and restaurants docked to the pavilions or flanking the boulevard offering a variety of products from the (Italian) high-end food industry. It becomes evident here that supermarkets advertise goods that are clearly more “natural” than in the case of the diverse Decumano installations suggesting “originality.” Hence, the start of the Expo already makes it clear that “concepts of nature” are discussed from a technological perspective.
  Further significant details of the typical construction of technically reshaped references to nature at the Expo Milano are the lawns draping numerous pavilions or the patches of crop plants. Be it on the walls of the Israeli or American pavilions or on the individual buildings of the Italian mile—various exhibition-makers repeatedly seem to refer to the fact that humans are capable of lending “nature” a new value, “organically” embedding it in their technological environment. It is precisely with these “references to nature” in the technological context of idealizing gestures that this Expo, as I see it, subliminally approaches historical garden art discourses. English landscape gardens of the 18th century, for instance, were attempts at glorifying nature as an “artistic force,” at interpreting it exclusively in technical terms, and thus leading to its own intrinsic value. As the art historian Christian Cay Lorenz Hirschfeld noted in his Theorie der Gartenkunst (Theory of Garden Art) first published in 1775, “true and beautiful” nature was “the prime model” for creating artworks at the time. Hirschfeld wrote: “Imagination can assist her [nature]; but it should never dare set itself up as the sole master of garden art.”[2] In classical garden art, then, the “truth” and “beauty” of nature were to be led to its own value outshining garden architecture itself. In this sense, one can assert that in the 18th century a discourse seeking technically reshape “naturalness” was already held.
  When viewing the pavilions of Poland and the United Kingdom, which when juxtaposed form the thematic core of this at times qualitatively weak show, and with these historical references in mind, the mentioned discourse on garden art can be described as relevant in this context. Especially the British pavilion offers a telling perspective in this regard.

Expo SchmidFig. 2

From a path lined with iron walls, one gazes from a park ground to a spectacular steel construction called the Hive. What is immediately striking when strolling along the path is that one moves through a garden clearly separated from the plants, that one is situated at once inside and outside of a garden landscape. This impression is intensified by the fact that the pavilion’s central Hive is provided with numerous light and sound systems and thus radiates its own “vitality,” especially in the dark. The British installation intertwines supporting structures, technical installations and garden areas to form a unity, into which technical structures are inserted like plants, thus giving rise to an indeed exciting interpretation of “naturalness.” So the architect Wolfgang Buttress—expanding the propositions of Hirschfeld—used diverse technical means to create a complex “nature scenery.”
  In regard to this installation negotiating nature as a technically constructed “image,” the British pavilion can be juxtaposed with the Polish pavilion, whose roof features a further garden ground relevant in this context.

Expo SchmidFig. 3

Enclosed by reflecting wall surfaces and containing apple trees, flowers and a classical bust, this garden is characterized by an oddly abstracted presence. Through the light multiply refracted by the mirroring surfaces and the milky, translucent, spatial depth suggested by the reflections, the site creates a very peculiar atmosphere vacillating between naturalness and artificiality. With Hirschfeld, one could speak of a garden arrangement that lends the “truth” and “beauty” of nature an “artificially” radiating value. In this garden, the visitors are presented with the potential artificiality of that which we grasp as natural. In this sense, the Polish Pavilion’s Magical Garden designed by Piotr Musialowski and the British Pavilion stand for the potentials of an approach—unfortunately failing all too often at the Expo—that suggests newly reflecting upon concepts of nature in the context of technological and cultural transformation factors.
  What can be shown based on rudimentary views of the conceptual layout of the Expo Milano is that references to nature still play a dominant role in Europe today—particularly in regard to technological developments. It can be seen as a quality of the Expo that it makes clear in the most various settings that concepts such as natural and artificial only play a limited role in the context of modern (production) technologies. On the other hand, the Expo Milano must be assessed as problematic due to the situation that the show with the official topic of “nourishment” was given a theme indeed relevant to humans worldwide, but that it was inscribed in a subtext referring far back to the European history of ideas and thus occludes the problem of feeding the world. For the fact that even at this most recent Expo such an overwriting can occur allows one to argue—quasi by implication—that the question of the cultural relevance of industrial (production) technologies in the industrialized nations is prioritized until this day, pushing aside issues that are far more urgent. In regard to its strength and weaknesses, then, the current Expo is also a gauge for the constitutive dispositions of our present age.

Expo Milano 2015
May 1 - October 31, 2015, Via Rovello, 2, I-20121 Mailand

Fig. 1
Expo Milano, Decumano

Fig. 2
Wolfgang Buttress, Hive, British Pavilion

Fig. 3
Piotr Musiałowski, Magic Garden, Polish Pavilion

Photos: Archive of the Autors

[1] Utz Haltern, Die Londoner Weltausstellung von 1851. Ein Beitrag zur bürgerlich-industriellen Gesellschaft im 19. Jahrhundert, Münster 1971, p. 13.

[2] Christian Cay Lorenz Hirschfeld, Theorie der Gartenkunst, Frankfurt, Leipzig 1777, p. XIII.


Heiko Schmid is art historian and curator. He realised diverse exhibition, research and publication projects on issues like artistic concepts of materiality, media art, contemporary installation art, trash aesthetics, theories of the virtual. He lives and works in Zürich.

Tanslation: Karl Hoffmann