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The Art of the World Exposition

I have a very personal relationship with world expositions. In the late 80s and early 90s of the last century I worked for the project office that organized the German appearance at the 1992 World Exposition in Seville. That was an exciting time and I particularly remember the competition for the architecture of the German pavilion that we held in the then still unrenovated Rolandseck railway station. In 2008 I wrote a book about Art Nouveau in which the theme of the World Exposition was also given a chapter. And now I have here the wonderful catalogue of the Marta Museum, which takes up the theme of the world exhibition once again. The accompanying exhibition runs until February 10, 2019 – in Herford and at the Kunstmuseum Ahlen . Brisante dreams, that’s the title of the exhibition, which announces exciting artistic positions revolving around “the best world exhibition in the world”. I have leafed through the catalogue and indulged in memories.

Drawn on blotting paper and planned by a builder of British greenhouses, the Crystal Palace, in which the first World Exhibition opened its doors in 1851, became a true wonder of the world made of glass and metal. It was an incredible 563 metres long and 124 metres wide. Like an artificial sky, its roof vaulted several exotic trees and a crystal fountain. In its elongated central hall stood the largest mirror in the world. In that glass palace, which lay like a giant colossus in Hyde Park, they presented a fair of inventions and paid homage to technical progress. Of course, the steam engine was not missing in this panopticon either. The first world exhibition became a demonstration of the world power of Great Britain and became a magnet for mass tourism. It became the symbol of a new era and presented the future.

Prince Consort Albert had the vision for the exhibition

It was intended to give “a faithful testimony and a vivid picture of the points of view of development to which all mankind has come in this great work”. From this moment of birth, the World Expositions accompanied the development of society into modernity. They mirrored the possibilities of their time and provided examples of how the world was to be furnished. Of course, the World Exhibition in Paris at the end of the century turned into a kind of super-show. As the French Minister of Commerce announced, the aim was “a summary of the 19th century”. It was intended to highlight the “philosophy” of the century. The central attraction was the “Palace of Electricity”, which attracted thousands of visitors. The whole area of the World’s Fair resembled a sea of lights with colourful plays of light. This is how the future was imagined: bright as day even at night and everything functions automatically.

Art was also a seismograph for political movements

In their editorial, Roland Nächtigäller and Burkhard Leismann explain what the double exhibition is all about. Essential input for the exhibition concept came from the Cologne curator Dr. Thomas Schriefers , who collected an “immense historical fund” of documents on the subject. The exciting thing about it is how many interfaces it offers to take today’s questions and perspectives on the subject. I really like the fact that Marta is always about creating such connections between art and the contemporary world.

I really like the way the catalogue is presented. World exhibitions that have left a lasting impression (there have been over 100 of them to date) provide a chronological order. In terms of content, this is broken down into essays that deal with such fundamental things as “Departure to the Senses” (Montreal), but also deal with individual aspects such as the pavilion that Salvador Dali created for the 19039/40 World Exposition in New York. In addition, there are contemporary artistic positions that, for example, play on the significance of the pavilion as “temporary architecture”. Rob Voerman’s objects show such an approach. His sculptures decline through what this architectural approach can structurally mean.

The fact that there is a lot of exciting and surprising source material in the catalogue makes browsing through it such a lot of fun. It is less an exhibition companion than a book that can be seen as an extension of the presentation on site. With a layout that is fun and guides you through the various world exhibitions.