‘EXPO 1’ Imagines the End Times–And Does Nothing to Stop Them


The question is not so much if “EXPO 1: New York,” a multi-site exhibition, is engaging, but rather if it is pointless. It aims to present a “darkly optimistic” view of the 21st century, which the organizers purport has been marked by ecological disasters, economic turmoil, and the promise of political change. But “Expo 1” is not a call to action; it’s a reaffirmation of pop culture’s dystopian fantasies.

The show is spread over three locations, but the bulk resides at PS1 in Long Island City. There, micro-exhibitions meld with site-specific installations and the EXPO school. Titled Speculations (“The Future is _______”) and organized by the editorial collective Triple Canopy, the school features daily discussions and lectures by the likes of Benjamin Kunkel and Al Gore, who last week presented his well-worn talk “An Inconvenient Truth” with David Guggenheim. Many of the presentations take place in La inocencia de los animales (2013), an immersive environment by Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas. A sort of ersatz Greek amphitheater, the space contains a staircase, a crumbling bell, tinted windows, and an alcove littered with oversize detritus. The artist intended it to look like a post-apocalyptic hideout; the effect is such that one is not compelled to linger.

On the first floor is a refrigerated room containing Your Waste of Time (2006) by Olafur Eliasson. Consisting of large chunks of ice from Iceland’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull, which lay on the floor like unfinished sculptures, the piece fails to translate the experience of encountering the cryosphere in nature. Missing is the scale, and the sunlight, which would turn the color of the ice a supernatural blue. In the gallery, the dull frozen water looks like it’s bound for a swan sculpture at an expensive party. The room is kept between 10 and 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Although a sign at the entrance states that some of the energy for the air conditioning was supplied by solar panels on the roof, a PS1 employee was reluctant to share if the rest was supplied by less sustainable sources.

If Eliasson had really wanted to make a statement, he could have installed the chunks of glacier at room temperature, and left the aftermath to be cleaned up by workers who endured Hurricane Sandy—that would have gotten New Yorkers fired up about melting glaciers.

“ProBio,” a sub-exhibition on the second floor of the museum, explores the notion that scientific advancements like genetic engineering and artificial life may end Darwinian natural selection. How the works connect to this theme is not always clear; still, many are of note. On a flexible 21-by-9-foot LED curtain that cuts the gallery in half, Shanzhai Biennial No. 2 (2013), a video by the collective Shanzhai Biennial, is projected. It features Chinese model Wu Ting Ting lip-synching nonsensical words over the music of Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” “Shanzhai,” in Cantonese, means “pirated goods made in China.” Even though Wu is real, you assume that she’s an avatar.

Bustling around “ProBio” are tiny black iRobots that collect dust, dirt, and DNA from the floor. Part of a work titled iFeel (2013) by DIS, these of course suggest comparisons with technology companies like Google and Facebook, especially in light of the recent NSA scandal. Although iRobots offer a benefit (cleaning), they do so at the expense of one’s personal privacy (by collecting visitors’ DNA), the simple service masking a greater evil.

In Williamsburg (2013), by Georgia Sagri, an indoor garden attempts to grow in artificially lit boxes. Most of the space is barren, occupied by styrofoam insulation and stones. The few plants that survive are yellow from dehydration. On the surface, the work can be read as a microcosm of the rapidly developing neighborhood in Brooklyn that so many have grown to detest. But on a deeper level, it speaks to the difficulties inherent in artificially recreating nature. In the two-storied atrium to the left of the entrance, Meg Webster’s Pool (1998) makes a similar point. Consisting of a koi pond replete with reeds, the mechanics necessary to keep the climate alive—loud fans, ugly plastic tubes—create a frenetic rather than serene environment.

In contrast, “The Politics of Contemplation,” a micro-exhibition of photographs by Ansel Adams, are quiet meditations on national parks in the 20th century. Perhaps these would have been more emotionally cutting if the parks had been destroyed—but for the most part, they still exist as Adams saw them.

Those who dig the summertime parties in PS1’s oppressively hot concrete courtyard will envy the residents of EXPO Colony. Conceived as affordable utopian housing, the structure was designed and built by the Argentinian architecture firm a77. It looks something like a treehouse made out of sticks and vintage camping trailers. At home, a77 creates low-cost structures in poor communities; here, the firm’s work will be inhabited by cultural elites such as GQ “Style Guy” Glenn O’Brien.

The two other locations for “EXPO 1” feel more like sideshow attractions than main events. At MOMA’s compound in midtown Manhattan, patient visitors are invited to wait in long lines to play God in Rain Room (2012), an interactive environment by Random International. The work consists of a 5,000-square-foot space flooded by a downpour from the ceiling; when people walk through it, the rain miraculously stops around them. On the Hurricane Sandy–torn shores of the Rockaways, the VW Dome 2, a geodesic structure, closes on June 30. It previously hosted programs like the “Call for Ideas,” a project that invited artists to submit novel plans for urban recovery. Thus far, there have been no formal announcements of plans put into motion thanks to programming in the dome.

“EXPO 1” says a lot that is already known, especially by the audience that will be most engaged with the programming. The world has gone to shit, and it’s only innovative solutions by smart people that can save it from devolving into apocalypse. What’s not mentioned is the dangerous complacency required to accept that the environmentally concerned “EXPO 1” has only sponsor —Volkswagon of America, a car company. The world is falling apart out there—but here we anticipate the excitement of the aftermath rather than the prevention of the fall.