Knute Berger at Expo Milano 2015
Knute Berger; images: Knute Berger & Carol Poole
Every world’s fair has its noble theme and its grand architecture, but the visitor experience is often in the details: the tasty foods, the intriguing and playful pavilion features that don’t make headlines. What do people remember most about expos? Stuff like New York’s Belgian waffles, Seattle’s Bubbleator, Aichi’s Totoro House, or
Shanghai’s eight-hour pavilion lines. Expo 2015 in Milan is no different: the fun and weirdness are found in the details. Here’s a list of eight cool things—and five oddball ones—that helped to make my week-long visit to Expo Milano 2015 memorable.
Eight Cool Things: 1. The British Pavilion
Some pavilions are designed to inform, others are simply sculpture. The UK pavilionis the latter. It’s a visually stunning, airy metallic lace that mimics a hive surrounded by bees designed by artist Wolfgang Buttress. Visitors pass through a garden as if they are bees returning home. The highlight is standing inside the hive on a transparent honeycomb floor. While the view from inside the hive is dramatic, the real impact is from afar as the pavilion’s beautiful spun silvery threads play in the Italian light. 2. Food Trucks
The USA pavilion hosts a food court called Food Truck Nation where visitors can get burgers and BBQ from large, RV-sized food trucks. T-shirts touting the attraction feature road signs, making the very American connection between food and vehicles. But the best food truck cluster at Expo isn’t America’s, it’s part of The Netherlands pavilion. The food vehicles are smaller, funkier, and more eclectic. So is the food. Street-food like hotdogs, mini-pancakes, and a Dutch comfort-food item known as bitterballen, a kind of pasty deep-fried gravy are offered. These are the festive, non-corporate kind of food purveyors you’re most likely to encounter on urban streets. 3. Vodka Gelato
The two words say it all. Outside the Belarus pavilion, a small stand combines the best of East and West by serving up small portions of gelato topped with vodka shots. Nothing is more refreshing on a hot day after wandering up and down the Expo’s mile-long main drag, the Decumanus. 4. Swinging Pavilion
The fair features many beautiful pavilions with swirls, swoops, arches and cantilevers capturing classic expo shapes in wood, a renewable resource. Some have delightful added elements. One that struck me was the Estonian pavilion that features swings for children built into the walls of the pavilion. Recent Expos seem to be phasing out major amusement rides and on-site transit exotica like gondolas and monorails. Playground elements integrated into pavilions helps relieve the seriousness of so many exhibits. 5. Seating & Shade
Expos employ many ways of cooling summer visitors—water sprays and covered walkways help. Some are not so good at offering relief for weary feet—Shanghai’s crowded grounds, for example, had very little seating, but then how do you accommodate 500,000 people per day? Popular visitor items there were small stools to sit on in hours-long lines. Milan, however, shows Italian hospitality with much more abundant seating options, many under the shade of the main walkway which is punctuated with small clusters of comfortable bench seats sponsored that offer a good place to sit and even recline, as if digesting a fine Roman meal. 6. Pavilion Zero
Pavilion Zero is designed to introduce visitors to the sweeping theme of humankind and our history with nature, and food, on the planet. It is in the shape of Italy’s Euganean Hills and presents the story in powerful, impressionistic set-pieces that include a massive Renaissance “memory bank” library, a large table in the shape of the earth’s original landmass, Pangea, with all the continents joined, gorgeous food vessels from antiquity, a massive artificial tree “growing” through the pavilion’s roof, and even a pile of 21st century garbage that people stop and take pictures of. How many pavilions feature fake garbage? The Zero refers to the UN’s Zero Hunger challenge, ensuring global food security, a key element of the Expo’s theme. The narrative gets a bit lost, but the creativity and imagery are truly memorable. 7. Product Displays
The fair featured a number of fascinating food displays, digital and analog. The Supermercato del Futuro, was a real supermarket with high-tech add ons, such as robots sorting apples and digital displays of product information. Costumed mascots in the shape of foodstuffs were everywhere—make way for the dancing tomato. The Japanese pavilion featured a multi-media performance where the audience sat at tables in a futuristic restaurant and ordered seasonal foods by tapping chopsticks on a screen built into their tabletops. The French pavilion put a new twist on an old Expo standard by hanging foodstuffs and kitchenware in the swooping ceiling arches of the pavilion’s twisting wooden structure. It reminded me of the kind of exhibits you might have seen at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition where produce and products were shaped into a sculptural design, a 21st century twist on a 19th century standby. 8. Chocolate
The Expo’s food theme—Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life—allowed for some creative organizing. Rather than putting foreign pavilions together based on geography, many were lumped into clusters by food group: Rice, Fruits and Legumes, Coffee. Some were more dynamic than others. Heaven help you if you were stashed in Cereals and Tubers, which paled compared to the cluster called Cocoa and Chocolate: The Food of Gods. Guess which one people flocked to? Yes, Italy is a coffee country, but an Italian chocolate pavilion featuring Italy’s “Chocolate Districts.” In essence, it was the proverbial candy shop every kid would like to be stuck in. Good luck competing with that, Tubers.
And the 5 weird things: 1. Selfie Obsession
I think of Milan as the Selfie Age world’s fair. Not only were people snapping their pictures everywhere with smartphones, they were openly encouraged to do so. A sculpture of a man sitting on a bench on the main thoroughfare was specifically designed for selfies, and one Belgian fast food company posted signs encouraging selfies. It is now almost impossible to get the most out of a fair without a smartphone or digital companion of some sort, but the Milan fair proved a playground for the ego. 2. Fat Shaming
It is natural that fitness and obesity would be addressed at the fair, but in a number of exhibits, being overweight was portrayed as disgusting, indulgent, or torture. One exhibit portrayed corn as a monster-size, fat featureless baby; the South Korean exhibit showed modern man as a fat guy in his underwear carrying a sausage. And a Tyrolean sculpture portrayed obesity as pure agony—right next to a counter selling marvelous freshly baked pastries. The message: Eat up, but not you, fatty. 3. New Model Army?
Expos always feature weird modern art—especially, it seems, the eastern European pavilions. At the Czech pavilion, a piece of fountain art seemed to be a giant bird giving birth to a Buick. The work that seemed most bizarre this time, however, was in the Slovokia pavilion. It featured an army of zombie-like female mannequins covered in graffiti. Not sure how it fit into the food theme, unless it was a comment on graffiti-splashed Milan’s fashion culture eating our brains. 4. Anti Expo Graffiti
Speaking of graffiti, the Expo was opposed by anti-capitalist activists. A May Day riot that coincided with the fair’s opening saw the city’s downtown core splashed with anti-Expo slogans. If nothing else, it gives the Expo more exposure! 5. Strangest Souvenir
In the gift shop of the Russian pavilion, you can anticipate being the proud owner of a Vladimir Putin keepsake box. Unfortunately, one with a shirtless Putin was not available.