I’ve always looked at Milan’s Expo 2015 with a sort of apprehension. Being it such a grand-scale event, I was almost feeling the pressure Italy was subject to in hosting the World Exposition 2015, centred around food. And now that I’ve been and seen it thoroughly (read ‘dragged my sister in as many pavilions as possible’), I can say that Italy has passed the test. In spite of a few (more or less shared) criticisms, Expo 2015 acts as a showcase of the world scene on food, in an impressive and inspiring way.
Included in the Expo ticket is a visit to Milan’s Triennial Exhibition, which we decided to see first. The Triennial ‘Arts and Foods’ goes through the history of food and its material culture, from 1851 to our times. The exhibition comprehends tools, design objects, architecture, posters, customs, habits. Without forgetting art: here and there are Renoir’s, Picasso’s, and Oldenburg’s, which perhaps could have been signalled and labelled better as such. But the mix has the power to immerse the visitor in the atmosphere of the time, from the café of the ’20s to the Futurist kitchen to the contemporary dining room. My favourite section was undoubtedly the early 20th century, and in particular all that artistic avant-gardes had to offer to the theme of food. I’ve even spotted a painting by Sonia Delaunay, which was a sketch for a chocolate label! As always, the contemporary bit was the most exciting and unpredictable one. The reason I love contemporary art is the freedom with which you can look at it, and the number of meanings you can find in any given work. Of course, one has to be prepared to all sorts of things, like an intestine endoscopy taking place on a dish, or an armchair covered in bacon. One thing I didn’t really get was the amount of grossness that seemed to dominate, as well as truly distressing works, like pictures of over or under weight people. If art comments or reflects upon society, what does the fact that so much contemporary art is repulsive and disgusting say about our world? Are all artists disillusioned and profoundly revolted by reality? Is there not even a little spark of hope for art that is constructive instead of loathsome? Just a thought from a hopeless optimist. In general, though, the exhibition was interesting in this respect: food is an extremely telling lens though which to look at society, as it can tell us much about who we were and are, leaving us to imagine who we will become.
The actual Expo was a bit outside Milan, but close enough to be reached by metro. The site consists in two main roads, Cardo and Decumano, on which all the various pavilions are situated. I had been told that seeing all the pavilions was physically impossible, and as soon as we got there I understood why. The area is a few square kilometres, with queues of people to get into pretty much each pavilion, so that one has to be selective. In our selection, we decided to prioritise variety above all, so we did several country pavilions (Korea, Argentina, UAE, Moldova, Spain, USA, Turkey, Russia) and some themed ones, like Lindt, Spices, and Wine (possibly the best). Every pavilion is unique in terms of what’s inside, and tells a lot about the culture of the country. In addition, every pavilion can be seen as making a statement about the position of that specific country in the world scene right now: some countries are so powerful they don’t really need to prove anything to anyone or try very hard (USA), some other really want to raise their voice, saying ‘I’m here too!’ (Brazil, UAE, Qatar, China), some others are on their way (Turkey, Argentina, Kazakistan). Sadly, some countries are too poor to make any statement at all, which is one of the dark sides of Expo 2015: the poorest countries are grouped in Clusters of foods such as Coffee, Cocoa, Spices, Vegetables, Rice, almost implying that they are not powerful enough to stand on their own feet. In this sense, the Expo is an accurate picture of the world as it is now, in all its lights and shadows (and inequalities). As well as the pavilions, the site offers other attractions, the most iconic being the Tree of Life, a huge tree that every hour has a little show with music, lights, bubble, smoke, etc. A bit flashy, but overall a nice show full of colours and positivity.
If one sees the Expo as a big fair, a place in which to contemplate edge-cutting innovations and wonders, a collection of the most astonishing creations human minds have been able to produce, a panoramic of the variety of foods the world has to offer, then Expo 2015 is a success. Undoubtedly, more space could have been devoted to food justice, poverty, diseases, and other world issues that are as real as wealth and progress of the richest countries. But, as a world exhibition, the focus is on what, right now, the world is able to do to surprise and amaze us.