Brussels

“Expo 58”

Atomium

With all the fanfare surrounding the fortieth anniversary of May 1968, one should not overlook the period that led to its events. The year 1958 was rife with unresolved sociopolitical tensions that would pave the way for the protests to come. In this context, the homage to the 1958 Exposition Universelle in Brussels, held at the fair’s fantastic space-age centerpiece, the Atomium, was illuminating. Featuring publicity materials, newspaper clippings, tourist ephemera, vintage photographs, and documentary films from the period, this retrospective, “Expo 58: Between Utopia and Reality,” curated by Arnaud Bozzini and Geertrui Elaut, suggested that the first world’s fair to take place after the end of World War II unwittingly crystallized both the hopes and anxieties of the postwar reconstruction period.

Officially dedicated to modernity, especially through the sciences and technology, the world’s fair can be seen as a historical palimpsest through which to study the construction of national identity. One of the most striking aspects of the Belgian incarnation is the way it merged postwar European identity formation with the dying breaths of colonization. Inaugurated by King Baudouin I on April 17, 1958, one year after the Treaty of Rome established a common European market and two years before the independence of the Belgian Congo (as it was then known), the fair made bold assertions on both counts. A brochure produced for the opening announced that “165 million Europeans welcome you,” a grand number that invoked the industrial integration of the continent, venerated in a pamphlet celebrating “Man, Coal, Steel, and Europe.” In the latter, the figure of the new European citizen is positioned on a map dotted with heavy machinery. Another brochure depicts an African man gazing at an industrial complex composed of skyscrapers, trains, and a giant dam. Technological progress, the formation of the new Europe, and an ongoing dependence on the productivity of the colonies went hand in hand.

The impetus to forge ahead beyond the horrors of the war, and to use every available ideological channel to reconstruct a European collective identity, was visible throughout the exhibition. It was part and parcel of a campaign to institutionalize happiness. One flyer, for example, shows two soldiers with Cheshire grins holding a placard that reads OPERATION “SOURIRE,” while an entire village called “La Belgique Joyeuse” was built to entertain international visitors. The curators have teased out this hyperbolic imperative for joie de vivre by commissioning a structure baptized The Pavilion of Temporary Happiness. Fabricated from 33,000 recyclable Belgian beer crates, it includes original films, ephemera, and documents accompanied by critical commentaries.

No other element of the fair captured the intersection of historical processes (which ultimately erupted in Paris) as starkly as the Poème électronique that Le Corbusier conceived for the Philips Pavilion, and one wishes it had been given greater prominence. A collaboration with Edgard Varèse and Iannis Xénakis, the audiovisual program inside the structure deployed montage to juxtapose images of monochromatic surfaces, Western and non-Western art, heavy industry, atomic bomb test sites, smiling babies, and concentration camp prisoners. The simultaneity of visual and sonic abstraction and historical footage uncannily revealed that the dialectical processes of modernization and decolonization, and an almost complete repression of World War II, were both everywhere and nowhere in 1958.

Nuit Banai