“IN SEARCH OF EXPO 67”
MUSÉE D’ART CONTEMPORAIN DE MONTRÉAL
While the rest of Canada marks its sesquicentennial, in Montreal, this anniversary has been overshadowed by the city’s 375th birthday and, more poignantly, the 50th anniversary of Expo 67. For Montrealers, Expo represents a lost utopian moment of prosperity and optimism for Quebec and their city in particular. Its relevance is also broader: Expo stands for all the utopian possibilities of the 1960s, the high point of Marshall Mcluhan’s “global village” and a moment when youth counterculture, technological optimism and a uniquely Canadian brand of paternalistic humanism, sponsored by corporations and the state, could all coexist without apparent contradiction.
While the Mccord Museum, Stewart Museum, Centre de design de L’UQAM and the Biosphère (at the site of Buckminster Fuller’s original dome for the US Pavilion at Expo) are presenting historical displays, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal’s “In Search of Expo 67” is composed entirely of works by contemporary artists, most commissioned for the occasion, that reconsider the significance of the event from the vantage point of today.
Some of the included works express muted criticism of the nationalist project that informed Expo’s futurism, as well as the sexism that went along with it, but the sentiments on display are predominantly wistful, melancholic and nostalgic. Cheryl Sim’s Un Jour, One Day (2017) is a retro-electronic music video cover of Expo 67’s theme, performed by the artist in a blue jumpsuit inspired by
Expo’s hostess uniforms and accompanied by snapshots from her parents’ honeymoon at the event. David K. Ross’s large-scale video projection, As Sovereign as Love (2017), uses a drone camera to follow the path of Expo’s now-demolished monorail, passing through mostly derelict spaces absent of the avant-garde architecture and thronging crowds they once held.
Most impressive is the recreation of Graeme Ferguson’s Polar Life, originally presented over 11 screens in Expo’s Man the Explorer Pavilion. Digitally restored for three screens and a static viewer (the original audience sat on a rotating stage), Polar Life has the side effect of emphasizing the striking disparity of support for creative freedom between 1967 and now. Expo’s artists were given carte blanche for extravagant projects; the artists of “In Search of Expo 67” were handed their subject matter as an assignment. Of course, many of the included artists were already doing research-based work on archival materials. Some pieces, like Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyê˜n’s excellent 1967: A People Kind of Place (2012), were even looking at Expo 67 in advance of this curatorial brief.
The downside to a show of contemporary works based on archival materials is the nagging sense that original artifacts and documentation would be more rewarding than new art. And, in general, the art here involves less historical contextualization than one would expect. As if to make up for it, Charles Stankievech’s installation, Until Finally O Became Just a Dot (2017) condenses a museum’s worth of Expo-related ephemera into one room. Deeply absorbing, Stankievech’s connect-the-dots between the Whole Earth Catalog, LSD, NASA, Fuller, Mcluhan, Pink Floyd and more demonstrates how contemporary artists win back their autonomy by assuming curatorial methods, though I was left wishing that the didactic material was more evenly distributed.
Ultimately, “In Search of Expo 67” reflects on the loss of a utopian horizon in culture, the impossibility of believing, as Canadians once apparently did, that things are getting better. As such, it is disappointing that the show doesn’t offer more to hope for. Where the federal government once bankrolled countercultural dissidence, artists are now subject to the bureaucracy of official curatorialism. Cultural workers can criticize #Canada150, but we’ll still apply for the grants. —SAELAN TWERDY
Cheryl Sim Un jour, One Day (still) 2017 Three-channel digital video installation 5 min 27 sec