by Pendery Weekes in Cornwall
With shops locked down and transformed into gallery spaces from one day to the next, the Great Exhibition of 2020 surpassed expositions of all time for its extraordinary and extensive size in square kilometres, the largest international exhibition ever opened. Notwithstanding the great expense incurred by this Herculean exhibition, sadly it was also the worst one ever organised – a true embarrassment to the art world. It had no sense; it was very badly curated and hastily put together without any logic. With such an immense exhibition space, this unfathomable and aesthetically displeasing event had an emotionally numbing effect on its visitors. On display were abandonment, uncertainty, apathy, emptiness, grief, worry, acceptance, silence and fear; it was difficult to take everything in. The PR surrounding the event was exceptional, with media attention everywhere – little else was covered except a series of hosted side events concerning the exhibition. It was one of those immense shows that people would want to one day tell their grandchildren or great-grandchildren about – it will leave that kind of memory.
It was like an outdoor museum that visitors could admire in real-time, a live event with a semblance between science fiction and fantasy. No tickets were necessary since it was free of charge to look inside the window displays curated by each shopkeeper, as though an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) had been unleashed. The window displays indicated the season, the last vestiges of the winter sales leading into spring. Hurriedly closed, abandoned to themselves, these shop windows were like an old photograph that depicted another era. It created a macabre and magnetic attraction for the visitors who wandered by in a sort of lethargic, dreamlike trance and who were left with a glimpse of what our lives once were only a few months back. The experience was so intense that visitors risked the Stendhal syndrome some with accelerated heartbeats, others with confusion, or they were left wondering if it were all a hallucination.
The artefacts of these shops were represented by clothing, greeting cards, toys, books, mobile phones aging on the shelves, furniture, paintings by real artists, hardware supplies. Empty pubs and hotels. It was as though everything was in black and white though there were colours. The colours in the shop windows faded in the sun, losing their vibrancy as spring turned to summer. Decay was a key aspect to this show; flies lay dead in the window displays, surrounded by a layer of dust. Particularly striking were the sheet covered armchairs and couches in a furniture store window, implying a long-term covering, like one does in summer houses before the coming winter. It was all about stopping, with everything motionless, lifeless and silent. This is the painting I saw of a once vibrant town.
The standstill on show at the exhibition contrasted sharply with the liveliness and excruciating beauty of the warm, flowery spring of 2020 with its pink, violet, blue, yellow, red, white and many shades of green. It looked like the curator had walked out at the last moment and left it all to chance. In fact, attendance of this show was quite poor, as was predicted by the press before it opened. With no closing or opening times, as bad as it was, I went to visit this widely disputed show almost daily in the long afternoons of the spring, rain or shine. It totally mesmerized and captivated my attention with its spectral, eerie feeling that the displays transmitted – it was seriously powerful. Rare is the opportunity to take in a show that can disturb so greatly and leave such a substantial impact on its visitors. The show was like a glimpse into everyone’s worst nightmare, though I was able to only see the sideshow of the main venue of the Wuhan/Milan/Paris/London exhibitions – what I saw was grim enough.
It was the nauseating image of social distancing, where we all become strangers, which gave the atmosphere of death that permeated the streets, showing the demise of our social fabric on display. These displays contrasted with the street performances of the actors with their pathetic two-metre distances between one another. Each mirrored the other, performance vs museum, live vs dead in a dance of desperation, a dance of fear and terror. Geometry of space, lines drawn to emphasize how far apart each actor had to be between one another. Sometimes the lines were crossed and zigzagged along the pathway, creating an erratic, unrepeatable artwork based on fear. The humans were out of tune, making a cacophony of performance art with their furtive moves when passing other actors, invariably repeating the same phrases: “sorry” “thank you”, or worse, pulling up their scarves or face masks in terror to protect from the lurking germs that may have leaked from a person drawing near. The few people attending this exhibition would quickly glance and move on to the next display, almost too embarrassed to even be seen at the show.
Empty buses going through the lonely main streets gave the only kinetic sense to the exhibition – movement without the motion of people, with the bus drivers being the only actors involved.
The deathly atmosphere permeated the entire show, as the demise of our social fabric. As I walked around the show, Williams Arms Fisher’s melancholic lyrics Going Home written to Dvorak’s 9th Symphony rang in my ear: “Going home, going home, we’re just going home”. The funeral march proceeding in the background of my mind; gone is the lifestyle of yesterday to be replaced with a new, unknown dimension. The exhibition was “a moving expression of that nostalgia of the soul all human beings feel.” (Fisher)
Looking back with sorrow on what we all have lost, embodied in this questionable show, one wonders if we might not have lost something worth losing. Though it was an exhibition I would have preferred not to have seen, once it opened I couldn’t stop visiting it and had to see it in all its hues. However, it is my opinion that the organisers should never reopen this exhibition again; we can live – without this artwork. So how do you fix a painting you don’t like?
Variable dates, ready to recommence at a moment’s notice (England, March 23 – still running)
Volume 34 no 6 July / August 2020