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Montreal museums hunt ghosts of Expo 67, 50 years later

visual art

Montreal museums hunt ghosts of Expo 67

Fifty years after the future visited the city, artists are creatively processing the impacts of the allegedly revolutionary exposition

Jean-Pierre Aubé, Kalidoscope II, 2017.

Some events of 1967 had effects that remain powerful. Israel still holds territories it seized during the Six Day War, and we're all familiar with the ATMs that first appeared at a London bank that year. The lingering influence of Expo 67 is more subtle, but it's hard to escape in Montreal during the fair's 50th anniversary.

Physical traces of the 1967 International and Universal Exposition have mostly disappeared, leaving even practical-minded politicians such as Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre to grasp after intangibles. "The spirit of Expo" has become easy to invoke, much harder to define.

The city's art galleries and museums have taken turns examining the fair's remains, through displays of artifacts, costumes, photos, films and other documentation. A show at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal (MBAM) places Expo within a broader slice of late-1960s culture, while the Musée d'art contemporain (MAC) treats it as a starting point for new creation and reflection.

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None of the 19 artists recruited for the MAC's In Search of Expo 67 by curators Lesley Johnstone and Monika Kin Gagnon are old enough to have seen the fair. Their works are based on documentation of what was built and done on the site, and on the haze of ideas that accompanied Expo's creation and continued to mutate after it ended.

David K. Ross’s Musée d’art contemporain installation As Sovereign as Love.

David K. Ross's film installation, As Sovereign as Love, uses drone-camera footage to simulate a front-seat, trackless ride on the vanished Expo monorail, while a narrator reads sections from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's memoir Terre des hommes, whose title became Expo's official theme. Saint-Exupéry, who was also a pilot, muses poetically on solitude and the void below, while Ross's spooky camera glides through tracking or "establishing" shots (to use the cinematic terms), which track no one and establish mainly what has been erased from the scene.

Another installation by Jean-Pierre Aubé doubles down on the Kaleidoscope pavilion at Expo, through large kaleidoscopic projections of crystallizing chemicals purchasable through the Dark Web – for example, mind-altering substances that may not be legal. Works by Duane Linklater and Krista Belle Stewart evoke aspects of the little-documented Indians of Canada pavilion, which had a huge impact on Indigenous art-making and cultural assertiveness. Video works by Cheryl Sim and Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen look at Expo and the wider 1967 craze for centennial projects in terms of gender assumptions and ideas about immigration and assimilation.

Jean-Pierre Aubé’s installation doubles down on the Kaleidoscope pavilion at Expo.

By the Time We Got to Expo, made from manipulated found-footage by filmmakers Philip Hoffman and Eva Kolcze, wordlessly emphasizes the distance between the present and the ghosts of Expo visitors. Stéphane Gilot goes in the other direction, pulling the event and its shiny idealism into the gaming age, via a retro video game in which even the clouds have sharp corners.

All these works provoke you to think about Expo in ways that are specific, critical, playful and elastic. They shatter the "spirit of Expo" into a dynamic mass of phenomena and attitudes.

A film piece by Cheryl Sim looks at Expo and the wider 1967 craze for centennial projects in terms of gender assumptions and ideas about immigration and assimilation.

MBAM's show Revolution, by contrast, drags the world's fair into a party where it really doesn't belong. The exhibition's original version at the Victoria and Albert Museum told how late-1960s music, fashion and design in the United States and Britain fed and were fuelled by a shakeup in political attitudes and social mores. For Montreal, MBAM curator Diane Charbonneau, added material about Expo, Quebec music and the 1970 October Crisis, as well as the 1969 Bed-In for Peace held in a Montreal hotel by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Revolution is a classic boomer celebration, hitting all the familiar peaks of the era. It includes clothes designed for Lennon and Mick Jagger, posters from student demonstrations in Paris in 1968, and pieces of groovy domestic design from Italy and Scandinavia. The audio guide and gallery speakers play the same hits you can hear any day on classic-rock radio stations. One large room is devoted to the Woodstock festival in 1969, and includes concert film clips projected continuously on a large wall. This room was the most crowded the day I visited, and the number of people too young to remember Woodstock was not small.

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David K. Ross’s film installation uses drone-camera footage to simulate a front-seat, trackless ride on the vanished Expo monorail.

The show also retreads the clichés of the period, including "counterculture," with little attempt to examine them closely. It's taken as a given that rockers and hippies created something rebellious and free that Madison Avenue later tamed and sold, though most of what's on show was on sale from the beginning. Thomas Frank (in The Conquest of Cool) and others have shown that the ad industry anticipated the selling power of non-conformity well before anyone said the words "flower power." The most durable legacy of the 1960s may be the nonsensical orthodoxy we all live with, according to which you can stand out from the crowd by buying the same cool phone as everyone else.

In any case, Expo 67 was about as far as you could get from a countercultural phenomenon. It was a world's fair, the major contents of which were curated by nation-states and displayed in national pavilions. The hostesses wore uniforms. How much more official could a cultural event be?

Cheryl Sim, Un jour, One Day, 2017.

V&A curator Geoffrey Marsh, in his catalogue essay about the fair, argues that Expo was revolutionary because it marked a change in the focus of world's fairs, from displays of current gadgetry to collective dreams about "what the future would look like." A little less than a century earlier, however, the massive Corliss steam engine that ran the entire Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia gave everyone a compelling demonstration of what the actual future would look like.

Expo's power as a predictive event was much more nebulous. As these exhibitions show, we're still trying to figure it out.

In Search of Expo 67 continues at MAC through Sept. 10. Revolution: "You Say You Want a Revolution" continues at MBAM through Oct. 9.

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