I was fortunate enough to be able to get away for the Christmas holidays and see my sister, my brother-in-law and my niece and nephew in Dubai. It was the first time ever that I was able to spend Christmas with my niece and nephew, and I have to say that Christmas is way more fun with kids around, especially when you’re their uncle. After spending so much time alone over the past two years during this pandemic, being around family was a balm for the soul. I returned home to Barcelona just over a week ago and I miss them already.
Contrary to popular belief, there’s no shortage of things to do in Dubai, as long as you’re willing to drive. It is true that there’s a dearth of pedestrian-friendly areas. But then again no one goes there expecting quaint neighbourhoods and cobblestone streets. Driving around there are clusters of skyscrapers in all directions and it’s not clear which is the downtown area. It’s kind of reminiscent of a video game I used to play as a kid called SimCity, the way things seem to be built willy-nilly, without any clear plan. The now famous line by the writer Gertrude Stein about her hometown of Oakland, California that “There’s no there there” is an apt description of Dubai.
This is not to suggest that I didn’t enjoy myself. In fact, I had a great time. I tried to set aside my prejudices and just enjoy myself. This is not to say I don’t have serious misgivings about the place. There are armies of young South Asian men working in construction and menial jobs who live in questionable if not downright inhumane conditions. And unlike the Westerners who have relatively cushy, well-paid office jobs, they don’t get to use the self-aggrandising term of expat. They are mere migrant workers. But I’m sure they have more pressing concerns than what people call them. Who knows, maybe they are better off in Dubai than where they came from. But I do know that my own relatively glamorous experience of the city bears little resemblance to their experience of the place. Let’s just say this is my disclaimer, a way for me to assuage my discomfort with a place that seems built on profound inequalities.
Now, speaking of building, if there’s something Dubai excels at, it’s building stuff. From the world’s tallest structure to artificial islands built in the sea, the city’s modus operandi seems to be “go big or go home”. It’s the kind of place that makes an environmentalist shudder, what with the urban sprawl and neverending highways. But I’m not going to be my usual left-wing, holier-than-thou self. I had a fantastic time being driven around by my sister Emma and my brother-in-law Islam. We went to a Christmas pantomime show for the kids on the Palm – it was my first ever panto show – and it was a blast. We ate loads of amazing cuisine, especially Middle Eastern and Indian, and I enjoyed plenty of time in the sun.
As it turns out, this is a particularly big year for Dubai, as it’s Expo 2020. If you’re wondering what Expo is, it’s an international event that takes place every couple of years in a different city, in which countries set up pavilions to showcase their society, with exhibits about culture, technology and industry. When I told one of my aunts back in Toronto about Expo her response was “Oh, they still do those?” The thing is, Expo used to be a massive international event, on a par with the Olympics.
Although events like these actually date back all the way to the end of the 1700s in Europe, one of the first major Expos, or world’s fairs as they were called in the US, took place in London in 1851 and was housed in the poetically named Crystal Palace, a massive glass greenhouse made of cast iron that was nearly 600 metres in length. The London fair, a brainchild of Prince Albert, was dubbed The Great Exhibition and six million Brits, amounting to one-third of the country’s population, attended. When you read about this event it really boggles the mind. What must it have been like to see early models of telegraphs, microscopes and submarines at a time when indoor plumbing was still a luxury? (London would not have a comprehensive sewer system for roughly another decade.) In other words, an event like this must have bordered on the magical for many of the people in attendance.
What’s amazing about the Great Exhibition is the legacy that is still with us today. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, earmarked proceeds from the ticket sales to create institutions for the development of industry, science and art and it is to him that we owe the existence of the V&A and Natural History and Science Museum as well as the Royal Colleges of Art and Music, Imperial College and what would later be called the Royal Albert Hall. In other words, huge swathes of London’s cultural landscape can be traced back to this event. What’s more, there are researchers today who still receive funding from the Commission set up for the fair 150 years ago.
London is by no means the only city to have been profoundly transformed by Expo. Take Paris. But for the 1889 Exposition Universelle we would not have the Eiffel tower. My hometown of Montreal was also profoundly changed by Expo when it was held there in 1967. This event put Montreal on the map and it attracted such high profile visitors as Queen Elizabeth II, Lyndon B. Johnson, Princess Grace of Monaco, Jacqueline Kennedy and Charles de Gaulle. One of my favourite buildings of all time, Habitat 67, was built for the event, and while not the Eiffel tower, is still an architectural gem.
So, what exactly is my point? I suppose it’s that Expo conjures up all sorts of romantic ideas of progress and modernity that seem out of keeping with the pessimistic, seemingly dystopian world in which we live. So I was keen to see whether Dubai Expo could spark my imagination. Here are my impressions. Visiting the fairgrounds was very much like wandering aimlessly in a mall or theme park. Some of the pavilions are quite beautiful, but each is so different from the next that it feels like a bit of a hodge-podge. Whereas the Swedish pavilion is all plain wood beams conveying the country’s image as a responsible, if dull world citizen, Saudi Arabia had the temerity to build a massive concrete structure jutting out of the earth with screens on the side flashing hollow-sounding slogans about sustainability in green letters.
The Russian pavilion is my favourite. The exterior is colourful and whimsical. Inside, under the massive ceiling is a large room housing a huge model of a human brain. Ostensibly the pavilion is meant to highlight the contributions of Russia’s many great scientists, including neuroscientists and psychologists. So far so good, right? I mean who doesn’t love Vygotsky and his Zone of Proximal Development? But the designers of the displays didn’t trust us visitors to actually learn anything about science. I guess they wanted this to be a crowd-pleaser. So, the show consists of a voiceover waxing poetic about the wonders of the brain with an overpowering soundtrack playing music that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster. I can hardly think of a more inspiring goal than encouraging people to take greater interest in the workings of their own brain, but this ambitious concept was bungled.
In another building there are displays with a vision of the future in which technology seamlessly responds to our every need. There are images of pretty skyscrapers and holograms, with layer upon layer of colour. It is so visually intoxicating that you almost forget that there is very little substance to this future.
This led me to think about the kind of pavilion I would create. About fifteen years ago I visited my friend Shanna and her partner Kevin while they were spending the summer in Venice. By chance the Venice Biennale, the contemporary visual art exhibition, was on that year and so Shanna and I went one day. We had just finished doing our MA in Spanish literature together and so we were excited when we arrived at the Spanish pavilion. We were directed to queue up at the back of the building at a secondary entrance. What looked like border guards awaited us at the front of the queue and just as we were about to go in, we were asked to show our papers. As we did not have Spanish passports we were turned away. It took a moment for us to realise that this was the Spanish pavilion, there was no show inside. It was meant to draw attention to the plight of the so-called sin papeles, those who can’t enjoy the freedom of movement that so many of us take for granted. At the time I didn’t really appreciate this work of conceptual art. I wanted to be entertained, to see beautiful things, to consume.
Reading up on the history of Expo has been eye-opening. Initially I thought it was mostly an anachronistic exercise in national one-upmanship, in which countries simply tried to outdo one another. But over history Expo has occasionally left us with a legacy of true innovation. I reckon that what the world needs now is to organise a proper post Covid Expo, not with flashy pavilions that underestimate our collective intelligence and curiosity, but one that brings people together to come up with new solutions to global problems. Better yet, what if we all joined together to create art to make sense of the insanity that we’ve all been through these past few years? Something along the lines of the Edinburgh Fringe festival, with performances meant to bring about catharsis and healing. We could put Marina Abramović in charge. If you haven’t heard of her check this link in the transcript. She’s a real trip. Anyway, that’s my suggestion. Make art. Share it. That’s what the ancient Greeks would have done.
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How the Great Exhibition of 1851 still influences science today (article from The Guardian)