Who Knew Utopia: Prague's Brussels Dream Exhibit

Radio silence over. Here are photos from the Brussel Dream exhibit put on here at the National Library in Prague:

The main sculpture of the Fair:

Sculpture from the Brussels World's Fair 1958

The legendary Xenakis Phillips Pavillion:

Phillips Pavillion at Brussels World's Fair

Czechoslovak consumer goods in the 1950s:

Czech dreams of the 1950s

Monuments tie the present to the past, but their meanings chang as time passes. The Brussel's World's Fair to me has always been about one thing, the Xenakis Phillips Pavillion that announced musique concrete to the world with the first public multichannel stereo display. A marvel of lights, sounds, and architecture, it is one of those post World War II moments painstakingly described by generations of fans of the avant garde, as if there were some moment when it might have been possible that Verese would be a household name. Oh, the modernist dream! How little did you expect thee's realization in Timbaland?!

What I had never thought about was that the Fair, in 1958, was the first one after New York City's famous 1939 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows (a place for which I have some indelible fondness). A full 20 years without a worldwide display of ingenuity, without congress. The City Gallery of Prague's mammoth exhibit Brussels Dream has changed my view of the meaning of the Fair by portraying it as something of an epic theater for Russian and American, nee East v. West, ideas, goods, art, and sound. Of course many have written about the intense propaganda and proto-internet like functions of World's Fairs, but for me this exhibit was really a chance to see what it was like for a small country like Czechoslovakia to bring their best to the table under almost completely ridiculous conditions.

Think about it. Two years after the Thaw, thousands of Czechs put together their ideas about what was the best in their culture, most definitely as per Moscow's intent, and boarded trains to the Fair to build a modernist temple to Communist production and way of life. The exhibit carefully described the presentations and savored the details of inventive ideas from furniture to industry, but the repeated statments like "these pieces never went into domestic production" or "these artists could only produce work like this in limited artistic shops due to materials shortages" revealed how little of the Dream on hand was reality. Even moreso, the fact that only some 6000 Czechs were allowed to travel to the exhibit as "reward" for great work. They literally never saw their dream come true.

But the Brussels Dream exhibit took it a step further by showing how the very chance to present these materials, to dream these materials into even limited production, vastly impacted Czech culture. As I walked through the exhibit I couldn't help but feel like this presentation, in 2008 when the Czech koruna is at an all time high against the dollar AND the euro, was something of a reframing of history to supply answers to how "we" got here - how we kept these dreams for ourselves, what elements of the past are we seeing today in our reality?

As I write this, I hear hammers and saws all around me - the city is alive with contruction. Tourists come for the Baroque richness and odd Gothic element, but Czechs seem obsessed with this modernist moment. Is this the beginning of a dream that only came to reality 50 years later? It must have seemed so frustrating and insulting back then, in some ways, so cruel to present an abundance. Yes it did not talk about Stalin, jailings, murders, lack of free speech, corruption, police brutality, and the general fear of the population. World's Fairs never do - in fact, they often perpetuate ignorance rather than challenge it - but like any bazaar the Fair became a place where unlikely patterns emerged to give sense and meaning in retrospect.

Times have changed - people don't go to the Fairs like they used to. I bet you didn't even KNOW there was one in Spain this year, for instance. Even as the Times announces gas prices are "ending" the globalization dream, I know that this cannot be true - globalization is build by and supported with transnational capital for sure, but it's also built by connections between artists and imagination to be connected to certain histories, trajectories, peoples, ideas. So that's the irony of course - Czechs had to sleep through communism to get to experience their Brussels Dream, and since 2004 they've been doing a ridiculously quick job of catching up on living it. 

Which is to say, there is a sense of hope. It's not without criticism, corruption still, and injustice. These are evident and not taken for granted. But it is truly something as an American feeling the twilight of her country's influence to watch another country, so long underdog, reaching its stride.