A century of universal themes

If you divide the last 100 years into categories such as health, religion and technology, Barbie could fit into almost any section. That’s what Neal Potter and his team found, in their trawl for ideas for an exhibition due to open in Lisbon next month as a taster for the Lisbon Expo ’98.

The exhibition, Viagem a Roda do Século XX (A Walk Through the 20th Century), opens at the Cultural Centre of Belem on 12 February. It covers 100 years of life from an international perspective and runs for 100 days.

Potter became involved in the 800 000 project in spring 1996 when Expo’s advisor, Professor Jorge Calado, told the organisers they should go to the UK for the best exhibition design. In that case, said festival director Gabriela Cerqueira, get me the man who designed London’s Museum of the Moving Image. Potter was duly contacted, wined, dined and appointed without a pitch.

His team decided on the body as the theme for the 3000m2 gallery, as it links all the icons of the century, from fashion to automobiles to war. Arriving visitors are bombarded with words of concern from 1898 and issues that challenge us today. The choice then is simple: you can go straight to Sex, exiting from that into Work or Death, or can by-pass that into an altogether more seemly section.

The exhibition has 12 sections, the others being Religion, Leisure, Myth, Death, Health, Food, Technology, Speed, Mind and Frontiers. In each, art, photography, moving images and objects combine to pinpoint key events and developments.

In Food, for example, Claes Oldenberg’s giant Ice Cream Cone sits alongside Don McCullin’s heart-rending shots of starving babies and packs of canned, dried and frozen food. The culture clash of Fidel Castro drinking a can of Coke is immortalised in a photograph.

The aim, says Potter, is ‘to use as few words as possible, to juxtapose images to make people think’. Graphics are likely to be ‘just labelling’.

Among the most thought provoking sections, not least for the locals, is Religion. Potter says there’s no Christianity, because that originated in an earlier age. But Islamic Fundamentalism is represented by a photograph of Ayatollah Khomeni. The main thrusts, though, are ‘passions’ such as football, Greenpeace, Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book and equality for women.

Then, of course, there’s Sex. Visitors are taken from Allan Jones’ erotic sculptures and Gilbert and George, through Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography and Pirelli calendars, to issues such as prostitution and AIDS. And there’s a peep-show, sex aids and lots of condoms.

Potter’s own favourite is Mind (pictured), which will include a model of the Tatlin Tower, shipped from Russia. There’s Sigmund Freud’s rug from his famous couch, and, as Salvador Dali’s real work wasn’t available, his soft clocks have been re created. A chilling contribution comes from Orson Welles, whose panic-provoking opening lines from the Thirties radio broadcast of the War of the Worlds should provoke fear.

The Dali mock-ups are an ingenious way of filling gaps where the desired object isn’t available. Potter says ‘you’re never going to get all the great artworks’, so, to get a good overview, his team have cheated just a little. Toy tanks replace the real thing in the array of weapons in Death, for example, and 100 cans of Campbell’s soup are piled up in place of Andy Warhol’s original in Food.

There are some coups. Yuri Gagarin’s spacesuit is expected from Russia for Frontiers; clothing from Hiroshima is likely to appear beside concentration camp uniforms in Death; there will be the boots of local football hero Eusebio and Fred Astaire’s tap shoes in Leisure.

The budget was tight enough, with Neal Potter Design Associates holding a turnkey contract that involved building as well as design. It contracted this out to Silver Knight Exhibitions. The 800 000 included all costs, including monthly flights to

Lisbon, but not fees. Potter explains that copyright fees alone accounted for 28 000 for photographs and 20 000 for moving images. A shift in currency exchange rates stripped 130 000 from the budget in real terms, but Expo was eventually persuaded to stump up the difference.

Potter’s one regret is that the show will be so shortlived and closes as Expo 98 opens. Oh, and what about Barbie? She ended up in Leisure. Just the right place for such a good-time gal.

Designer: Neal Potter Design Associates

Client: Expo ’98

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