The metaphor of the world as a theatre goes a long way back. Greek philosophers first conceived of life as being directed by master puppeteers (God, Fortune and Fate) centuries before it was most famously articulated in William Shakespeare’s As You Like It (c. 1600). Yet, the premise that ‘all the world’s a stage / and all the men and women merely players’ has, for the most part, focused on the players. The exhibition ‘El Teatro del Mundo ’ (The Theatre of the World) – the title echoing Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 1655 play El Gran Teatro del Mundo – instead drew attention to the theatre set. More specifically, it aimed to show how monuments, urban planning and architecture have been used as a means of fictional construction by nation states and their leaders – the puppeteer turned stage designer. The show attempted to weave together many lines of inquiry that weren’t always clearly defined. The catalogue text, by curator Andrea Torreblanca, was more successful in doing so. It began by citing the late-18th-century tale of Grigory Potemkin and Queen Catherine II’s tour of the Crimea, when Potemkin temporarily constructed whole villages, complete with hired local inhabitants, to show the regions’ prosperity, before dismantling and reconstructing it further down the road. Whilst the story of the Potemkin village was not directly referenced in the exhibition, the inclusion in the first of the two main galleries of Yto Barrada’s A Guide to Trees for Governors and Gardeners (2014) – a series of prints that serve as a manual to prepare for the visit of official dignitaries by planting trees – shows how the spirit of Potemkin is alive and well today. The prints were exhibited alongside a rudimentary model train set that featured a limousine driving through a barren landscape with trees rising as it passed. How the veneer of a city is used as a political and propagandistic device appeared later in the exhibition with the film Give Me the Colours (2003) by Anri Sala, in which he interviews his friend Edi Rama, then Mayor of Tirana (currently the prime minister of Albania), who initiated a set of urban development programmes including, most famously, working with inhabitants to paint the city’s public buildings and housing blocks in garish colours or clad them in geometric forms.
By the mid-19th-century, as Torreblanca tells us, the introduction of the World’s Fair ramped up architectural theatrics to new levels, allowing nation states to flex their ideology to millions of visitors. David Maljkovic’s Lost Cabinet (2008) – a large, free-standing cabinet based on those built by Exat 51, a group of designers, architects and artists who produced Yugoslavia’s pavilions in the mid-20th-century – contained newspaper clippings related to World’s Fairs and the role they played in the country’s own Modernist history. The legacy of the World’s Fair was referenced more directly in Olivia Plender’s Empire City – The World on One Street (2009), a scale model reconstruction of the bombastic, neo-classical British Empire Exhibition held at Wembley in 1924. World fairs are an important point of reference but using two works as a means of addressing this history felt slight. A whole exhibition could have been given over to the history of World Fairs and the role they played in the development of the image of the nation state. And here was a more general problem with the show; there was little or no supplementary material, leaving ‘Theater of the World’ to feel more like a survey of recent artistic practices about architecture, rather than playing with different registers of artifice and documentation the title suggested.
The third strand of Torreblanca’s show, urban planning, was most clearly articulated through Livia Corona Benjamin’s series of photographs ‘Two Million Homes for Mexico’, (2007–14), which documented the extraordinary social housing initiative by former Mexican president Vicente Fox Quesada. The photos depict endless rows of housing, what Benjamin describes as ‘ubiquitous grids of ecological and social intervention on a scale and of a consequence that are difficult to grasp’. Indeed, the exhibition was at its sharpest when focused on its own Mexican context. In the light-filled spaces of the Modernist Museo Tomayo,nneighbouring the Museum of Modern Art and the Anthropological Museum, both built in the 1960s as a result of the ‘Mexican miracle’ of economic growth that began in the 1940s, and as bold statements of a nation increasingly sure of itself, I felt as if I had finally entered a stage. It is a shame this heightened sense of awareness was not played out on a more ambitious scale throughout the show.
First published in Issue 167