Progressing the World Expo '88 Vision
- A non-government not-for-profit entity celebrating Brisbane's World Expo '88 -
World's Fair Vol. VIII No. 4 Fall (1988)
"Springtime in Brisbane", Alfred Heller, World's Fair Magazine
Digitised and re-published to the Foundation Expo '88 web-site with permission from the Author
The forsythia was in bloom. Spring fever had gotten under my skin, like an infection. Yet in my mind it was time for fall, not kookaburras laughingly building their nests. Hey, hormones, don’t get distracted. Remember, we’re here from a far hemisphere, where spring is fall and day is night and reporting is cool and world’s fairs are obsolete.
But it was spring and it was September, the first month of Australia’s vernal season. World Expo 88 had emerged, in the eyes of local people, as the most beautiful butterfly ever to have lit on the floodplains of South Brisbane. And who would deny it? Not I, not in that place or time, caught in the amiable, languid throngs wandering to and fro or queuing up as never before in this corner of a thinly populated continent, where kangaroos are counted in the census to pad the numbers (I’m kidding, mates). It was a season of love, and the Queenslanders were in love with their state, their gleaming capital city, in love with their entrepreneurial expo, themselves, everything except the corrupt Brisbane police department.
This was the last of the small, intense, extremely colorful, crowded expos of the 1980s. They had found definition in 1984 at New Orleans and had achieved a certain flamboyant maturity at Vancouver two years later (the Tsukuba expo of 1985 was of an earlier type: spacious and dignified, with ambitious exhibits). When the visiting Australians got a look at the Vancouver expo, they grimly set about transporting its glitter down under. They placed plaster-of-paris statues of people and wallabies in cornball poses all over their fairgrounds—a shameless adaptation of a device that worked well in British Columbia; they commissioned dozens of brightly painted, pop-flamboyant megasculptures and deposited them in empty spaces, large and small; they saw to it that dayglo signs and decor were plastered across every Esky-box pavilion; they installed doggedly good-natured sidewalk entertainers at strategic locations, and put on parades two or three times a day, with bizarre floats straight out of the New Orleans Mardi Gras; and for good measure they shipped in a bunch of “serious” sculpture from around the world—heavy, abstract, wildly inconsistent in form, size and material. If those pieces could cogitate, they’d have wondered what they were doing there. On the other hand, why shouldn’t one be able to munch fish and chips beside a Henry Moore?
There were features of original design, too. The sun-sail canopies, of course. The brilliant and copious use of neon after dark (was this a trend? Neon had not been respectable for twenty-five years). The expanse of soft, rain-repellent outdoor carpet at the River Stage, where you could sprawl and relax when the sun wasn’t too hot. There were others. I’ll think of them, give me a minute. Nobody warned me, by the way, that the sun sails would collect rain in their creases and bucket it down on innocent pedestrians. Brisbane architect James Maccormick, original promoter and conceptual designer of the fair, planned a different configuration for the stretch-fabric canopies from the one that eventually predominated—and he was not only right as rain, but would have been right in the rain.
Brisbane was putting on a world’s fair, for certain—“a great spread of countries,” in the opinion of Australia’s commissioner-general for the exposition, Sir Edward Williams. You couldn’t prove it by counting nations, though; some of the foreign “pavilions” were booths about the size of the encyclopedia concession at the California State Fair. But there was a sufficient foreign presence to suggest that the world had come here, in some part—and in five-eighths size, approximately, like Main Street at Disneyland. A bit of the globe was missing: India, for example, with a sixth of the people alive today; Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Brazil, Argentina and all the other nations of the South American continent. Except for Kenya, the African countries were absent, as were Turkey, Mexico and the countries of Eastern Europe and Scandinavia.
Among the several dozen countries present and accounted for, including the two great powers, the nations of Western Europe, the ASEANs, China and the South Pacific islands, many were content to slap up their standard traveling-tradeshow exhibits and retitle their promotional films and display panels “Leisure in the Age of Technology,” the official theme of World Expo 88. It was the first such theme that truly corresponded to what nations show of themselves at these events: films and consumer products available for export. By choosing it, the organizers bowed to the inevitable and abandoned the old practice, heretofore doggedly promoted by the Bureau of International Expositions, of asking a sovereign power to dwell on a technical theme when it was spending a small fortune to advertise itself.
With some exceptions, the exhibits were relentlessly vacuous—and small wonder, with the organizers proclaiming a “Let’s Get Physical Week,” to be followed by “Rock and Roll Week.” Canada’s film, Canada—Another Government Movie, produced by Joan Scott and directed by Derek Mazur, was the best-of-expo by a mile. The tiny Thailand Pavilion, dense with life-size mockups of people enjoying themselves at home and in their communities, was an unexpected treasure. I liked Italy’s oddball home of the future; the UK’s pleasure-dome models; Spain’s slide show in deep, rich color; Queensland’s scenic ride (at least on a par with Epcot’s Mexico Pavilion); Japan’s three-inch-tall men with Aussie accents; the films of the United Nations; an excellent live show presented by Aborigines at the Indigenous Communities of Queensland pavilion; Western Australia’s gold bars—just try to lift one; California’s aerial film tour of the state, put together by its masters of magic, George Lucas and Walt Disney; the South Pacific lagoon, with frequent native dances from the likes of Tonga, Vanuatu and the Cook Islands; the Captain Cook exhibit; the Queensland Newspapers exhibit; and IBM’s clever multiscreen film on the varieties of leisure in Australia that was never quite the same on repetition, for the images were constantly and more-or-less randomly rejuxtaposed, presumably through the good offices of an IBM machine.The Chinese hauled out ye portable display cases for yet another rendition of their schlocky, if technically competent, arts and crafts. I had first seen this exhibit in San Francisco in the 1970s; it hadn’t improved with the years.
The US effort was not highly regarded, perhaps because the Americans didn’t really address their own theme, “the science of sport,” except in presenting gadgets to analyze your golf swing and measure the speed of your baseball pitch. They did find space to display a profusion of rowing machines produced by a certain manufacturer, who presumably paid for the honor. I learned that Rathe-Campbell, the New York-based design firm responsible for finding some of the corporate support for the US Pavilion as well as building and staffing it, had fitted out many other pavilions as well.
The Soviets showed no sign of glasnost, much less perestroika, in their gloomy rendition of vacation fun in the USSR. Among the major exhibitors, the US, the USSR, China, Japan and IBM deserved high praise for not demanding that visitors view their films. You could stop to watch or pass by, as you chose.
The Fujitsu exhibit was a disaster, which is only worth mentioning because the Fujitsu Pavilion at Tsukuba had been so magnificent, the best of a grand lot. An excessively worn version of their original 3-D graphics film of the formation of the universe didn’t show well in a cramped space on a small slice of an Imax screen, in a dirty, crudely detailed pavilion staffed by bored young people.
You could sit on tiers of concrete built into the embankment of the Brisbane River and watch the Brisbane skyline across the way, the passing parade before you, the waterskiing demonstrations and the fireworks and laser beams at night. But it was hard to enjoy the Riverwalk, as it was called, because the noise there—made by a flotilla of hovercraft (really tricked-out rubber rafts) and what seemed like a squadron of helicopters, which fairgoers paid to ride in—caused leisure to be almost drowned out by the reverberations of technology. The final assault came from the high-decibel barking of the master-of-ceremonies for the waterskiing performance.
Another alarming intrusion of technology was just inside the entrance to the Germany Pavilion—a four-wheel-drive monster called a Rhino, bestride a simulated mountain stream with water trickling in it. I hoped that henceforth, if Germany had to manufacture these monsters, it would confine them to the Black Forest and not send them over to muck up my neck of the woods.
I must mention the breathtaking morning light at this fair, intensified by the colorful decor. It was a scene—a city almost too dazzling to behold. Every world’s fair has a brilliance, but none I had seen matched this. The expo also had a comfortable quality. You wanted to be there. It was leisurely. Still, after a few days of it I abandoned the fair for the kangaroos and wallabies of the bush, courtesy of Sel Nichol and his 4WD Toyota Sahara (not a Rhino, at least), operating as G’day! Australian Bush Tours, and by himself a reason to visit Brisbane.
The Australian expo finished with a surge of attendance. The final total: 15,760,447. Overseas visitors accounted for one million. The PR brigade, busy to the end, averred that enough beer was sold to fill 650 family-size swimming pools.
After the world’s fair closed down October 30, the Rev. Allan Male, president of the Queensland Churches of Christ, found a need and filled it: for local expo-addicts suffering withdrawal symptoms, an “Expo Anonymous” clearinghouse. Depending on their symptoms, callers to the EA hotline were referred to such agencies as Lifeline or Meals on Wheels.
Alfred Heller is the author of 'World’s Fairs and the End of Progress' (1999), and ran the influential quarterly guide
to World Expositions - 'World's Fair Magazine' between 1981-1995.
Visit the World's Fair web-site and order back-copies of the magazine at http://worldsfairs.com.