Fifty years ago this spring, on April 22, 1964, the New York World’s Fair opened in Flushing Meadows. Following just two years after the Century 21 Exposition, otherwise known as the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, the New York exposition served as an opportunity for corporate America to flex its collective marketing muscles and for people from all over the world to gather and contemplate a gussied-up version of the future. New technologies like the touch-dial telephone were displayed alongside a bewildering array of entertainments and distractions — everything from go-go dancers in the New Orleans Mardi Gras pavilion to the one thing that nearly all visitors to this particular world’s fair seem to remember: Belgian waffles. The fair in New York ran for two consecutive years from April until October, but after the second season in 1965, the vendors packed up and went home, and what was left of the elaborate halls and pavilions almost immediately fell into serious decay. To most New Yorkers, the ruins of the abandoned world’s fair site are relegated to a flashing glimpse through the car window on the way to or from John F. Kennedy International Airport, but for photographer Jade Doskow, this location, along with more than 50 other former world’s fair sites around the globe, has become the subject, inspiration, and muse for an ambitious project to travel to and document what is left.
Doskow was in Santa Barbara on Saturday, April 19, to show her work and to talk about the project, which she calls Lost Utopias, at a special presentation at Crista Dix’s wall space gallery in the Funk Zone. Dix, who has revolutionized the fine-art photography scene in Santa Barbara since arriving here from Seattle in 2010, has another show in the space now, something called A Little Madness in the Spring, featuring work by Aline Smithson and Amy Stevens that’s an exuberant riff on femininity and visual style, but due to her relentless pursuit of photographic excellence, she was able to lure Doskow, who was traveling to some West Coast fair sites, to stop in and explain what she’s been up to for the last seven years.
The Lost Utopias project marries the detail-oriented, highly aestheticized sensibility of a trained artist working on traditional film with a 4×5 view camera with a voracious appetite for history and a sharp understanding of cultural context. Moving rapidly through a splendid array of examples from her work, Doskow delivered what amounted to a mini-course on the history and sociology of the world’s fair movement. Beginning in the mid-19th century with the London Exposition and its legendary Crystal Pavilion, the world’s fair juggernaut reached its first apex in 1889 with the creation of the Eiffel Tower for the Paris Exposition Universelle. Ever since then, world’s fairs have been involved in a kind of contest, architecturally and otherwise, to top that most famous version. As Doskow explained to the group gathered at wall space on Saturday, perhaps the most frequent remark made concerning later structures created in these contexts has been, “Well, it’s no Eiffel Tower.”
As for the photographs, they are ravishing. Doskow takes great pains with her setups, having learned the hard way that these shoots require both remote and on-site planning to succeed. Some of the most brilliant images come from the Expo ’67 site in Montreal, which can claim the distinction of having given a home to both some of the best world’s fair art (e.g., a magnificent Alexander Calder and an early Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome) and to having given an actual home to the real people who continue to live today in what was then the modular housing of the future. This conversation, which gave an exciting look at an important project, is a great example of the way that wall space has contributed to the culture of the Funk Zone and the city.