I’ve been trying to calculate when I last visited the city. It may have been 14 years ago, writing the first Milan Time Out Guide. Clearly that experience left me with no great desire to return, because as far as I can remember, I haven’t. I distinctly recall something glum and un-charming. What I found this time, however, was a city which looked well run and competently maintained, with patches of flourishing green and a neat, sophisticated look to it.
This impression may have something to do with the fact that most milanesi are still on holiday, so the streets are devoid of infuriating crowds and alienating traffic. And it may be a result of the inevitable comparison with squalid, angry, don’t-give-a-damn Rome, which looks like it has been lacking administration of any kind for decades and is peopled by thronging malcontents. But there’s no denying that central Milan is a not-unpleasant place to pass some time; and its cultural offerings (of which more later) are – at the moment – excellent.
But to return to the main reason for our visit: Expo. If the word doesn’t conjure up Victoria and Albert leading a pack of royal offspring around the Crystal Palace to view great technological steps forward, then it must summon visions of one huge trade jamboree with lashings of nationalistic tub-thumping. Some (very few) pavilions in Milan managed to use their space to do something more. But on the whole, the offerings ranged from a rather bemused ‘what do we do with this?’ to execrable self-satisfaction and/or absolute minimum effort.
I should start by saying that even on a drear Monday with most of Milan’s native population on a beach somewhere, the whole area in the city’s northern suburbs was heaving. We had press passes and annoyed the masses by entering without queuing. But still we saw maybe one-tenth of the pavilions: people who stood in snaking lines can’t possibly have done more than three or at most four spaces over a day, spending the greater part of their Expo experience waiting impatiently amid hordes of noisily bored children and their grumpy parents.
On the positive side, the site was well laid out, with its wide and covered Decumanus main drag and lots of fizzy water dispensers dotted here and there. The greenery was mainly fresh looking, and well watered and tended (as a rule, Italians plant liberally then fail to notice that what they have stuck in the ground is rapidly dying). Many of the national pavilions were worth seeing (from the outside) merely for their design which was meant – according to the Expo mandate – to be sustainable and dismantle-able.
Pavilions that intrigued us included Brazil with its huge net suspended above a display of key crop plants; Austria which turned its space inside out, building an exterior inside its walls where solar power was used to create condensation that was funneled into a conditioning system that cooled and oxygenated; Angola which was a riot of agricultural information with stunning straw-and-cork beehives, interviews with fascinating women playing on loops and the startling information that 43% of all Angolan MPs are female (shame on us); Israel which produced a rare really successful green wall (we didn’t go inside); Iran for no particular reason other than that I like Iran at the moment and a couple of inebriating damascene roses were still in flower there; France (I had more time for this one than L did) for its neat vegetable garden beds out front, its chunky wooden structure and its riot of food-product-colours.
Padiglione Zero – a collaboration between the Expo organisers and the UN, I think – took an interesting look at food production around the world inside a series of gracious wooden beehives? trulli? silos?
But other pavilions were half-hearted nods to the sustainability theme en route to over-priced shop and/or restaurant: self-congratulatory retail opportunities. This was particularly true in the ‘clusters’ (soon re-baptised by us as ‘clusterfucks’) in which poorer or less enthusiastic nations could flog their main produce: the coffee CF, the rice CF, the fruit&veg CF, the chocolate CF, the spice CF. (It was in one of these that we came across the execrable Laos stand, with a sight at the door – pictured here – which stopped us in our tracks: we didn’t go inside.)
But it also applied, for example, to the UK pavilion where a really original bit of architectural fancy and some nice planting outside failed to hide the fact that (1) a country which has lifted the EU ban on bee-killing neonic pesticides was singing hypocritical praises of bees and (2) a few desultory panels lauding the innovative British ‘food’ industry (which dreams up 16,000 new products a year, apparently) failed to mention that most of these products are industrially manipulated goods with little real food content in them at all. I really didn’t like that one.
Other Milan highlights? How often do you go to four(-plus) really good exhibitions in the space of two half days? My feet are tired and my bumpkin-brain is reeling slightly.
At the Fondazione Prada we caught up on the second half of the Serial/ Portable Classic show that we saw in Venice in spring: some beautiful pieces of classical statuary intelligently displayed to show how reproduction is as old as time. But the whole of this marvellous Rem Koolhaas/OMA repurposing of an industrial area was fascinating and challenging. There was a Louise Bourgois installation (I still don’t quite get her) and a gynecologist’s surgery in a tank full of fish courtesy of Damien Hirst. The bar designed by Wes Anderson is delightful (with excellent ice cream).
We had to run to get through Arts & Food at the Triennale but it was worth it, especially the first of the four sections which is a more distant-historical take on art and applied art pertaining to food consumption. The remaining sections bring it all up to date and project it into the future. There’s much here to ponder and question and just reminisce over – which is rather disturbing because as we moved through the years so many of the items which were being presented as things from the past – from sweetly comical to iconic – were very familiar household features in my childhood, and later.
That was on Monday. Tuesday was Expo. Wednesday morning was another flying visit, to the Mito & Natura and Grande Madre shows, both at the Palazzo Reale.
In the former was a collection of incredibly old things. Banal, I know, but many of the spectacular painted earthenware objects, many of them remarkably whole, were from the sixth-fourth centuries BC and quite quite beautiful. An initial suspicion that all curators had done was put together any vase with a fish or a tree on that museums were willing to relinquish was laid to rest further into the show as the diver from Paestum and – even more winning – the garden frescoes from the House of the Golden Bracelet in Pompeii appeared. This latter in particular is so fresh and cool: a fine rival to the frescoes from Livia’s house now in the Palazzo Massimo in Rome – such detail, with more or less each plant instantly recognisable.
This left little time for La Grande Madre, but it was sufficent to confirm for me the curatorial brilliance of Massimiliano Gioni. His 2013 Venice Biennale was the most stimulating I have ever seen. Here he takes the image of woman and maternity and explores it in ways which are perplexing and demanding and shocking and amusing. His shows take you so far beyond approaches such as ‘what I like and what I don’t’ or ‘historically fascinating’, to a place where you feel you’re being pushed into a different kind of questing and questioning. It’s hard to explain, and utterly unique.
Heading home now after a brief Florentine stopover, I’d be happy to see no more alcohol or gourmet food (beyond what we produce for ourselves) for quite some time. I’m still pondering the rather wonderful sign that appears on the illuminated signs in Milan underground stations. The technology may be new(ish) but the language is oddly 19th century: a treno completo non insistere nel voler salire – the train being full, don’t persist in wishing to board.
Down in the valley at Po’ Bandino there’s a huge hangar of a hardware shop I like to frequent. Run by two middle aged men who may or may not be related but who are united in a shroud of moroseness which dissolves into gently muted enthusiasm at any slightly difficult request regarding DIY challenges, its best feature of all is the Old Bloke. He is definitely the father of the taller stooped man at the counter (a cyclist perhaps? he’s whippet thin and has that hungry, ready to break out of the blocks look about him which L is now developing).
The Old Bloke sits an aisle back from the counter but with a clear view of the (in)action, in a white plastic garden chair. If there’s a queue at the till, he’ll summon you over and ask very kindly what it is you’re looking for. When you tell him, whatever it is, he shakes his head jovially as if it’s totally beyond him but he has no problem with that at all.
“Ooooh, I’m not sure about that. You’d better ask the ragazzi,” he says, and after a few words about screwdrivers or weather you go back to the line at the counter.
Last week, the line consisted of me behind a short but wide elderly couple with a troublesome bolt from a door. A garage or shed door, I’d say.
“It hasn’t really worked for the last 15 years,” said the wife, specifying “more or less.”
“But it would be a shame to throw it away,” her husband chipped in.
The sensible thing for the cyclist-like man behind the counter to do at this point would have been to sell them a new one, but they just wanted a new barrel, not a new lock. So out came the screwdriver and the dissection began. Right from the start he told them that barrels were different sizes from what they used to be. But this couple didn’t want to part company with their lock.
As I stood there, trying not to tutt or tap my feet, he painstakingly took the lock to pieces, then equally painstakingly reassembled it with a bright new barrel, just in order to show them that it wouldn’t work. And it didn’t, of course. Consternation. They really didn’t want to waste a perfectly good lock. With infinite patience, he dismantled it, replaced the non-functioning ancient barrel, put the whole thing back together again and gave it to them. By this time I was transfixed. And Old Bloke was ecstatic.
“Isn’t he good with his hands!” he observed to no one in particular. “E’ una meraviglia!”