By Pierre Dessureault
At Expo 67, a huge celebration of human progress and great festival of the image in all of its technological and expressive possibilities, the Christian Pavilion designed by Charles Gagnon offered a counterpoint to the event’s sea of triumphant optimism. This small pavilion, conceived by its designer as a multimedia photography and film installation, portrayed a tortured world living in the fear – very real at the time – that an atomic mushroom cloud would annihilate the planet.
The pavilion,1 produced through the collaboration of eight Christian churches, stepped away from conventional representations of religions to offer an immersive journey divided into three zones that defined different stages in the visitor’s path. The first was a space filled with more than three hundred photographs reflecting “all aspects of daily life, good or bad, interesting or banal.”2 They were spread out in a vast dark space, arranged on cubic metallic shapes and covering the walls to offer a decentred vision of the state of the world.
The photographs displayed were high-quality documents making use of the descriptive capacities of the medium to present situations in which truth wins out over artifice. “Most of the photographs exhibited in the pavilion,” Gagnon tells us, “were obtained from the Magnum and Black Star photo agencies in the United States and included images by well-known photographers such as Cornell Capa, Robert Capa, Helen Levitt, and Bruce Davidson.”3 Added to this list of photographers, notably, were David Seymour, Robert Frank, and Canadian John Max. The pictures in this zone brought focus to the humanist gaze and belonged to a time when the belief in the power of images was still intact – when the truth of the representation and the credibility and authenticity of the photographic document were incontestable.
The open structure created by Gagnon invited spectators to see the photographs from the different points of view in the environment as they made their own way along the path defined by the exhibition layout. Free to move in front of and around the images, free to contemplate and enter dialogue, both physical and intellectual, with them, visitors wove connections among them that changed as their gaze wandered, transposing them into a space that became subjective depending on their own experience of the world…
Translated by Käthe Roth
2 Rapport général sur l’exposition universelle de 1967, vol. 1 (Ottawa: Imprimeur de la Reine pour le Canada, 1969), 492. General Report on the 1967 World Exhibition, vol. 1 (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1969)
3 Gagnon, “Christian Pavilion,” 148–49.