Onsite Update #3
Singapore, Denmark, and the Netherlands
You never know what to expect at a world expo. Some pavilions look like a Pier One, while others make better use of space than Martha Stewart on amphetamines. Take Colombia, for example. Located with other small countries in a pavilion for nations near the Atlantic Ocean, the country eschewed the blasé travel posters that seemed to wallpaper most of the small spaces. Instead, Colombia featured an export Koreans appeared to like more than kimchi: Shakira. Placing an 8-by-10-foot video screen near the pavilion’s entrance, Colombia played recordings of the two-time Grammy winner performing "Hips Don't Lie," clad in leopard skins and not much else above. The Colombian superstar drew a crowd none of the nearly 30 other pavilions in the Atlantic Ocean Pavilion matched — and practically throwing the Earth off its axis with her undulations.
The exteriors of many pavilions at Expo 2012 resemble a billboard — multicolored, oversized, static images you can see a miles away (which, at Expo 2010 in Shanghai, was not a geographical exaggeration). But Singapore found a way to make the exterior of its pavilion stand out and literally come alive. Built into the outside of the pavilion facing a heavily trafficked path, giant room-like cubes featured dancers made up like futuristic, life-size ballerina dolls. They may not have jiggled like Shakira, but their slow sinewy contortions drew crowds that would have otherwise ignored a 2-D exterior.
Inside the Singapore Pavilion, visitors are invited to participate in a “water harvesting” activity. To begin, participants write their hopes for the future or reactions to the pavilion on pieces of Korean paper called hanji. A staffer then embosses the paper and stamps it with red ink. Attendees take their notes to any spot along a red-lit hallway where the walls are lined with what look like fabric gills, catching and collecting drops of water produced from above. Attendees use their hanji to “catch” a drop on its way from one gill to another, at which point the water mixes with the red ink on their paper, creating a burst of crimson. Visitors then hang their hanji notes on a “wishing wall” at the pavilion’s exit. The entire activity is meant to reinforce the concept that every drop of water counts, and that both collectively and individually, we can make a difference.
Argentina was awash in a sea of blue, with light blue bands on the walls, floor, and ceiling giving it the look of cerulean tiger's hide. Yet we were blue over the lack of any content, other than a few informational videos running on the side and back walls. The Great Plains of a main floor should have been used for its version of "Argentine Bandstand," with dancers giving Koreans a taste of the dance that's so effective in treating and physical problems, it even has its own conference now — the International Tango Therapy Congress. (See, there's a trade show for everything.) Extolling the dance known as "vertical sex" would have been classier than the Democratic Republic of the Congo's picture of chimps engaged in primate passion.
Why a nation would display hot chimp-on-chimp action wasn't quite as perplexing as France's pavilion, though. The exterior was covered with silicate-filled hourglasses slowly rotating. It was arresting, to be sure, but had no discernible purpose or tie-in to the expo's theme of "The Living Ocean and Coast.” On the inside, France created an updated Hall of Mirrors that Louis the Sun King would have been dazzled by. Polygon-shaped mirrors covered the walls and ceiling. Three rectangular aquariums, about the size of washing machines, held miniature monuments, including the Arc de Triumph and the Eiffel Tower. The Gallic icons were submerged in water and surround by dozens of robotic fish flashing like disco balls. The mechanical life got a little more interesting in the pavilion's last room, where eight large mechanical butterflies attached to the ceiling flapped their wings while a robot band played for attendees.
Italy, Italy, you were so "Ciao Bella" in 2010, but the thrill is gone, baby. The disappointing pavilion featured little more than cursory placards, informational videos on the country's maritime history, and a (we guess) re-purposed movie voiced-over in English (not even subtitled in Korean) about Italian style, fashion, fabrics, and more pastas than you can shake Chef Boy-R-Dee. After the country’s transparent-concrete pavilion at Expo 2010 in Shanghai, it felt like we caught Ana Wintour shopping for clothes at Goodwill. The country redeemed itself a little with a vapor projection screen where an insistent but insubstantial Columbus beckons you into a room, which you enter by walking through the in corporeal body of the "Admiral of the Ocean Blue."
Denmark found a way to put it together -literally. For Expo 2010, the Scandinavian country shipped over the beloved Little Mermaid statue to an appreciative Chinese audience that has long favored Hans Christian Andersen's tales. For this year's expo, it sent over another staple of Danish culture probably as loved and possibly better known: Legos. Riffing on the Expo 2012 theme of “The Living Ocean and Coast,” Denmark invited attendees to “Ride the Wave of Creativity,” and reminded them that “to learn, we must play, explore, participate and stimulate.” The star of the pavilion was a tidal-wave-shaped structure made of 685,000 Legos, which visitors could add to by grabbing from a pile of thousands of blue and white pieces. The pavilion also let kids create their own Lego contraptions. A series of miniature wind turbines allowed you to see how making Green energy is as simple as putting Legos together. Plant your feet in steps painted on the floor, then blow gently on the windmill-like structures, and they begin to spin like Dervishes.
Israel's "Sea of Inspiration" pavilion didn't quite live up to its theme of nautical epiphany, but it had a few moments of ingenuity. Twenty 25-foot-tall fabric tubes swayed like sea anemones, color-washed by lights shading them red and blue and painting them with bubbles and geometric designs.
The Netherlands knows water like the Kardashians know cheap publicity. After all, 60 percent of the country is below sea level, and the Dutch have been building dikes to hold off floods for 400 years. So maybe it's no surprise they found a way to cross the ocean between their culture and the Koreans' not with dry statistics about water but with stories about people. Visitors enter a room dedicated to a historical character 95 percent of Koreans recognize: Hendrick Hamel. A 17th century trader shipwrecked in Korea, he inadvertently became the first "bridge" between the two countries and, in the process, became as beloved a figure to the Koreans as George Washington is to us.
A replica of his journal — a symbol deeply associated with the trader/explorer — greets attendees while the room itself is surrounded with information highlighting the era he thrived in. But it you were expecting the standard vanilla facts and figures on posters or a 12-year-long Ken Burns-style documentary, you would be mistaken. Instead, the Dutch used 90 replicas of the era's paintings to breathe life back into a character Koreans know only through textbooks. Rembrandts, Vermeers, Hals, and other masterworks from The Netherlands' golden age covered the walls, their depictions of taverns, marriages, and shopkeepers connecting with visitors in a visceral way. (Even the five monitors running historical info were set in frames appropriate for "The Girl with the Pearl Earring.")
Next, attendees moved into a room with projection screens spread over the floor, as if a giant map had been pulled open under them. (Even the floor was uneven, making you feel as if you were trying to balance on the asymmetrical plane of a massive unfolded map.) A movie ran on the screens, recounting The Netherlands' love/hate affair with water and how necessary it is to control and sustain it — just as Hamel, in his own way, had to master the waters of the world to forge a link with the Korean people.
But a highlight of our visit to the pavilion may have more to do with weirdness rather than water. A reporter for KBS (Korea's biggest television network) approached Travis and in a voice that dogs could hear a mile away demanded to know "Are you married?" I don't want to give away what happened next, but Travis will let you know where he's registered.
Inspired by a 16th century palace located in the fabled Casbah, the Algerian pavilion offered a series of horseshoe arches, perhaps the most visual emblem of Islamic architecture. Bracketing displays on the North African country’s economy and history, the arches are themselves surrounded by hundreds of blue and white tiles, done in the arabesque style of a complex and repeating geometric form. Mimicking Algeria’s north/south orientation to the Mediterranean and the Sahara, respectively, the pavilion’s northern end looks out on a terrace where a sea-themed film entertains viewers. Its southern point’s floor, meanwhile, is layered with sand, suggesting a vast desert that lay beyond.
Meanwhile, frankincense perfumes the air in Oman’s pavilion, where replicas of traditional sailing ships attest to centuries of creating and preserving marine wealth along its 1,800 miles of coastline. While traditional sunshades made of date palm fronds, known as Al Areesh, cool the air, touchscreen displays walk visitors through case studies of how villages use traditional Omani law to settle modern ecological disputes. In the 44-seat, 4-D theater, attendees jet through massive thunderstorms and swim with predatory sharks in seats that buck and bounce frenetically, accompanied by mists of water and blasts of air.
But there are plenty more pavilions to see, and we plan to tour them all. So stay tuned for our next onsite update later this week, featuring more Expo 2012 highlights.
Charles Pappas, senior writer