Onsite Update #5
Australia, USA, and Spain
Almost 50 years ago, Michelangelo's "Pieta" made a tsunami-size splash at the New York World's Fair in 1964. Bathed in a stark-white light against a blue backdrop and protected by seven bullet-proof Plexiglas shields, the masterpiece by the genius sculptor and painter held the 27 million who saw it in reverent awe while standing on a conveyor belt. I know because I was there.
Tonight I felt that same rush again at Australia's pavilion. The continent/nation wasn't going to compete with its pavilion in Shanghai that virtually replicated the massive and mysterious Ayers Rock from down under. This time around, it positioned two abstract sculptures in its pavilion. Made of stainless steel and covered in acrylic, the 12-meter-long sculptures weighed almost 1,500 pounds each. But they were much more than mere metal the way "The Girl with the Pearl Earring" is much more than mere paint. Placed in a darkened room, they become Rorschach tests for visitors who saw in them a whale's tail, seagulls, or even moose antlers and other ink-blotty interpretations. Travis thought they resembled two fish, while our guide said many believe the sculpture represents a wave.
Whatever the artist intended the structures to resemble, immersive projection mapping paints them with 6.5 minutes of epic imagery, including the Aboriginal concept of the sky gods. It was as hypnotic as the sound of the didgeridoo and rendered Australia as so much more than a place to toss another shrimp on the barbie.
In the Japan Pavilion, a comparably tame presentation features a boy who searches for his bike — and much of his village — following the 2004 tsunami. The story unfolds in the anime style of dinner-plate-size eyes and thick lines derived from the broad strokes of calligraphy brushes. As the young boy wanders through Mother Nature's wasteland, giant storybook pages appear to flip as if the entire screen is a massive, bound fairytale. Then the action spills into the surrounding real-life footage on the screen beyond the book's margins, letting cartoon and cinema verite merge with climate catastrophe in a melancholy fable.
The Japanese pavilion was jammed as were so many of it's Asian counterparts. They could all have taken a lesson from Singapore, who used a unique form of crowd control: Instead of staffers with clipboards, the pavilion uses dancers encased head to toe in a white body stockings who beckon you forward without saying a word — like Marcel Marceau with a mix of hip-hop, classical ballet, and traditional Singapore dance moves.
The way a country approaches its pavilion tells you something about the country itself. Germany permits no private money to be used, while the United States allows no public funds to be allocated. But private funds didn't mean the US wouldn't offer a little government-issued diplomacy. President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and Jacque Cousteau's grandkid expressed their concern over our imperiled 90,000 miles of coastline, while a second movie film featured a flurry of our fellow citizens exclaiming "This is my ocean," which was meant to express our eco-friendliness as well as our ethnic diversity. Roughly 12,000 attendees view the USA Pavilion’s presentation every day, representing about 23 percent of Expo 2012 attendees.
The pavilion’s real strength, however, isn't its cinematic efforts but its staff of 40 bilingual American students chosen to interact with the crowds. Immensely popular at the Shanghai expo, due to their charming approachability and impressive language skills, the students were just as strong an attendee magnet in Yeosu. In addition to staffing the pavilion, these students are part of something only a very few other countries attempt: outreach programs that, in effect, bring the pavilion to preschoolers and North Korean defectors as well as volunteers at beach clean-ups.
Looking like a great white shark ripping through the water, the Theme Pavilion seems more biological than building. Its exterior skin modeled after lamellas, the thin membrane that helps form layers of bone, the building was constructed from glass-fiber-reinforced polymers, creating the scale-like “skin” that can be animated to suggest a lunging predator. Inside, forests of faux seaweed and fake kelp blanketed the ceiling in its three theaters, where child-focused video presentations ran from the dystopian to the delightful. In one, a young boy almost expires in an ocean befouled by industrial waste before magically reviving. In another film, an anthropomorphized sea lion interacts live with audience members. When the encounter ends, a plushy life-size version of the ocean-faring seal descends from the ceiling amidst a cumulous cloud of ocean-blue light and smoke.
For only the second time in world’s fairs’ 161-year history, an expo dedicated a “best practices” area related to the show’s official theme. While Expo 2010 in Shanghai furnished such a section for its “Better City, Better Life” motif, Expo 2012 supplied one dedicated to “The Living Ocean and Coast.” Employing standard wall projections, touchscreens, and static displays to highlight the best sea-saving approaches, the pavilion also used a playful mix of the experiential and theatrical. Attendees could experience the vast range of ocean temps by placing their hands on surfaces that ran from a polar 28 degrees Fahrenheit to a perspiring 86 degrees Fahrenheit. In another demo, visitors endured the crushing pressures of the deep by slipping their arms down a padded tube that hugged their appendages with force equal to depths of several hundred feet. Meanwhile, a display with eerie echoes of “Alien” featured extremophiles – grotesque spidery creatures who live in the murk and muck at the bottom of the sea.
Sometimes when you travel, the menu consists of two choices: take it or leave it. We could happily leave Dunkin' Donuts, Baskin-Robbins, and something called Angel-in-us-Coffee here for more international flavors. One night we dined at Elena, an ostensibly Thai restaurant whose menu of grilled steak and sweet-potato salad made us suspect it wasn't exactly from the same cookbook as pad thai. Another night, we supped at Italy's cafe, scarfing down lasagna and penne arrabiata, along with wine to celebrate our progress. Still another night, we devoured tapas in the Spain Pavilion (which is a must-see among the country pavilions), sipping sangria as we discussed the day.
Tonight we chose the Peru pavilion's restaurant. In a setting designed to look like you're inside a great ocean wave, we dined on ceviche and spiced chicken, eased down by Pisco sours — and all served on a bar where a replica of a giant squid is encased in an acrylic block. Its headlight-sized eye watches you as if it would prefer that you be dinner than have dinner. We needed the sustenance, especially after seeing Sri Lanka's exhibit that depicted the Buddha after his famous seven-week bout of meditation where he neither ate nor drank before achieving enlightenment. Most historical representations of this show a lean and lanky Buddha. But this one depicted him so starved that you could have made a Halloween skeleton costume from his ribs.
Closing out the night, we thought we'd take in the so-called Big O show (the main thematic presentation of Expo 2012) along with what we guesstimate to be 20,000 others curious to see the Ferris Wheel-like structure protruding from the sea. More than 100 feet high, the Big-O is the largest water screen in the world, on which lasers and other lighting effects produce surreal images.
The show began with a pre-show featuring what seemed to Wooden Soldiers, Superman, some mice, and Obi Wan Kenobi floating around magically on the water while the Fat Lady from opera sang. The oddly enchanting pre-show took place atop a submersible stage that raises and lowers. For the most part, the performers slosh around atop the stage in roughly a foot of seawater. Then the second pre-show began, a demo of the water fountains. At this point, roughly an hour after we had first settled in for the Big-O, we were concerned the show might be dullsville. But the cascade of water moving like Cirque du Soleil acrobats made the Bellagio fountains look like a kid with a bottle if Coke and a box of Mentos.
Finally, we'd had enough of the foreplay; the Big-O show started up. There were projections of demons and whales, balls of fire, and neon-orange tentacles hundreds of feet long that seemed to catapult out of the ocean. I know three people who could explain it, but L, S, and D aren't answering their phones.
While our epic Expo adventure is almost over, we still have a few pavilions left to visit. So stay tuned for the conclusion of our onsite coverage, as our final update will post to the microsite next week.
Charles Pappas, senior writer