Onsite Update #6
Russia, Lithuania, and the Philippines
Strangest incident of the expo: being mistaken for an art installation at the Bureau of International Expositions' Pavilion. We were standing against a recessed back wall of a tiny theater watching a movie about Expo history. One by one, for nearly 15 minutes, people came in around a corner and stood in front of us, staring as if we were Madame Tussaud wax figurines. Some would look perplexed, while others started laughing. One little kid slowly came up to me, touched my arm, and then shrieked when I smiled at him.
When it comes to being goal-oriented, Russia is the living embodiment of Josh Billing's quote about ambition, that it "... is like hunger; it obeys no law but its appetite." The former empire was hungry to promote nuclear power, a ballsy move in an age where most people feel about atomic energy the way PETA feels about Big Macs. We sat on the prow of its nuclear-powered icebreaker, watching — and feeling — it plow through a vista of solid ice via a mix of real objects and video that was as perfectly coordinated as synchronized swimmers in the Olympics. Russia's real ambitions become clear through the pavilion itself, with historical photos and interactive iPad apps that boast its groundbreaking Arctic expeditions (and give Russia a more legitimate claim to the area and the vast billions worth of mineral wealth and shipping routes it will offer when its frosty covering finally melts). We were inclined to agree, after being feted with crepe-like pancakes and black tea in the pavilion's restaurant, which was designed to look like a ship's commissary, including faux portholes and steel rivets jutting out of the wall.
Our next stop was the Marine Civilizations Pavilion, which thrilled us like "Titanic." Telling the story of seafaring cultures' importance, the pavilion focused in part on the discovery of a 9th century Arab dhow in 1998. At first it seemed like this was going to be about as interesting as "Garfield" is funny: an animated movie shows Arab traders on a ship ... Yawn, I lost interest already. Isn't there something shiny to look at?
Then the film halts with the ship sinking and the movie screen flipping open into 4 sections revealing a life-size mock up of the dhow behind it. You enter through the massive gouge rocks made on the real ship's side in the film when it met its watery fate, then explore a ghost ship brought to life 12 centuries after its death. A museum's worth of china and gold dishes the ship carried are set in its stores, with videos and placards that explain how the traders packed the fragile plates in an era before bubble wrap. Scents from pots of aromatic spices the actual ship carried (including nutmeg, star anise, and cumin seed) curl through the air. The scents chosen were limited to those considered rare in Korea, and thus likely to draw more attention than other common ones might.
Not far from the Marine Civilizations Pavilion, a smallish corporate exhibit proved you don't need the annual budget of the United Arab Emirates to communicate what your company is about. A Korean version of Google, Naver has a messaging app that's used by 35 million people in 21 countries. To give a tangible idea of what the digital tool does — it delivers info from point A to point B, anywhere in the world — the company built an exhibit that took the abstract and made it real. Looking like a generic brown shipping box turned on its side, its open flaps became the exhibit's entrance. Naver continued the theme inside with cardboard books, shelves, stereo speakers, furniture, and more that delivered the message faster and better than FedEx ever could.
Anyone who's seen "Terminator" knows it's just a matter of time before we have to welcome our robot overlords. Daewoo's Marine Robot Pavilion made this inevitability seem even closer with a series of mechanical men. But the various displays tend to show robots more as protectors and companions than predators, — no surprise in a country where robots currently teach English and guard prisons. Gleaming silver fish in one large tank slip and slide through the H2O as if they were made of flesh and scales instead of metal and microchips. These Terminator trout will be employed in undersea exploration using technology that mimics nature at its fishiest. But the most telling “Sayanara, Humanity!” moment is a simple game of soccer. Played on a roughly 6-by-10-foot field, six humanoid robots stand 18 inches tall and stomp after a small ball, their eyes glowing stoplight-green as they search the field for it. They trip and knock each other down, but right themselves immediately, entertaining onlookers while an announcer calls the game like Bob Costas during an Olympic wrestling match. At least these bionic Beckhams didn't ask anyone where Sarah Conner was.
Every day at Expo 2012, you see wonders that would make a Roman emperor feel like the lowliest barbarian in the worst salt mine in his kingdom. In Lithuania's pavilion, the walls, floor, and ceiling glowed in amber tones to highlight the mineral that was the focus of their effort. Black steel tubes shot up from the floor like polished stalagmites, their silver tips contained chunks of amber older than T. Rexes.
About 20 floor tiles — rectangular slabs that were trimmed with steel and lit from underneath — were imprinted with photos of ancient life perfectly fossilized in the resin: plants, flies, and spiders with their limbs wrapped about their prey like nature's 3-D photographs. A column built near one corner displayed jewelry made of amber from the Stone Age to the Jazz Age to the Disco Era to Grunge. Overhead, a metallic, golden ceiling reflected the intense shade like an amber sun. And that's when it hits you: the whole pavilion was designed to encase you in an amber universe just as those Cretaceous insects were in a world lost long, long ago.
From a distance, the circular motif on the Philippine Pavilion’s exterior resembles the dappled skin of the island-nation’s giant whale shark. Closer up, however, the design transforms into a trellis of wrought iron that symbolizes the country’s vast coral reefs. The theme continued inside the pavilion, with four glowing “coral pods” hanging from the ceiling like upside-down champagne flutes. Wrapped in lace-like wrought iron, the pods cycle through shades of red, white, blue, and purple light. Underneath each pod sits a pool of sand taken from Philippines’ beaches, ranging from white grains soft as talc to black ones as coarse as pepper.
Packing an 8.8-million-square-foot 12th century temple complex into a modest pavilion isn’t easy, but Cambodia did it with counterfeit stonework that transported the essence of Angkor Wat to Expo 2012. Made of a polyfoam, the mock masonry of the entrance ways, arches, and walls looked as if it had been weathered for 900 years instead of just a few months. While the air rang with the manic notes of gongs, cymbals, and xylophones that make up traditional Cambodian music, craftsmen carved sandstone elephants using a process that takes 2.5 months and employs millennium-old techniques that nearly became extinct just 30 years ago.
Saying goodbye to a world’s fair is a little like saying goodbye to Mickey Mouse as you exit Disney World on the last day of your vacation. It’s a magical place where every day holds at least a week’s worth of unforgettable experiences. So it’s with a heavy heart and blistered feet that we say goodbye to Expo 2012 and the host city of Yeosu, South Korea. We hope to see all our expo friends again in Milan for Expo 2015. Until then, stay tuned to our microsite for additional Expo 2012 coverage, and be on the lookout for the winners of our Expo 2012 Awards competition, which will be profiled in an upcoming issue of EXHIBITOR magazine.
Charles Pappas, senior writer