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Shanghai Expo pavilions showcase nations

What does a pavilion say about your country?

Thomas Heatherwick, designer of the British pavilion at Shanghai’s Expo 2010, figured that foreign visitors would expect Britain to conjure images of “bowler hats, black taxis and rain.” Instead, he gave them an extraordinary objet d’art ( “a building which is an exhibit, or an exhibit which is a building,” as he calls it) that resembles a giant dandelion head with thousands of seeds embedded in 60,000 acrylic rods that sway in the breeze.

“I didn’t want to use the same cliches. Modern U.K. has gotten stuck in the way it communicates with the outside world,” said the 40-year-old artist as he inspected his handiwork a few days before the opening.

The expo, which opened May 1 for a six-month run, is an opportunity for 190 countries to strut their stuff. In pavilions spread over 1,300 acres, there is something for everyone, from the avant-garde to socialist kitsch. Think the Guggenheim meets Disneyland and you’ll have a sense of the range of expression contained within the expo’s grounds.

There is high art — the French have brought in works by Manet, Cezanne and Rodin, among others — and low. Inside the Chinese pavilion are video games and 3-D films with spiders and tigers that seem to jump off the screen.

Some pavilions are fun and fanciful. The Netherlands, for example, has visitors strolling along “Happy Street,” an elevated walkway covered with orange umbrellas.

Others convey their earnestness with weighty themes. The Swiss pavilion, with an exterior curtain of soy bean fiber, advertises itself as promoting “the Great Harmony of City and Nature.”

The United States is doing what it does best: a big Hollywood production. Its pavilion, which is in fact a multiplex cinema, features a 4-D spectacle complete with large screens, wind, rain and rumbling seats that create a “rock-concert effect at the height of the show,” said Greg Lombardo, who designed the exhibit.

All that and a serious message too “that America is a place that is innovative and diverse.” The pavilion also showcases another American trait, friendliness, making use of 160 Mandarin-speaking college students who were recruited by USC and are assigned to chat with Chinese visitors.

If you think gastronomy when it comes to France, you’d be right; the French pavilion is a paean to the national cuisine. The centerpiece of the pavilion is a huge demonstration kitchen that can be viewed by the public, as well as a restaurant with a menu created by Michelin-rated chefs.

The Pakistanis built a replica of a 16th century fort in the city of Lahore. Afghanistan reconstructed a version of the Blue Mosque of Herat, with its intricate tile work. Denmark shipped its most famous sculpture, “The Little Mermaid” — not a replica, but the real thing — outside the country for the first time.

The Chinese government encouraged as many countries as possible to take part in the expo, even if it meant it had to advance the cash for some of the more impecunious (such as North Korea) to build their pavilions. It also means that it is hosting international pariahs often excluded from the guest list at such events, including Cuba, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Myanmar.

The participating countries were assigned plots of land by the expo authority but given great latitude as to what kind of pavilion they constructed, although it was understood that nobody should build higher than the 200-foot-tall imperial red gate of the Chinese pavilion dominating the expo site.

The countries had to figure out how to advertise themselves (“the brief was to puff out your chest as much as possible,” is how Heatherwick described it) and to strike the right balance between aesthetic and commercial interests. The expo is, after all, part trade show and, as this is China’s first world’s fair, it was thought a unique opportunity to market national brands to 1.3 billion potential customers. The U.S. pavilion was entirely funded by corporate sponsors because of congressional restrictions on public funding, explaining the very visible Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in an annex behind the building.

“When you are raising money from companies, you have to give them an opportunity to have a presence, but we think it was done in a tasteful way,” said Martin Alintuck, director of communications for the pavilion.

As a unifying theme, the expo uses the slogan “Better Life, Better City,” but it was left to the countries to interpret at will. The Czech pavilion features on its facade a map of Prague made of 63,415 hockey pucks.

The South Koreans decided that “cities are all about communications,” as spokesman Kim Jae-san explained, so they designed their pavilion as an homage to their own alphabet, invented in the 15th century to bring literacy to the masses. Korean letters cover almost every interior and exterior surface of the pavilion in colorful rubber mosaics, similar to the mats used in a kindergarten.

The North Korean pavilion offers a less-colorful image. A video presentation includes graphic black-and-white footage of North Korea being bombed by the United States during the 1950-53 Korean War, as well as shots of a purportedly typical North Korean apartment decorated with plastic flowers and furnished with sofas covered in lace doilies. There is a model of the Juche tower, a Pyongyang monument celebrating North Korea’s ideology of self-sufficiency, but strangely no images of founder Kim Il Sung or his son, current leader Kim Jong Il, except in the videos.

Next to North Korea’s exhibit (and giving rise to the unfortunate nickname “Axis of Evil Square”) is the Iranian pavilion, which is designed like a traditional Middle Eastern bazaar, complete with actual carpet vendors.

And yes, inside the Cuban pavilion there are cigars for sale.

barbara.demick@latimes.com


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