Simple is Hard to Do: Some Thoughts on Shanghai Expo 2010

An article by guest writer Low Sze Wee. Refer to “About the Writer” at the end of the post.

In June, despite media reports of huge crowds and long queues, I decided to spend two days with a friend to visit the much-anticipated and talked-about Shanghai Expo. Much of the hype turned out to be true. The mass media reported daily on the latest Expo attractions. Virtually all the major shopping malls and hotels in town had Expo information booths, manned by eager volunteers handing out tips and maps. There were plenty of vendors (both legal and illegal) selling all sorts of Expo-related merchandise including the ubiquitous blue Expo mascot Haibao (literally translated as Sea Treasure). And it was obvious that the Expo had been overwhelmingly embraced by the local Chinese. An hour before the Expo opened at nine in the morning, queues had already formed at the main train station leading to the site. Many local families were determined to spend the entire day at the Expo, in order to make the best use of their single-entry day tickets. Queues, sometimes stretching for as long as four hours, were therefore, common for the more popular pavilions such as China, Japan, Italy and Germany.  And visitors were prepared for long waits, with many bringing along umbrellas and even small portable folding stools with them on their outing!

On our first day at the Expo, we made sure that we were amongst the first to arrive in the morning and headed straight for the much-publicised Italy pavilion. This meant that our queue was a relatively painless 15 minutes. However, for the rest of the day, we gave the popular pavilions a miss as we were not keen to stand in the sun for few hours just to get into them. Hence, we took our time to have a leisurely stroll around the extensive grounds to admire the unusual pavilion architecture, check out the various free performances in the public areas, and occasionally drop into the smaller pavilions (such as those from South America, Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia) that were not so popular and hence, less crowded.

For our second day, we changed our tactic and instead, visited the Expo in the evening. This turned out to be a wise choice. The weather was cooler and many of the pavilions looked even more stunning with special lighting effects at night. More importantly,  the crowds were noticeably thinner and we were able to visit some popular pavilions such as those from United Kingdom (UK), Australia and Morocco without queueing! However, we were still not able to visit the China pavilion. To visit the latter, a reservation pass (separate from the Expo admission ticket) was needed and all passes had been given out for that day. The friendly volunteer advised us to either turn up early the next morning to queue for a pass or join a local organised group tour with access to group passes. Unfortunately, as we had already made plans for the next day, we had to sadly give the China pavilion a miss. However, we consoled ourselves with the knowledge  that we could still visit the pavilion in the future as there were plans to preserve it after the Expo ended.

Sze Wee outside the China pavilion

China pavilion at night

Upon our return to Singapore, friends and family asked for our favourite pavilions. For me, some pavilions were truly outstanding for the simple reason that they achieved what they had set out to do. The Expo is a high-profile  platform for countries to project themselves internationally. This year, the Expo is especially prominent because its primary audience (that is, the Chinese themselves) is increasingly regarded as a market that the rest of the world cannot ignore. In the years to come, the Chinese will form one of the world’s largest consumers of goods and services. The Expo, being held in China this year, represents an unparalleled opportunity for the various national pavilions to create positive impressions and greater awareness of what each country has to offer, be it in terms of national identity, tourist attractions or business opportunities.

So, from amongst the various pavilions  we managed to visit, which ones stood out the most?

Firstly, first impressions still count. With so many countries jostling for attention, it was difficult to stand out from the crowd, more so since many pavilions had to have similar features such a spacious entrance lobby, a sizeable audio-visual theatre and large ramps to bring visitors through the various levels in each building. In that respect, the Australia, UK and Spain pavilions stood out visually, both day and night, through the use of unusual claddings for their building facades.

The Spain pavilion used a humble and simple material – willow – as its inspiration as well as cladding. The building was conceived as a series of baskets, some open at the top and some enclosed, to create courtyards, circulation and multi-purpose spaces. The entire steel structure was covered with more than 8000 flexible panels of hand-woven wicker. Made by craftsmen from Shandong province, the panels came in shades of brown, beige and black, depending on how the willow was treated (whether stripped of its bark or not). This cladding gave the pavilion an organic look, with its undulating surfaces reminiscent of gigantic golden waves suspended in motion. To me, this pavilion represented a successful combination of the modern and the traditional, cleverly making use of a familiar material and technique found in both Spain and China, to connect the two countries.

Spain pavilion

Spain pavilion (photograph from Shanghai Expo official website)

Likewise, the Australia pavilion used a common material to distinguish itself. In this case, the undulating building was completely encased in steel produced and donated by an Australian steel manufacturer. The steel structure, which had been allowed to weather into a rich rust colour with rugged textures, recalled the famous natural icon – Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock – a monolithic rock formation in the Australian outback. In the day, its vivid façade was striking against the clear blue sky, whilst at night, the structure had the appearance of a glowing modernist sculpture.

Australia pavilion in the day (photograph from Shanghai Expo official website)

Australia pavilion at night

For me, the most unique cladding was found on the curvaceous UK pavilion, which was entirely covered with some 60,000 transparent acrylic rods, vibrating gently in the breeze. Upon entering the pavilion, visitors were confronted by a surreal luminous womb-like chamber comprising thousands of seeds encased at the ends of each rod, which were in turn, lit by fibre optic filaments. At night, this had the added advantage of illuminating the pavilion from within, allowing the whole structure to glow. The award-winning design had been variously described as a hedgehog, giant hairbrush, durian (by some Singaporeans) and a dandelion (by the Chinese)! Although not the largest pavilion in the Expo and despite its lack of cutting-edge technological gadgets, the unusual cladding captured public imagination, and judging by the long queues, it was undoubtedly one of the most popular pavilions.

Queues at the UK pavilion

UK pavilion at night

Secondly, it struck me that simple ideas worked best. To achieve multiple aims like adhering to the Expo’s theme of “Better City, Better Life”, and showing the best that a country had to offer, in ways that are meaningful, of interest to an international audience, and at the same time, of relevance to China, may result in pavilions that try to tick every box and end up pleasing no one.

For the UK pavilion, its brief was to “change perceptions of Britain amongst the coming generation of Chinese; away from their old image of us, as a land of swirling fog and cobblestones, old buildings and old attitudes” and for them to “understand contemporary Britain, the home of creative Industries and artistic talent.” In that respect, the concept of the pavilion as a ‘Seed Cathedral’ was breathtaking in its simplicity, and astounding in its radical unconventionality. It drew on the UK tradition and love of parks and gardens, and sought to highlight the importance of maintaining a direct connection with nature. Instead of relying on the familiar (London Beefeaters and William Shakespeare comes to mind!), it capitalised on the key strength of a unique national asset like the Kew Gardens and its valuable role in preserving the world’s natural biodiversity through its Millennium Seed Bank programme. The latter seeks to collect seeds of 25% of the world’s wild plant species by 2020. The idea of a seed bank is both simple and symbolic. Seeds represent change and growth, as well as the potential for future innovation and discovery in diverse fields. At the same time, the pavilion’s cutting-edge design was seen as a means of changing Chinese perceptions of the UK as a country with a strong sense of heritage but not usually known for its creativity or technological innovations. More importantly, a partnership between UK and China was forged because the seeds in the pavilion were sourced in China from the Kew Garden’s Chinese partner, the Kunming Institute of Botany. And to keep alive the memory of the UK ‘dandelion’ after the Expo ends, the acrylic seed rods would be distributed to schools across China as a unique keepsake.

Interior of the UK pavilion at night

Close-up view of the rods containing the seeds

The Denmark pavilion took a different, but equally successful approach. The organisers literally transported what was possibly their most famous, if not most-loved tourist icon from Copenhagen to Shanghai. Although Denmark has yet to become a key tourist destination for the Chinese, the stories by Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen are well-known to Chinese readers. Likewise, through past media reports and tourist campaigns,  many Chinese would be familiar with the statue of a little mermaid, based on Andersen’s much-read children’s fable of the same name, perched on a rock by the sea in Copenhagen.

The Denmark pavilion was designed as a series of pristine white curved ramps, forming a sculptural embrace around the Little Mermaid, so that visitors could catch glimpses of her from most locations within the structure. The pavilion sought to present Denmark as a family-friendly, natural, beautiful and active country, and convey what Danes love to do in the city of Copenhagen. So, visitors could have a picnic on the roof, explore the playground, or take an indoor or outdoor bicycle trip within the pavilion. Although I did not get a chance to enter the pavilion, the wonderful thing was that there were enough perforations in the pavilion for me to see what was happening inside and even the back of the mermaid statue without having to go in. Here, I was struck by the ingenuity of the design. By giving tantalising peeks into the pavilion, it probably did more to whet the appetites of those standing outside, and entice them to queue to have a better look at the Little Mermaid, than any amount of on-site banners or posters of the statue could have done! This ‘see-through’ approach was also adopted by the Italy pavilion. Although primarily constructed of concrete, the building had a large entrance lobby, entirely covered in glass. This ensured that the centrepiece of the lobby – a replica of a grand architectural façade – remained visible to all visitors passing by the pavilion, both night and day.

Italy pavilion with its glass entrance (photograph from Shanghai Expo official website)

The architectural façade replica in the lobby of the Italy pavilion

The decision to use the statue as the main focus in the Denmark pavilion was a publicity triumph. The statue’s journey from Copenhagen to its eventual installation in its own pool of Danish seawater in the centre of the pavilion in Shanghai, was covered extensively by the international media (including Singapore’s newspapers). And the story did not end there. The Danish also took the opportunity to create a dialogue between both countries by commissioning well-known Chinese contemporary artist Ai Wei Wei to produce a site-specific installation in Copenhagen at the location vacated by the statue. Ai’s proposal comprised projecting real-time images of the Little Mermaid in Shanghai onto a screen erected on her empty pedestal in Copenhagen. In this way, Danish audiences could have a chance to share in the Little Mermaid’s trip to the East, as well as to see for themselves how well-loved their icon was in Shanghai.

Denmark pavilion (Photograph from Shanghai Expo official website)

Queues outside the Denmark pavilion

Man outside the pavilion taking a photograph of the Little Mermaid

Screen shot from the Ai Wei Wei artwork website

Like the UK pavilion, the Danish strategy succeeded brilliantly. Both projected an aspect of their national identity through either a well-known institution (Kew Gardens) or famous icon (the Little Mermaid). By using actual artefacts (seeds and sculptures), they provided authentic experiences as well as great photo opportunities for the camera-toting Chinese. Both concepts also included active participation by the Chinese in the realisation of the pavilions (through the contribution of Chinese seeds and Ai Wei Wei’s concurrent installation). The use of national icons or assets ensured that the concepts were simple and easy to grasp. More importantly, it ensured that these pavilions were hard to replicate, and even harder to forget.

Note: All photographs were taken by the author unless otherwise stated. Detailed information about each pavilion and additional photographs of the pavilions were derived from the respective countries’ related websites or the Expo official website.

About the Writer

Trained as a lawyer, Low Sze Wee graduated with a Masters’ degree in History of Art from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London in 1999. He joined the Singapore Art Museum in 2001 where he eventually became its Deputy Director (Curation and Collections), responsible for developing the museum’s art collection. In 2009, he joined the National Art Gallery of Singapore as its Deputy Director (Curation and Collections). He is now on secondment to the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, working on heritage policy matters.

Since 2001, he has curated or co-curated a number of exhibitions including 20th Century Chinese Paintings in Singapore Collections (2003), the Singapore Exhibition at the 50th Venice Biennale 2003, Embracing Infinity: Works by Tan Swie Hian (2004), Convergences – Chen Wen Hsi Centennial Exhibition (2006),  Xu Beihong in Nanyang (2008), Homelands – Home and Nation in the Art of Ong Kim Seng (2008) and The Story of Yeh Chi Wei (2010).

In 2007, he was given the NHB Research Award. Three of his exhibitions – Convergences – Chen Wen Hsi Centennial Exhibition (2007), The Big Picture Show (2008, co-curated with Ong Zhen Min) and Xu Beihong in Nanyang (2009, co-curated with Chow Yian Ping) – garnered the annual NHB Exhibition Awards.

2 thoughts on “Simple is Hard to Do: Some Thoughts on Shanghai Expo 2010

  1. Thank you Sze Wee for sharing your thoughts on the Shanghai Expo 2010. Very interesting. Mr Lam’s posts are equally insightful too.

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