WAF Newsletter - Welcoming the world - October 2021

Welcoming the World

Jeremy Melvin, 28 October 2021

If you have yet to make your first post-Covid visit to another country, let me forewarn you: from start to finish you will be challenged., writes Jeremy Melvin

There are plenty of ‘vast and trunkless legs’, perhaps more of steel and glass than stone, standing ‘in the desert’. The injunction to ‘look on my works ye mighty, and despair’, might be regarded as a message to anyone worried about sustainability.

Under the headline theme of ‘Connecting minds, creating the future’, sustainability is one of the three key themes for the 2020 Expo (which thanks to Covid opened in 2021) – the other two being mobility and innovation. Each is represented by a large pavilion and each gives names to the 4.38 sq km park’s three districts. Headed by the host nation the UAE’s pavilion designed by Santiago Calatrava, there are a record 192 national pavilions, underlining the connections implied in the title and recalling Dubai’s historical name, Al Wasi, which means the connection.

As might be expected from such a large roll call, there is mixture of the good, bad and ugly. Happily there are few echoes of past controversies, such as the confrontation between the Soviet and Nazi German pavilions in Paris at the 1937 Expo. However, as with any event consisting of short-life national pavilions, many exhibitors have struggled with the generic problem of curating. This is not the same as designing or commissioning, though often subsumed into one or the other.

But there is also much to enjoy. WAF winner Woha’s Singapore pavilion transfers a slice of their distinctive, tropical bio-architecture to the arid desert. Capturing the essence of a giant Californian Case Study house to which a surfeit of fertiliser has been added, it’s a luscious relief, even if some of the plants look a little thirsty in the dry environment.

I am a bit of a connoisseur of those from the various post-Soviet ‘stan’ countries, whose pavilions vary in slickness but share a propensity to state territorial claims on each other as fact, in a way that might raise eyebrows at the UN. Brazil offers a padding pool with a few not terribly comfortable recliners. Sweden, predictably but not terribly appropriately (given the lack of trees in the Middle East), proffers expertise in timber and marinated fish. The Netherlands gives visitors parasols that open into screens for a whizzy digital presentation.

One of the most enjoyable is the UK pavilion, conceived by creative agency Avantgarde in collaboration with artist Es Devlin. Called the Poetry Pavilion, it invites visitors to enter a word from which algorithms generate a line or two of poetry around. The results are displayed on a giant screen which comprises the ends of a series of long, curving ‘stems’ which define the pavilion’s form and appearance. It is a good example of one of the more effective curatorial strategies, to offer a piece of information or an idea for visitors to develop. This contrasts with one of the least successful efforts, which attempts to curate an exhibition of the entire national culture.

Read other WAFN Articles.

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