Simon Posner comments on Milan Expo 2015 and the performance of Eastern European countries at this worldwide exhibition.
Milan Expo 2015
Lunch in Poland, afternoon snacks in Azerbaijan, dinner in Kazakhstan and then head over for drinks in Russia – these are merely some of the treats which Milan Expo has to offer. Italy’s second city is hosting the world fair, also known as the universal exhibition, from May until October of this year. Its title “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” alludes to one of the most pertinent global issues of the coming decades: how will we find food for everyone without wrecking the very planet from which we get our nourishment? With sponsorship towards these noble ends coming from the likes of Coca-Cola, Ferrero, McDonald’s and Birra Moretti, it’s not surprising that Expo 2015 has suffered incessant controversy, yet the fair regularly attracts 100,000 visitors a day, giving countries from central and eastern Europe an unparalleled opportunity to present themselves to a global audience. With nearly 100 purpose-built pavilions, everyone is in an intense competition to stand out from the others, resulting in a spectacular architectural medley across the 1.5km long site; on the inside, however, only some countries have succeeded in combining an exciting visitor experience with a rigorous analysis of the future of human nutrition.
The tourist-orientated approach is very common at Expo and it often turns displays rather superficial. The Czech Republic, for example, which has been participating at world fairs since the 18th century and won a silver medal for its pavilion at Expo Shanghai 2010, has this year officially chosen to tackle the topic of ‘water’, though in practice they have put their emphasis on selling beer. Thanks to their three bars, paddling pool and rooftop terrace, the initiative seems to be going rather well. Beer may not feed the planet, but at least it will bring in the crowds, unlike some of their neighbours: Lithuania’s two space-age white cuboids contain relatively little to interest visitors, while Romania’s pavilion is embarrassingly empty.
Then there are the pavilions that skirt around the subject-matter altogether. Russia seems to have invested a large part of its Expo budget in modern art, rather like Slovakia, whose pavilion entrance is guarded by a peculiar steel bird sculpture. A more personal welcome is offered at the Turkmenistan pavilion, where visitors are greeted by a giant statue of President Berdymukhamedov.
Moldova and Belarus have placed considerable investment in their contributions, with attractive pavilion designs housing informative displays, and furthermore Belarus offers folk music and dancing on its outdoor stage. The most impressive folk music show, however, can be found in Hungary’s pavilion, a cosy barn with a performance space towards the back.
The high cost of participation and the chaotic organisation in the months running up to Expo’s opening prevented many countries from participating altogether. Latvia, for instance, had an ambitious plan for an oak tree-themed pavilion but in light of escalating costs and management disputes, they withdrew from Expo in January. Of those who did make it, there are five ‘New East’ entrants who have especially caught the public’s attention.
Adjacent to Russia’s substantially larger (but rather disappointing) pavilion lies a gigantic wooden structure named the Gallery of Estonia. Alongside displays about the environment and gastronomy, the most northern Baltic state has various extra exhibits that change month by month to include themes such as the creative economy (not least work of world-famous contemporary composer Arvo Pärt) and information technology (they’re keen to remind you Skype was launched in Estonia!). Designed as a sort of cross between a treehouse and a sauna, the pavilion is fun to explore, complete with swings that generate green electricity as you play on them.
The Estonian pavilion
Given its relative proximity to Milan, Slovenia has had a big opportunity to show off not only to businesses, but to tourists too, and that’s certainly where their emphasis is in their pavilion. Displays entice you to both summer and winter holidays in the Julian Alps with bicycles and skis – there’s even a propeller plane that hangs suspended above visitors in the atrium. Their motto “I feel sLOVEnia, Green. Active. Healthy” may sound like a mistranslated English slogan on an East Asian T-shirt, but at least it hints at the pavilion’s most exciting feature: strips of Piran sea salt that you can walk on bare-foot. Like Estonia, Slovenia is a small country that has invested in a relatively large pavilion; this is clearly a risky strategy but should pay off thanks to its stylish architecture and central location.
Directly opposite the enormous aluminium beehive belonging to Great Britain, a giant cuboid of empty wooden apple crates (designed by architect Piotr Musiałowski) houses Poland’s contribution to the world fair. The attractions start before you even go in, as a stage outside provides a platform for musical performances and cooking demonstrations with eminent public figures (on the day I visited politician Jerzy Michalak was preparing a joint of pork). Visitors enter via the showpiece ‘magic garden’ which, thanks to its sound-deflecting mirrored walls, makes you feel like you’re in a real Polish apple orchard. Apples are given a prominent position not only in the Polish pavilion, but also in Moldova’s, Switzerland’s, Kazakhstan’s, and Italy’s pavilions, among others, making it perhaps the most fought over agricultural market at Expo. Details of Poland’s agricultural export activities are shown in a presentation in a dedicated conference room open to the public.
Although most of the ground floor resembles an airport duty-free shop, this is more than made up for by the peacefulness of the garden, and when combined with a slick video-presentation of the country’s political history and the ample outdoor eating spaces the overall visitor experience is outstanding.
Jerzy Michalak cooking, the Polish pavilion
From the outside it appears to be a UFO, from the inside, a greenhouse. In reality it’s a bit of both, as after taking a futuristic escalator into the centre of Azerbaijan’s pavilion and making your way through the leafy interior you arrive at a lofty open space where you can explore the country’s nine climatic zones of agricultural production, while a sculpture of colourful light bulbs has a suspicious resemblance to a larger installation in the Chinese pavilion. The thematic emphasis is on environmental sustainability, though there are also features to appeal more to tourists: venturing further in, an interactive screen allows you to take a tour of Baku either by helicopter, boat or on foot. In 2012 Azerbaijan hosted the Eurovision Song Contest and earlier this year it was home to the first ever European Games; for anyone still hesitant about venturing to Caucasia, the interactive tour provides a rather good taster. With 11,000 visitors every day, the Azerbaijan pavilion has gained an improbable popularity, giving it a high-profile trade platform for the organic produce that is the focus of their Expo efforts.
The Azerbaijani pavilion
Of the 145 nations represented at Expo, Kazakhstan’s contribution is certainly among the most elaborate and impressive, as testified by the lengthy queue outside the pavilion. You won’t get bored waiting though, as a series of singers and dancers perform Kazakh folk shows on the outdoor stage, and even the queuing area features an interactive country quiz.
Inside, visitors first watch an introductory video accompanied by a novelty sand show, before proceeding to the expansive information gallery, where you can learn about everything from caviar to horse meat. The pavilion finale is the motion cinema, where after donning 3D glasses you can experience a simulated flight around the Astana, the Kazakh capital and host city of Expo 2017. This motion ride clearly trumps Azerbaijan’s on-screen urban experience, and alongside an army of well-trained staff, shows the Kazakhs’ determination to make a good impression in the run up to their own world fair, which will be themed Future Energy.
Indeed, a trip to Milan is all very well for a bite to eat, but for some countries in the region the more pressing issue is natural gas, its extraction, distribution and eventual substitution with other energy sources; for them, this year has just been a dress-rehearsal and judging by Kazakhstan’s performance, we should expect something spectacular at Astana Expo 2017.
University of Oxford