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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Form and substance

The Shanghai Expo is offering visitors the opportunity to see world-class art from around the globe.
The UAE Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo was designed by the British architect Norman Foster. The shape echoes the country's golden sand dunes.
The UAE Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo was designed by the British architect Norman Foster. The shape echoes the country's golden sand dunes.

For months now, one image has been inescapable in Shanghai: Haibao, the Smurf-blue Gumby-shaped mascot of Expo 2010. It is based on the Chinese character ren, for person - two strokes joined at the top and curving outward at the bottom. But when Haibao stretches out his slender arms, he looks more like da - the character for big. And that's appropriate, because everything about Expo is big: the site (5.3 square kilometres), the costs ($4 billion [Dh14.6bn] to develop the site, not counting pavilions, plus a $58 billion makeover for the city), the hours-long queues on opening weekend and, most of all, the ambitions. Expo's arts component to date has been an eclectic mix of East and West, classical and kitsch. At the opening ceremonies, a large, grinning children's ensemble sang and danced, waving Haibao dolls and wearing giant yellow happy-face flowers on their backs. The audience also heard an excerpt from the stirring final movement of Dvorak's New World Symphony, perhaps a declaration that China is stepping up in the new world order of the 21st century.

Two years ago, the Beijing Olympics announced to the world that China is a modern country, or at least modernising: provinces such as Hunan still have some distance to go. Now, Expo is bringing the world and its arts to the Chinese people, and they are rushing to see it.

On opening day, few faces in the crowd of more than 200,000 were anything but Chinese, and most of those few (for example, women in multicoloured jelabiyahs in the Middle Eastern area) seemed to be attached to either the pavilions or official delegations. Queues wound around nearly every national pavilion, while visitors could walk right in to a Darth Vader-ish Theme Pavilion, with areas devoted to Citizens' Initiative and Life and Sunshine. The UAE pavilion had an estimated 90-minute wait (it was down to 65 minutes three days later) for admission to its golden dunes designed by the British star architect Lord Norman Foster. Qatar had one of the shortest: 25 minutes.

The Emirates pavilion uses film to tell the story of the nation's spirit. Once inside, visitors are directed into small theatres to see short films exploring the Emirati heritage. In one, a father introduces his young son to the pearl industry by explaining that, no, pearls don't come from a store, and viewers are plunged into the Gulf's blue depths. Afterwards, they congregate in an area dotted with dozens of video screens where life-size projections of real people, from a traditional calligrapher to the rap duo Desert Heat, talk of their visions for modern Emirati life. Finally, visitors gather in the big-screen theatre for a fanciful journey with an animated boy and girl as they fly, sans magic carpet, across the land.

Like many national pavilions, Qatar's plays up traditional arts and crafts. Visitors can sit in a simulated desert tent and watch a basket maker work, a stone carver cut lacy designs on to small tablets or a man weave fishing nets. Past exhibits touting modern Qatar, a well-attended gallery showcases a model of IM Pei's ultra-contemporary Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, surrounded by images of highlights from its collection.

In contrast, art in Yemen would seem to consist mainly of the jewellery being hawked in its space in the Asia Joint Pavilion II. Afghanistan, a neighbour there, at least shows museum-quality artefacts from the Rahimy Collection of Afghan Treasures. France has sent over seven masterpieces from the Musée D'Orsay in Paris; Denmark its Little Mermaid statue. With the likes of Lord Foster and Pei represented, it's not surprising that the standout art form at Expo is the biggest one of all: architecture.

Among the national pavilions, the centrepiece is, naturally, China's, a spectacular bright red inverted pyramid based on the shape of an ancient Chinese crown but also suggesting a gate. Its bright red cantilevered beams thrust out into the sky. Their ends are finished in abstract designs - which resemble the winding queues below - recalling the stone blocks the Chinese traditionally use to ink their signatures. The pavilion can accommodate 40,000 visitors a day, and so far reservations have closed within minutes each day. As in real life, China overshadows Taiwan's far more modest pavilion just off one corner.

Elsewhere, Romania's Greenopolis takes the form of one and a half greenhouse spheres, in keeping with the fair's "green" sub-theme. Saudi Arabia's roof is rimmed with palm trees. Poland's boxy building is clad in lacy light wood, derived from the wooden cutouts of its folk culture. Denmark's clean white spiral suggests the interior of Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic Guggenheim Museum in New York brought outdoors, where visitors can borrow bicycles to coast down from the roof. In sharp contrast, the corporate pavilions across the Huangpu River tend to look like big-box stores.

World's fairs are by nature promotional, and exhibitors want to look their best. But they also look toward the future. Thus expo architecture tends to be futuristic, even when that future looks suspiciously familiar. From some angles, the flying-saucer-shaped Expo Culture Center, an 18,000-seat arena that is one of only five buildings meant to be permanent, is reminiscent of the umbrella-shaped Travelers Insurance pavilion from the 1964-65 New York World's Fair, white instead of red. The giant torchère forms along the Expo Axis bring to mind Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes and his United States Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal.

Expo's main theme is Better City, Better Life, but the layout most recalls Wright's vision of a city: low-rise, sprawling over a wide geographical area and heavily dependent on cars. The fair straddles the river, with the national pavilions on the recently developed Pudong side and the corporate ones in Puxi, the older downtown side. The site is so sprawling that, even on opening day, it didn't feel crowded, except in the pavilion queues. It will be interesting to see if it seems deserted after the peak passes. It could use a better people-mover system, such as the monorails of past world's fairs. It wasn't clear last week where the free shuttle buses stopped. (Reliable information about anything was hard to come by in English, Expo's second language.) The fleet of small electric buses, with routes on both street level and the elevated walkway on the Pudong side was better, but these are designated as "sightseeing" lines and do not make intermediate stops. By mid-afternoon, people nap on benches and wear their Expo maps over their heads as sunshades.

Sculpture, too, is big at Expo, in more ways than one. Art for the World, a series of 20 large-scale sculptures along the Expo Axis organised by Jean-Gabriel Mitterrand, ranges from the abstract to the fanciful. The pieces include Pillar of the Twelve Symbolic Animals, a totem pole of gold and silver animal heads in painted stainless steel representing urban development in harmony with nature; Shanghai Tree/Mikado Tree, a giant ball of pickup sticks based on an ancient game, and, Hehe, Xiexie, a pair of giant stainless steel pandas, perhaps a consolation prize to those unable to see the live ones from Sichuan province in the China pavilion.

In the performing arts, stages on both sides of the Huangpu will have shows throughout the day until Expo closes in October. Ensembles present national traditions (from China, acrobatics, martial arts and string music) as well as contemporary forms such as those illustrated by the energetic troupe that danced to Chinese pop, supplemented by two trampoline artists, on the Celebration Stage by the river last week. Expo has already heard from two of China's native sons who are international classical music stars. The Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun collaborated with the American composer and performer Quincy Jones on Expo's English theme song, Better City, Better Life, a bouncy pop number. And the flashy pianist Lang Lang was among the 2,300 performers at the opening-eve extravaganza.

Around the grounds, music plays seemingly at random from speakers on the elevated walkways, and national pavilions pipe out music to soothe those waiting in line (Thailand's, for example, alternated traditional with Thai pop). Austria marked 2pm with a seven-piece brass band, first playing a fanfare with hints of 12-tone dissonance, then launching into John Williams's Star Wars theme. In a square amid the Middle Eastern pavilions, loudspeakers incongruously blasted rap in English with language that would make a New Yorker blush. Surely the Chinese DJ did not know what the rapper was saying, and if the crowds understood, they showed no reaction.

Shanghai was, of course, an international city long before Expo was a glimmer in a developer's eye, and during Expo season, art from abroad is hardly limited to the Expo grounds. At the Shanghai Museum, with its wide-ranging collections of Chinese porcelain, jade, bronze, paintings and calligraphy, the current star attraction is a visitor from Italy, From the Collections of the Uffizi Gallery. Queues of Chinese visitors snake around the corridor outside the galleries.

On Expo's opening night, the Shanghai Symphony, conducted by Chen Xieyang, offered its Hello Expo! concert in the Shanghai Grand Theatre on People's Square, the heart of downtown. (More cutting-edge material is due there next week when Netherlands Dance Theater II is scheduled to appear.) The concert - a mix of popular opera arias including Nessun Dorma from Puccini's Turandot, songs by Chinese composers and Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony - was sparsely attended. Perhaps everyone was at Expo. Transferred to the Celebration Stage, it would have made a perfect outdoor concert for a glorious spring evening under China's scarlet crown.