Expo-sing national identity

From architectural, immaculate topiaries that align every main street to the twinkling of fluorescent neon lights which outline the city’s skyscrapers, bridges and boats, Shanghai is a city that has dressed to impress visitors coming to the Expo. The Expo theme, ’Better city, better life’ is everywhere on billboards and posters, and Haibao, the city’s blue mascot, looms large for photo opportunities with visitors both young and old.

Japan Pavilion
The Expo-sign

The Expo publicity offers intriguing juxtapositions, the words in front of huge grey residential blocks or shining in thousands of LED lights installed on a towering skyscrapers across the Huangpu river from the Bund.

Japan Pavilion
The Expo-sign

At the Expo itself, the scale of some of the structures built by the likes of China, Russia, Japan and the Republic of Korea on the Expo site are impressive, but once you’ve appreciated the visual spectacle of the exterior of the buildings, what I was particularly struck by was the ways in which different nations chose to represent themselves to the Chinese people.

Japan Pavilion
I heart Expo sign

While appreciating that the Expo is driven by commerce, I wonder, in the age of sophisticated advertising and marketing models, if a World Expo just comes down to selling a national product, whether it be wine, chocolate, coffee, diamonds or tourism, and using archetypal national clichés such as Mounties and camels to do it.

Japan Pavilion
Japan Pavilion

Japan Pavilion
Russia Pavilion

Surely, it gives us an opportunity to dispel myths and offer some alternative, more engaging insights into our respective countries? The Expo is supposed to be a cultural exchange, but how can you meaningfully create and foster forward cultural thinking when you revert to clichés and stereotypes?

This was definitely not the case for all the countries. At the risk of being jingoistic, for me the UK and London led the way in offering creative and insightful country and city pavilions, working with concepts rather than clichés.

Japan Pavilion
UK Pavilion

Japan Pavilion
China Pavilion

Moreover, as we at Kingston University put together ideas for our Expo legacy project (also funded by the British Council) with the students of the China Academy of Arts, another British Council competition initiative, NeochaEDGE x UK Pavilion, caught my eye, particularly because it was showcasing and working with young Chinese creatives. This for me is a key part to what a contemporary Expo should be all about, supporting, showcasing and sharing creativity.

Julia Jarvis is a postgraduate curator studying for an MA in Curating Contemporary Design at Kingston University, in partnership with the Design Museum

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