Forbidden fruit is always tasty, and world's fairs often offer a chance to sample it. The Shanghai Expo offered a giant fruit bowl to pick from. One remote corner of the Expo site was dubbed Axis of Evil Square for bunching the North Korean and Iranian pavilions near one another. But throughout the exposition there were opportunities to hear what outlier countries had to say for themselves, unfiltered.
Most intriguing was the North Korean Pavilion, that nation's first. On the eve of Expo, it looked like war might break out over North Korea's sinking of a South Korean naval vessel, and things are still shaky on the peninsula. But inside the pavilion, all is weirdly calm, or just plain weird. In some respects, this is the most surreal exhibit at an expo since Salvador Dali's "Dream of Venus" pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair.
Big letters greet visitors to mini-North Korea: "Paradise of People." The pavilion features mini-monuments, such as reproduction of the Washington-Monument-style Juche Tower in the country's capital, Pyongyang. North Korean iconography also includes a fascination with childlike imagery. There's a fountain of rainbow colors featuring plump cherubs, presumably celebrating life in the people's paradise. The imaginary putti are apparently among the few who aren't starving in North Korea.
There's also a wall mural with flying female fairy beings. (One blogger described them as looking like "the death angels that emerge from the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark.) Is North Korea living in fairy land? Is that how you spin a country that is purported to be a concentration camp defended by nuclear weapons?
There's a fake river, also a cave that shows off reproductions of ancient rock carvings (at least, presumably that's what it's there for, not a demonstration of North Korean housing). The main attraction is the pavilion's gift shop, which has flags, postage stamps, and endless volumes featuring the essays of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il or his father Kim Il Sung, including a volume on filmmaking theory. This from a man who kidnapped a South Korean film director and forced him to make propaganda films for him, by the book, I presume.
Most pavilions at Expo have long lines to get in; this one does not. It's easier to get into and out of than the real North Korea, which is a plus.
Nearby is the Iranian Pavilion, which is much more sophisticated and includes live traditional music performances. There was also a line to get in. The gist seems to be showcasing technology, though a satellite on display looked like it was homemade, and maybe it was. Let's hope that's not an indictor of their nuclear technology. Or maybe, that it is.
There was also a picture of an illuminated mosque juxtaposed with a picture of an oil refinery that suggested a visual or symbolic linkage between oil tanks and minarets.
One surreal element is the words ascribed to Holocaust-denier "Respected President Dr. Ahmadinejad" who sounds a note of brotherly cooperation when addressing the "Better Cities, Better Life" theme of the expo. It sounds so Oprah-worthy: He says we need to live "not just through being with each other," but by "being there for each other." Unless you're Israel, of course.
The Afghanistan Pavilion is filled with wonderful jewelry of silver and carnelian. The emphasis was on traditional crafts, but the slogan of the pavilion was interesting: "Land of Opportunities and Resources." In line with a recent U.S. military report saying that the country was full of exploitable mineral deposits ($1 trillion-worth), there was a display of various minerals and ores.
You get the idea that Afghanistan is open for business, and that the strategy for defeating the Taliban is to sell the country off to resource extractors. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan doesn't have much oil, but it does have copper, cobalt, iron, and gold. If the country has stuff that can be carried off (besides the opium crop), it might have a shot at being a (pick one) 1. modern free market or 2. exploitable colonial economy. It might also attract investment and generate profits that could help justify the billions being spent on our war there, because we'd be able to see some kind of return, down the road. Afghanistan is kind of like a Web startup, and we might finally have a revenue model that works!
Mining might also help turn up Osama bin Laden who, if we're lucky, might be stashed near a lithium deposit.
Speaking of drugs, one of the most interesting and unusual responses to the Drug War is found in the Bolivian Pavilion.
Here, you'll find an eloquent defense of the cultivation and use of coca. While the U.S. is trying to stamp out narcotics, Boliva sticks by the beliefs of its grandparents that "the coca leaf is everything." The coca leaf, we are told, "serves for work, to nourish, to meditate, to dialogue, to know, to thank, to request. . . To prohibit its use would be the equivalent of discarding thousands of years of history, it would be disregarding . . . culture." In Bolivia, in other words, we are what we chew.
Can you imagine anyone going to bat like that for pot? Amsterdam: We are what you smoke, dude.
I also made a brief stop at the Myanmar Pavilion, which I prefer to think of as Burma. That's not so much for politically correct reasons. Those of us who collected stamps at an early age are a bit stuck on the old names for countries we learned back then: Burma, Ceylon, Persia, Dutch Guiana.
The Burma pavilion is strangely devoid of content and mostly seems to be about selling dreadful wood carvings. Many countries turn their exotic rain forests into bad sculptures. In Burma, they seem to have an obsession with ugly male figures with agonized expressions, and also American Indian chiefs who look like Sitting Bull. Yes, if you want a cigar-store Indian, Burma is your source. The only other notable feature of the pavilion: my companion pointed out that the temperature inside was very authentic. The heat was no less then suffocating. Nice to know the regime didn't chicken out like so many others and provide air conditioning.
Speaking of name changes, Venezuela now carries the moniker "The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela," or soon, "The Bloviating Republic of Hugo Chavez as told to Oliver Stone."
Venezuela, the pavilion tells us, is "in revolution." What is that? "A revolution demolishes walls of exclusion and makes everything move again: energy, thoughts, individuals, community." Chavez says he is uniting the Americas, particularly South America, into One America (isn't that just what Arizonans are afraid of?). One gets the impression he's doing that by filling his pavilion with many pictures of himself.
The Cuba Pavilion hasn't bothered to display its technology, culture, or political system. . . . The entire pavilion has been turned into a bar selling Havana Club rum and Cuban cigars.
Chavez sees himself as the modern Simon Bolivar or Fidel Castro. But he might want to rethink the latter role model. Next door to Venezuela's revolutionary exhibit is the Cuba Pavilion which is housed, appropriately, in a cube. How's the revolution going there? What does it have to teach us? What would Michael Moore find there now?
The Cuba Pavilion hasn't bothered to display its technology, culture, or political system. We learn nothing about sustainability, health care, or social justice. The entire pavilion has been turned into a bar selling Havana Club rum and Cuban cigars.
Hugo Chavez asks, "What does it mean making a revolution in the 21st century?"
In Cuba it means stogies and mojitos, fit for a strongman.
"From each according to his ability," said Marx. "To each according to his need."
Revolutionary Cuba has found its niche.