On what occasion do all major nations of the world present and project images of who they are in the world the same place at the same time? On June 10, 2017 the specialized EXPO 2017 opened its doors in Astana, Kazakhstan, and answered that question. 115 countries and 22 international organizations were tasked with exhibiting national achievements, showcasing their cultural traditions, and projecting their vision of “Future Energy”, the EXPO theme of the year.
As well as being excited to be part of the largest international event my country of Kazakhstan has ever hosted, having worked on issues related to energy policies, I was also keen to explore the pavilions to learn about current developments in the industry and each nation’s vision of the energy future. The more I strolled around the pavilions, however, the less interested I became in exhibits related to energy, and the more I became focused on how each country was attempting to represent their cultural and national uniqueness through their national pavilions.
As I strolled round the exhibits it was clear that an EXPO seems to require national governments to create a kind of cultural advertisement—the promotion of the national character and traditions in attractive positive images. Indeed, the pavilions started to remind me of carefully crafted postcards that project a very specific and particular simplified image of a country to the world.
Subsequently, as one walked around, admiring these cultural postcards, the whole space of the EXPO began to feel like a small microcosm of the world, where you can virtually “visit” these representations without leaving Kazakhstan. Indeed, you could people saying: “Let’s go to Africa!” or “I want to see Spain!” as they walked around the grounds.
It must be challenging for all of these countries to choose which cultural themes to use to represent them. Evidently, each country dealt with the challenges in numerous ways. Perhaps the most common feature of every pavilion was a poster at its entrance, indicating where exactly you were. Some of these used well known national symbols, like a sakura (or cherry tree) branch featured on Japan’s poster. Others employed their national colors throughout as the German pavilion poster did with a liberal use of red, black and yellow.
Some posters presented more controversial representations though, like the poster at the entrance to the Italian pavilion which featured Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, a building constructed during Mussolini’s reign in preparation for the 1942 EXPO (then World Exhibition) built to promote fascism. While the choice of such an image by the exhibitors may have been a demonstration of the ironies and absurdities of national representations, it did illustrate that there are many ways to achieve national and cultural representation!
Such choices about how to represent the nation are also at the core of any pavilion as they consider which cultural themes and technologies to emphasize. Often innovations are juxtaposed against nature, technologies against people, pasts against futures. As a theme “Future energy” dictates, many countries emphasized their vision of the future and the innovations they are bringing.
The Netherlands’ pavilion, for instance, proudly displayed the windmill, reminding the viewer how for centuries Dutch people used wind energy. In the images, the typical wooden windmill is transformed into scenes of abundant modern onshore and offshore windfarms in the Netherlands.
Kazakhstan’s national pavilion presented a particularly interesting experience for its visitors. The ground floor displayed symbols of national heritage and culture through traditional instruments, views of the Kazakh landscape and nature, and ancient mythology. From the ground floor you were taken to the top floor, which presented a vision of Kazakhstan and its cities in the future. Perhaps, that journey is indicative of country’s journey, reviving its past while looking to define its future?
The use of Turkic symbolism was a prevalent theme in Kazakhstan’s national identity representation. For a country only 25 years into its independence, claiming a connection to cultural heritage that goes back thousands of years is important in establishing a sense of rootedness to the past. Yet, the pavilion is also representing another image that Kazakhstan is portraying: that of a modern and rapidly developing and technologically savvy country. Is this Kazakhstan’s way of putting aside the Soviet past and moving on in identity terms? This kind of nation building seems part of the Kazakhstan government’s strategy for holistic development, as President Nazarbayev himself pointed out: there is a need for a modernization of a peoples’ mindset.
EXPO 2017 was a condensed vision of what the future could be, what kind of homes we will live in, what kind of cars we will drive. Yet, it also represented something more: that there is no future without looking at the past, and that innovating the way in which cultural and national identity is represented is at least as important as presenting the development of concrete technologies and innovations. Indeed, EXPO 2017 was not only about celebrating the diversity of opportunities to build the future today; it showcased the diversity of nations and people living on this planet and suggested ways forward that brought together culture, identity and technology in the same mental and physical space. One of the conclusions I have drawn is once we are free to project identities rich in cultural diversity and historical scope, we are ready to fully engage in the critical concrete projects that solve universal human challenges, such as in the development of sustainable green technologies that will benefit us all.
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and the Organization for Identity and Cultural Development (OICD). The opinions herein do not reflect those of Institute of Diplomacy, Academy of Public Administration under the President of Kazakhstan where Dr. Tskhay is an assistant professor.
Interested in learning more about role of expos and other world locations and events where nations engage in cultural representation? OICD research affiliate Joy Hendry has published a book: The Orient Strikes Back: A Global View of Cultural Display. Find it at all places where books are sold.