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Monday, 17 June, 2002, 14:38 GMT 15:38 UK
Swiss bank on Expo success
Expo 02's exhibit at  Yverdon
The exhibit at Yverdon reflects on humanity's place in the Universe
Switzerland's ambitious cross-country cultural project Expo 02 has opened 13 years later than planned and at a cost of almost $1bn - but are visitors finding its exhibits worth the money and wait?


An elderly woman from Ticino stands in a cheap, blue plastic cape, looking up at a machine which is pumping a huge mist over the lake at Yverdon.

She squeezes the water from her hair and says musingly: "They promised I'd feel like I was sitting on the clouds with the angels, so I decided to give it a try and I walked inside the mist. You know what I did feel? Soaking."

Aestheticism doesn't touch everyone in the same way and some people may find that Switzerland's sixth national exhibition, Expo 02, may not touch them at all.

Set across four different sites in the French and German speaking quarters of the country, Expo 02, offers no real message but rather demands that the visitor interprets the exhibits in his or her own way.


The whole thing was so badly planned and financially managed - how could they (the government) not know how much it was all going to cost?

Beatrice Wertli, Christian Democrat spokeswoman

"We don't offer you a meaning on a plate," says Nelly Wenger, chairwoman of Expo 02.

"But what we do offer you is the chance to dream, the chance to muse, the chance to reflect on life and what's important to you.

"That's not something we often do here in Switzerland, to spend a good deal of money just on dreams."

It's a nice speech, which perfectly matches the ethereal themes of the entire exhibition.

But it's not enough for many Swiss people who would prefer a more pragmatic answer to questions such as why did the exhibition ended up costing almost $1bn?

Why did the government end up paying a third of that cost? And why, in a country renowned for its punctuality and precision, is the whole thing 13 years late?

Millennium

There is no denying that Expo 02 has had a pretty dreadful history.

Dogged by artistic differences, major funding rows and management walk outs, the show very nearly never got off the ground.

According to Swiss tradition, there's meant to be a National Exhibition every 25 years - the last, in Lausanne, was in 1964.

An installation from the UK's Millennium Dome
The UK's Dome exhibits were not judged a success

But in 1989, public enthusiasm for a new Expo was at an all time low, so the organisers pegged it instead to the Millennium celebrations, hoping for an upsurge of public spirit.

Unfortunately, internal quarrelling and a fresh financial crisis saw the Millennium come and go without Expo.

The exhibition finally opened its doors on 15 May this year, having received a begrudgingly given extra cash boost by the Swiss Government.

"It's hard to say outright that Expo is a waste of money," says Beatrice Wertli, spokeswoman for the Christian Democrats who tried to block extra funding for Expo last year.

"But one thing we can say is that it's a waste of government money. The whole thing was so badly planned and financially managed - how could they not know how much it was all going to cost?"

Crowds

The Expo organisers could have taken little comfort from the disasters that other national exhibitions around Europe were turning into at the time.

The UK press were writing scathing articles about the costly flop of the London Millennium Dome.

In Germany, images of the empty Hanover exhibition beamed across German TV, telling viewers that the show had managed to attract only half of its expected visitors.


This exhibition is for young people who are discovering themselves

Visitor to Yverdon

But Expo 02 is already pulling in the crowds. In its first three weeks of opening, the exhibition has cleared more than a million visitors - in its six-month duration, it hopes to be welcoming some 10 million people.

And it's not doing so by playing up to its stereotypical chocolate, cheese and cowbell image.

At the exhibition site at Morat, the household waste installation art makes Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst look like old hat.

The 4,000 tonne rusty old cube, bobbing on the lake, complete inside with a giant video screen, offers visitors the chance to reflect upon the transitory nature of time on the one hand and its permanent effect on the other.

Expo 02's exhibit at Morat
At Morat visitors are offered a new perspective on household waste

Biel examines the relationship between power and freedom with a machine that shreds Swiss bank notes.

Meanwhile, Neuchatel invites guests to ponder on nature and artifice.

In Yverdon the overall theme is the relationship between Me and the Universe.

Here, the elderly woman from Ticino has visited an exhibition which visually simulates the pain felt by the body when involved in a head on car crash.

She has also seen a show called Swiss Love, where she's turned down the opportunity to marry someone for a limited 24-hour period.

She is now waiting impatiently in a queue outside an exhibition called Who Am I?, which asks visitors to lie down on beds and watch strange images of themselves and other objects, float across a cinema screen on the ceiling.

"I know who I am," she sniffs crossly. "This exhibition is for young people who are discovering themselves - it has nothing for older people like me."

But interestingly, she still keeps her place in the queue.

See also:

18 Dec 01 | UK
15 Jun 00 | UK
16 Jan 02 | Europe
25 Feb 02 | Wales
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