The Swiss ponder life in Switzerland

National exposition considers the nature of happiness in odd, charming, often avant-garde ways

Destination: Europe

August 18, 2002|By Mary Ellen Botter | By Mary Ellen Botter,Dallas Morning News

Like hikers on an alpine trail, every generation or so the Swiss stop to consider where they've been, where they're going and what they're doing there.

The last time this polyglot, postage-stamp-size nation checked its cultural course was in 1964. And this summer and early fall, Switzerland is doing it again at its national exposition spread among four towns and a fifth, mobile venue in the lakes region west of the capital, Bern.

Expo.02 is equal parts entertainment, soul-searching and intriguing impermanent architecture. It's where visitors can walk in a cloud, scrape gold off a building and literally throw their cares away. And you don't have to be Swiss to understand and enjoy the show. Many exhibits would suit "anybody and everybody," says Evelyne Mock, a U.S. spokeswoman for Switzerland Tourism.

The show, which continues through Oct. 20, is a "platform for discussion," says Tony Burgener, its chief spokesman. True to its mission, Expo raises tough issues facing the nation, among them growth, land use, immigration and quality of life.

Venues are themed. At economically strong Biel, it's "Power and Freedom." In Murten, an 800-year-old town, history and tradition pop up in "Instant and Eternity." Ego takes a turn at Yverdon's "Me and the Universe." And science plays a role in Neuchatel's "Nature and Artifice." The threads of thought are woven through 37 exhibits distributed over 118 acres.

Each of the venues has a landmark construction. At Biel, it's three angular towers and a footbridge arching over a bay of Lake Biel; Yverdon, an artificial cloud; Murten, a rusting 112-foot-tall steel cube anchored in Lake Murten; and Neuchatel, three disks resembling UFOs on a platform just offshore in Lake Neuchatel.

The mobile site, a rebuilt gravel barge themed "Meaning and Movement," sails the three lakes of Expo and is primarily a stage for various forums.

Dreams and dread

It's possible to spend two or three days exploring Expo and come away entertained, well-fed and clearer about Swiss culture, though not always fully informed.

At Biel, largest of the sites, diversions that span differences of culture and language (English is common but not universal at Expo) include:

"Happy End," which explores happiness through novel means. Write what's troubling you on a china plate, then hurl it away though an opening to be dashed on the ground below. In a room strung with playthings, remember toys you loved. Let your fleeting shadow on a light-sensitive wall remind you that happiness may be short-lived. And finish with a joyful three-story slide out of the pavilion.

The "Swish" exhibit shows videos of regular folk revealing their fondest desires. Don't try to translate. Just slip up to a computer terminal, type in your secret yearning and see it illuminated anonymously on the surface of Lake Biel, visible through the transparent floor. Magical!

"Money and Value -- the Last Taboo" has fascinating exhibits that almost qualify it as a museum. And there's an added attraction. The building that houses it wears a coat of gold leaf, and it's OK to scrape off some to take home.

Yverdon, second in size to Biel, also has its share of culture-crossing exhibits.

Swiss Love, a charming movie tracking the relationships of four couples, is a guaranteed smile.

"Onoma" is probably Expo's most direct link to previous expositions, where tradition and history were in the forefront.

Type in the name of a Swiss town -- the one where you're staying or a favorite village -- and the computer gives back facts, photos and any available video footage of residents commenting on their community.

"The Cloud" is a manufactured mist that engulfs a metal frame and hovers dreamlike above the lake's surface. If you've never wandered in pea-soup fog, here's your chance.

Murten, a medieval town that on its own invites a leisurely stroll, offers more Expo attractions:

Darkness is illuminating at "Blindekuh," where the blind guide the sighted through an environment devoid of light but brilliant with sounds of nature. Shuffling along the passages stirs empathy for the visually impaired. Conversation -- something to cling to in the dark -- flows with coffee, wine and sodas at a beverage bar.

Two art installations, a cen-tury-old mural of a watershed battle in 1476 and a photo show of modern Switzerland, are payoffs for the short boat trip to an orange-oxidized Monolith.

At Neuchatel, an architectural duo easily vaults over language barriers:

Fifty-foot-tall "ladyfingers" (actually huge yellow balloons) form the perimeter of a gigantic "pudding" at "Manna." Step into the ring of fake cakes and find their faces painted delightfully with blue sky and summer clouds.

And the science of soil is gently taught in an underground passage that ends at a display of apple varieties, one for each day of the year.

Curious and curiouser

Not all of Expo's exhibits are successful. Some are so avant-garde and so short on explanation that some foreign visitors exit them murmuring, "What was that all about?"

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