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January 17, 2014

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It’s big and yellow — But is it art?

The sensational giant Rubber Duck art installation draws artists, critics, curators and developers to discuss what makes that inflatable fowl so popular and what makes good public art. Wang Jie reports.

The public art phenomenon of the past year is the acclaimed giant yellow Rubber Duck that travels around the world, bringing joy wherever it splashes down.

Sydney Harbor, Victoria Harbor, the lake at Beijing’s Summer Palace and Taiwan’s Keelung Harbor, where it burst on New Year’s Day, are just a few of the 18-meter-tall duck’s stops last year.

The biggest yellow duck created by Dutch installation artist Florentijn Hofman is 26 meters tall and it floats on pontoons in St Nazaire, western France, on the Loire River. For the duck, all the world’s a bathtub.

The playful childhood icon — everyone remembers the rubber duck in the bathtub — buoys millions who pose for pictures nearby. The juxtaposition of the soft, playful duck and the nearby chiseled skyscrapers of business districts is intriguing.

And many people fondly remember the Muppets “Yellow Duckie” song from Sesame Street.

Hoffman himself says of his duck that “it knows no frontiers, it doesn’t discriminate among people and doesn’t have a political connotation.”

He specializes in concepts of childhood and innocence, producing warm and feel-good outsized works, such as a plush bunny rabbit and a colorful slug. But the duck is hot.

Urban art generates a lot of comment and criticism in China where all kinds of works are popping up in public spaces and residential developments. It can generate a lot of controversy, as in 2012 when Internet users voted the 10 ugliest public sculptures in China; there was no survey last year.

Everyone knows what they don’t like, but it’s more difficult to say what they do like and what makes “good” public art, if it can even be defined. Is it about beauty, meaning, decoration, fun? Tastes differ widely.

There has been no equivalent of the giant Rubber Duck in China, but the public is likely to see knock-off floating toy animals, maybe a panda or Monkey King.

A recent forum in Shanghai addressed the Rubber Duck phenomenon and the future of public art in the city. It drew artists, critics, curators and real estate developers from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

“The Rubber Duck appeals everywhere, without boundaries. The friendly floating duck has healing properties and can relieve tensions. It’s soft and speaks to all ages,” said Fang Xiaofeng, professor of architecture and landscaping at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

In the past, public art in China was represented by bronze statues of famous political, historical and cultural figures, he noted.

“Today, public art is no longer about propaganda and the meaning of public art is no longer important,” Fang said.

“Conventional ideas of beauty are often turned upside-down.”

Public art is generally used to embellish and beautify spaces, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and more often real estate developers and city officials.

“In the past two decades, many people think that public art should add color and decorate surroundings,” said Jin Jiangbo, a noted contemporary artist working at the College of Fine Art of Shanghai University.

“This (Decoration) is such a deeply rooted concept that whether real-estate developers or government officials believe that public art should be meaningful and beautiful,” he said.

Developers and officials decide how to fill public spaces, so their taste directly influences public art.

Ordinary passersby can shed light on what they like.

“I was so excited to find the duck floating in Victoria Harbor on a visit. My friends and I took many photos,” said office worker Christopher Liu. “I don’t know whether this is called a public art piece or not, but one thing is for sure, it is a gorgeous on-site experience.”

According to Fang, the success of the duck lies in the Dutch creator drawing inspiration from trivial things in ordinary life and enlarging them to daunting size.

“Never, never underestimate the power of size,” Jin said. “When the size is enlarged into such an incredible shape, then the original object will have a dramatic visual effect.”

Fang said the duck and works like it “humorously change the whole atmosphere of a space and every passerby has to smile,” Fang said.

To create the kind of public art or installation that people love, the artist himself must think like viewers, said Wang Dawei, the director of the Fine Art College of Shanghai University.

“The role of the artist as aesthetician in public art should be downsized, since he is creating art for the public, not himself,” Wang said.

Too much focus on “meaning” in public art is not helpful, since few people care about meaning, Fang said. “Sometimes the warmth and humor radiating from a work are better received than the puzzlement that can accompany some obscure works,” he observed.

“The artist must achieve balance and walk a line between his artistic expression and public art.”

Public art should be related to the lives of viewers and involve some interactivity, said Xiao Shuwen, the head of the exhibition department of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. “If a work shares nothing with the people in its environment, then is it an intrusion?”

Taiwan real estate developer Zhang Weihuai described his “Seed Plan” public art project with different themes and materials.

“Sometimes the subject is clouds, sometimes light and sometimes water,” he said.

In one residential area an artist creates clouds and mist that conjure up a real and surreal world.

“Just imagine, when you are returning home exhausted from work and you suddenly ‘bump’ into a cloud that reminds you of mountains,” Zhang said. “The work soon establishes a connection with the passersby. In my view, this is a high-quality piece. You don’t need media to tell you the work is good. Public art can touch people’s hearts through various techniques.”

“Frankly, I hope Chinese artists can create public art as successful as the Rubber Duck in the near future,” said Wang, from the Fine Art College of Shanghai University.



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