Monday, 14 October 2013
The Power of a Big Rubber Duck
The world of fine art is very often regarded as a very serious business these days, with works being carefully analysed for their aesthetic qualities or metaphorically peeled back like an onion in an effort to interpret their deep conceptual meaning. However, occasionally an artwork comes along that defies the temptation to enter into intellectual hyperbole and instead simply makes the viewer smile. Such is the case of the ‘Rubber Duck’ installation sculpture project by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman that has bobbed up in many of the world’s harbours and waterways, creating great interest and excitement in its wake. Having read about the arrival of the forty foot yellow duck in Osaka, Jules and I felt duty bound to head down to the Aji River where the work was on display for the Aqua Metropolis Festival.
When this fun, over scaled floating sculpture was conceived, the artist set about to achieve the goal of "spreading joy around the world" by tapping into this highly recognizable symbol of childhood memory. Since its creation in 2007, several scaled versions of the design have visited 14 major cities of the world and been enjoyed by millions of spectators. It’s now regarded by the artist as somewhat of an endearing global ambassador, stating that “the world is our global bathtub” and that we all have a responsibility to “take care of each other in this bathtub of the rubber duck”. A bold sentiment indeed, but if any man-made object had the capacity to achieve that goal, it would certainly be the disarming nature of this giant Rubber Duck.
By the time Jules and I arrived at the Osaka docks, the mighty Rubber Duck was working its magic by luring thousands of locals out of their apartments to view the piece. I couldn’t imagine many other artworks that would have quite the capacity to generate such a crowd on a Sunday afternoon. Nor would such a work have anywhere near the same impact in a traditional gallery setting. This is what public art is all about … generating public interest by engaging viewers with a common sense of enjoyment, if only for a fleeting moment.
One of the elements that allow this piece to work so successfully is its scale. While it is nowhere near as large as a building, it somehow manages to rival a city skyline in a way that we humans are unable to do. Maybe because it’s a small object enlarged, that it somehow appears even bigger than it actually is? Certainly its colour and smooth form are in stark contrast to the grey tones and sharp edges of our man-made world. Like all other significant Pop Art pieces, the ‘Rubber Duck’ is highly familiar yet upon first viewing we are suddenly thrown by the completely different context in which it is presented. Much like the ‘Mouse that Roared’, it demands attention and it certainly gets it! For the Japanese there is also one other major factor that allows the ‘Rubber Duck’ to have such public appeal … it’s cute!
It’s appearance in Osaka had certainly set a happy tone amongst the crowd who also enjoyed some of the other public art works on display, each possessing their own particular sense of humor. Jules and I were particularly amused by a piece devised as a public toilet with an enlarged replica of the famous ‘Peeing Boy’ statue of Brussels (‘Manneken Pis’) placed on its roof. Crowds would wait patiently until a patron entered the toilet, inevitably causing large jets of water to spray from the statue into the river and at that point the cameras would click to great amusement all round. However the day belonged to the big ‘Rubber Duck’ who had once again proved the power of its presence and that in the world of public art, size does indeed matter.