rubber ducky, you’re the one

29Sep10

In addition to Yanobe Kenji’s magnificent Torayan exhibit, the 2009 Aqua Metropolis Osaka event had a lot to offer, including community art displays, installations that emphasized the potential of recyclable materials, lots of information about the history of water use and management in Osaka, and — to top it all off — a giant, yellow, floating duck.  The inflatable duck, which is 13 meters tall, was designed by Florentijn Hofman, a Dutch artist, and almost precisely resembles the classic plastic yellow children’s bath toy, but blown up to immense proportions.  Rubber Duck (巨大アヒルちゃん in Japanese) is reminiscent of the playful pop gigantism that can be found in the work of Claes Oldenburg, as well as the alienatingly familiar bubblegum art of Jeff Koons.

Of course, when everyday objects suddenly become larger than life the results can sometimes be disturbing, as Jonathan Swift was well aware.  In this famous sequence from Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver describes his reaction upon encountering the giant breast of a Brobdingnagian wet nurse:

When dinner was almost done, the nurse came in with a child of a year old in her arms, who immediately spied me, and began a squall that you might have heard from London-Bridge to Chelsea, after the usual oratory of infants, to get me for a plaything. The mother, out of pure indulgence, took me up, and put me towards the child, who presently seized me by the middle, and got my head into his mouth, where I roared so loud that the urchin was frighted, and let me drop, and I should infallibly have broke my neck, if the mother had not held her apron under me. The nurse, to quiet her babe, made use of a rattle which was a kind of hollow vessel filled with great stones, and fastened by a cable to the child’s waist: but all in vain; so that she was forced to apply the last remedy by giving it suck. I must confess no object ever disgusted me so much as the sight of her monstrous breast, which I cannot tell what to compare with, so as to give the curious reader an idea of its bulk, shape, and colour. It stood prominent six feet, and could not be less than sixteen in circumference. The nipple was about half the bigness of my head, and the hue both of that and the dug, so varied with spots, pimples, and freckles, that nothing could appear more nauseous: for I had a near sight of her, she sitting down, the more conveniently to give suck, and I standing on the table. This made me reflect upon the fair skins of our English ladies, who appear so beautiful to us, only because they are of our own size, and their defects not to be seen but through a magnifying glass; where we find by experiment that the smoothest and whitest skins look rough, and coarse, and ill-coloured.

Hofman’s Rubber Duck somehow manages to avoid the feeling of uncanny grotesqueness that can sometimes accompany artworks that use super-sized photorealism as their guiding philosophy (the work of Ron Mueck especially comes to mind here).  I think the reason for this is that unlike most of the work by Oldenburg, Koons, and Mueck, Rubber Duck doesn’t actually lose it’s primary functionality when installed on site — Rubber Duck is actually a giant inflatable floating duck, not just a simulated image of one, that actually bobs on the water in the same way that the bath toy does and it’s this familiarity of motion that makes it feel so pleasantly domesticated.  The fact that the beak is upturned in the tiniest of smiles doesn’t hurt either.  But why take my word for the appealing effect that the friendly and cute Ahiru-chan seems to have on all the spectators who walk by?  As the Rubber Duck Osaka 2009 project description says,

The Rubber Duck knows no frontiers, it doesn’t discriminate people and doesn’t have a political connotation. The friendly, floating Rubber Duck has healing properties: it can relieve mondial tensions as well as define them. The rubber duck is soft, friendly and suitable for all ages!

What could be more wonderful than that?



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