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Bringing out the inner child

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2013-09-14 00:27

The surprise popularity of an installation art piece in the shape of a toy may reveal the deep longings of some people, but could also be a sign of a desire for light relief in the face of life's mounting pressures.

A giant yellow rubber duck that appeared in Beijing recently has been turning many heads and sending others scratching them, but why is there such a fascination with something so simple?

Bringing out the inner child

Tourists take pictures with the Rubber Duck, which landed in Beijing's Garden Expo on Sept 6. Mao Yanzheng / China Daily

The Rubber Duck, as it is known in English, first popped up in Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor in May and has now landed in Beijing's Garden Expo.

Movie stars have been jumping at the opportunity for photos with it. The public has recorded and relayed every minutia about it. Even the legitimate press has been running nonstop coverage on it. Such treatment would have been the envy of even visiting royalties.

Nicknamed "Big Yellow Duck" in Chinese, the inflatable novelty was masterminded by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, who created it in 2007 and has taken it to a dozen places around the world before reaching China.

The duck doesn't actually move from country to country. New ones, varying in size, are made locally for each place, so you won't spot a flying duck attached to a jumbo jet.

Hofman's inspiration is said to have come from a news story about a 1992 Chinese cargo ship that ran into storms on the Pacific Ocean and spilled a container into the waves. As many as 92,000 bathtub toys, including yellow rubber ducks, ended up flowing halfway across the globe.

But this is not the main reason for the Chinese obsession as the story was not previously widely known in China.

The association with a bathtub toy could be at the heart of its popularity. As many have explained, it is a reminder of their childhood. As such, it fulfills the artist's intention of "spreading joy around the world".

Taking a trip to see the Big Yellow Duck has become the reason for many family outings that include both the young and the young at heart.

As an objet d'art, the floating sculpture could be the most accessible of its kind. While traditional sculptures tend to be solemn and on pedestals and modern ones esoteric or off-putting, this one is endearing. It may not yield to a host of scholarly interpretations, but it invariably elicits a smile of recognition and mild astonishment.

The sheer size — 26 meters tall for the largest — and the bright color make it the center of attention anywhere. As a matter of fact, the one in Beijing's Garden Expo has been deemed "a tad smaller than expected" by some who made a special journey there.

Size matters in China, a country where a mayor is ashamed to call his city a "big" one if it has no more than 5 million residents. If the name had not already stuck, some in China would not hesitate calling it "Medium-Sized Yellow Duck".

You see, since originality is not a forte in this case, size is truly important. For one thing, it is used to differentiate it from the flotilla of knockoffs in the nation's lakes and rivers. There has been debate whether others are allowed to float a similar rubber animal, in say a public park, without infringing on Florentijn Hofman's intellectual property rights. Some say, the guy copied it from a bathtub toy, why can't we do the same? What if we make some modifications about the size and shape? What if we call it by some other name?

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