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Bringing out the inner child

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

When the one in Beijing made its debut, people noticed that its beak was somewhat different from the one in Hong Kong. The notion of copycat — or shall we say "copyduck"? — immediately came to mind.

The authorities quickly came out to explain that it was an installation error and ensured everyone the whole thing was properly authorized. Freed from that question, people have continued nitpicking, saying it is not fully inflated and resembles a starving duck.

The choice of the animal has contributed to its fortuitous fate. As everyone knows, Beijing is the birthplace of the Peking duck so why should the rubber kind not be a candidate for the oven, some say. When it deflated in Hong Kong, some quipped it looked like a roasted duck from Beijing. There is a running gag about what kind of cooking method will be used to make it fit into a local cuisine.

A whiff of gallows humor can also be detected from some of these witticisms. A short time ago, the country was gripped by the specter of bird flu and, as a result, poultry, together with its industry, was a major victim. If people can laugh about gobbling up a giant duck, it could be a sign that we are out of the shadows of the bird flu scare.

Then there is the figurative type. In Chinese slang, a "chicken" can refer to a prostitute and a "duck" a gigolo. So, the use of "duck" or "male duck" in describing a young man carries certain connotations. Of course you'd have to be physically robust for this line of work. If I'm not mistaken, the Rubber Duck has provided an opportunity for a few naughty ones to vent their female fantasy as evidenced by online photos of scantily clad pretty young things in erotic postures with the rubber toy; of course not the genuine one but smaller imitations fit for home consumption.

Excessive attention begets backlashes. There are already complaints about what some deem "a big fuss about nothing". An ad-hoc competition to create a caption for photos of the floating sculpture has a winner: "Look at these stupid humans!"

A euphoria of this magnitude bespeaks certain national traits. First of all is a need to be cheerful about something innocuous, something familiar presented in a slightly foreign form, something that cuts across demographic lines. Massive public installation art is not common in China. An artist who wants to drape a mountain in brightly colored cloth or float a million umbrellas above busy streets will probably never see his dream come true in China. But who can say no to an enlarged toy? As one commentator said, there is no political implication whatsoever.

I don't think many in China see the Rubber Duck as art. For them, art is stashed away from the milling crowd, in air-conditioned halls with stern-looking guards who would stop you from snapping photos. The right expression when facing art is solemnity, or so we assume. Here is a plaything that puts everyone into a playful mood, and to say you don't like it amounts to admission that you are a weirdo.

Finally, the Rubber Duck phenomenon can serve as a perfect illustration of herd mentality. When an innately trivial incident hits on a slow-news day, it becomes self-perpetuating and engulfs everyone in it. People feel compelled to be part of it or they'll be left out of water-cooler conversations. Like a tornado, it comes with sudden ferocity; but unlike a tornado, it will not leave anything disturbed.

Are people going to cherish their childhood memories more from now on? I doubt it. There will be another hot topic swirling through the nation, or there may be real news.

However, artists may take a lesson from this episode and ponder their relationship with the public. Do they want their art to be accessible to a large population, or do they want to preserve some distance to accentuate their stature? Maybe some would want to "pander" to the masses by presenting images or objects that bring out the child in everyone.

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