The giant Rubber Duck inflatable sculptures have been one of the main social phenomena on Taiwan’s cultural calendar this year, with huge crowds attracted to the Glory Pier in the Port of Kaohsiung and a pond in Taoyuan’s Sinwu Township (新屋).
As far as tourism goes, they have been a spectacular success. The sculptures have been darlings of the media, and people — locals and tourists alike — have come in droves, generating considerable revenue on souvenirs and merchandise.
There is, however, a value gap between the cultural significance of these exhibits and the social and cultural fever they have created.
The ducks are the work of Dutch conceptual artist Florentijn Hofman, based on a bath toy many in the West will be familiar with, using its associations with the purity of childhood. The surreal effect created by their gargantuan proportions and their juxtaposition within the context of the environment in which they are placed evoke a mixture of reactions in the observer, from the inflatables’ towering aspect, the shock of the juxtaposition, the associations with purity, the implicit humor, and feelings of love and tenderness that, combined, have a strangely reassuring, soothing effect. The very familiarity of the image is at the root of its universal appeal.
Greater Kaohsiung took advantage of the rubber duck fever whipped up by the sculpture’s residency of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor the very minute its stint in Hong Kong ended. The city managed to bag an even bigger version of the duck to be sent over, before Shanghai got its own chance. The promotional literature tells us that the duck was 18m high, was made from 1 tonne of PVC, and was the largest version in Asia and the second-largest in the world. Naturally, size does matter, but for Taiwan the cultural significance is also important.
What exactly is the cultural significance of this creation or its connection to the local context?
The Taoyuan version of the duck is to be shown together with Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s Footprints of Life pink polka dot inflatable ladybugs and South Korean artist Choi Jeong-hwa’s giant pink Lotus in and around the township’s ponds as part of the Taoyuan Land Art Festival.
The point is and should be to allow passersby to reassess their relationship with the ponds and the land, thereby reinforcing the actual ecological and cultural context of Taiwan.
The duck is, after all, more than just a bathtime plaything. During the nation’s agricultural days, the duck was one of the main types of domesticated fowl, and its meat and eggs were major sources of protein in the Taiwanese diet. Ginger duck soup was a favorite winter warmer, and duck down the highest quality duvet filler. Live ducks made excellent farmyard watchdogs, warning of the approach of strangers, snakes or wild animals. They helped weed and fertilize the paddies, producing rice of the highest grade. The 1965 movie Beautiful Duckling (養鴨人家), starring Tang Pao-yun (唐寶雲), depicts a bygone life of agricultural Taiwan, so remote to us now. And then there was Chu Yi-kui (朱一貴), the duck farmer who led the 1721 anti-Qing Manchu uprising in Taiwan, who has gone down in Taiwanese folklore.
If Taiwan wants to promote its culture, it first needs to learn how to tell its own story. It needs to better make these events relevant to the experience and cultural context of the majority of people. Otherwise, we will find that when it is all over and the hype has calmed down, we are left with nothing. Over time, this illustrates Taiwan’s current cultural anemia.