An immense sculpture in China is nearing completion, and it bears a striking resemblance to Chicago’s most famous work of public art. Today, Chinese news agencies shared images of “Big Oil Bubble,” a reflective, stainless steel, bean-shaped work currently underway in Karamay. The sculpture is not yet attributed to any artist, so perhaps Anish Kapoor has quietly been receiving commissions from China since this “oil bubble” resembles a souped-up version of his own reflective, stainless steel, bean-shaped “Cloud Gate” (2006), which stands in Millennium Park.
The bubble is being erected at the site of the first oil well in the booming city of Karamay, which means “black oil” in the Uyghur language. According to China News Service (CNS), it symbolizes a drop of oil; around it also lie mini reflective bubbles, recalling blobs of liquid mercury (Kapoor’s own source of inspiration). Karamay, in China’s northwestern-most corner, is trying to raise its profile as a tourist destination focused on the area’s history of oil exploration, according to CNS, so it’s not surprising that the city would so unabashedly rip off “Cloud Gate,” which ranks high among Chicago’s top tourist attractions and garners endless social media shares because it doubles as a giant selfie mirror.
Like Kapoor’s sculpture, Karamay’s “Big Oil Bubble” arches slightly off the ground, allowing people to explore its underbelly. Its surface is slightly warped — presumably to mimic the texture of oil — whereas that of Kapoor’s is smooth. So while its mirrored shell may not yield the most ideal, glamorous selfies, it still has the same all-encompassing reflective power of “Cloud Gate.” The other major difference between the two sculptures emerges when one goes underneath “Big Oil Bubble”: rather than leaving it bare, its designers have installed LED lights beneath it that shine colorful, lightning-like streaks across the metal surface.
The mind behind the model is still anonymous, but this is far from the first incident of a sculpture in China that has mimicked a famous artwork. Last year, a copy of Seward Johnson’s “Forever Marilyn” (which once stood in Chicago as well) allegedly made by multiple artists popped up in a Chinese dump. In 2013, illegal giant yellow rubber ducks appeared throughout China, modeled after Florentijn Hofman’s own globetrotting fowl. Explaining the nation’s bizarre tradition of replication, Hyperallergic’s Alicia Eler wrote:
China is known for shanzhai (aka “knock off”) culture of copying everything, from electronics to handbags to even Fake One-Road, an entire block of businesses that were copied from popular Western franchises. The intent of shanzhai is to make money off of a product or idea.
It’s hard to imagine that “Big Oil Bubble” isn’t an example of shanzhai, as the similarities to “Cloud Gate” are glaring. Still, if there was one way to make the Chicago sculpture more popular, turning its cavernous interior into a rave-like light show was probably the way to go.
Update: After learning of the existence of “Big Oil Bubble,” Anish Kapoor has made a statement denouncing it and threatening to sue.