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CHICAGO — A giant replica of the classic yellow rubber duckie drifted into Hong Kong’s harbor last month. Sailing across the water, bobbing about as if in a giant, public bathtub, the Pop art-inspired duck, created by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman in 2007, is essentially an enlarged version of the “original” rubber duckie. Since 2007, versions of the duck have floated through the waters of harbors in Amsterdam, Belgium, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, and Sydney. In Hong Kong, the duck drowned due to deflation; shortly thereafter, it was properly copied and then set free to float again, appearing in harbors all over China including Xi’an, Dongguan, and Wuhan. The new versions were not made by Hofman and his team — they were Chinese shanzhai versions of the duck. The artist was furious, calling out the Chinese for stealing his idea, but really, the joke’s on the artist. He made a work of Pop art — a copy of the original rubber ducky. The Chinese shanzhai rip-off of Hofman’s duck are a curious commentary on the fact that Hofman’s work itself is a copy of an original, the only difference being that he held a copyright to it.
“Shanzhai does not thrive on creativity, it thrives on reaching those people who can’t reach the original product, either without geographic proximity or monetary power,” says Hong Kong-based arts and culture writer Jackie WX Tong. “Not everyone can come to Hong Kong to watch that dumb duck.”
When Hofman discovered that his duck was another victim of shanzhai, Hofman reacted with shock and horror. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Hofman debunked a rumor that the Chinese real estate agency Country Garden had struck a deal with the duck’s copyright owner. Hofman stated that he had not spoken to Country Garden.
“The rumors are false,” he told WSJ. “If people want the real duck, they have to come to me.” To which he added: “I’ve always said the rubber duck is a yellow catalyst. Right now what it is showing is that there is a lack of trust in China, and that is an enormous problem.”
What a curious reaction considering that Hofman himself created a work of pop art which is, in and of itself, already a copy of a copy of a copy, ad infinitum.
“Hofman calls his creation a ‘friendly, floating rubber duck’, and he created it to make people happy,” writes ESLnewscast. “He hopes that when people see the duck, they’ll stop what they’re doing and begin discussing it with the people around them. That’s important, Hofman believes, because he wants people to connect with each other.”
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. Ironically, the shanzhai version of the duck is giving more people the opportunity to experience it. The more versions of the duck that exist, the more people will be able to “stop what they’re doing and begin discussing it with the people around them.” If Hofman is honest in his intentions for the duck as a work of art, the shanzhai effect on the duck is actually helping further his supposedly altruistic work of art. It may be breaking copyright laws, but at least more people can have an authentic experience with the duck, or at least a copy of the ‘original’ duck.
Intellectual property rights (IPRs) in China, while acknowledged, are quite often ignored. In the realm of American contemporary art, copyrights potentially cause trouble for artists who are engaged in pop, remix or appropriation culture. Richard Prince was recently involved in yet another lawsuit that centered around fair use and possible copyright infringement; Cory Arcangel is known for his work of art Super Mario Clouds, which use the clouds from said video game, and also offers anyone the opportunity to make a duplicate of the work of art; Arcangel provides how-to instructions for others. The line between copy and original becomes increasingly blurry on the internet, where memes and gifs are as natural as copy and paste.
Ripping off of pop culture is integral to making pop art, whether it is on or offline; one cannot imagine the canon of contemporary art history without Warhol, Oldenburg, Koons, Prince or, increasingly, Arcangel. Hofman’s work is quite in line with pop art, copying the original rubber duckie idea to make his own version of it, which is not an “original,” but rather yet another copy. The Chinese shanzhai masters were adding to his intentions, and in the process, accidentally proving that Hofman himself is a copycat.
“He should have expected his ‘cool duck’ to be copied because he should have known that in China, even the design of a building can be ripped off,” says Tong. “Chinese are amazing copycats. We copy the original and blow it up ten times — look at our style of capitalism/communism.”
Making money off of a copy of something that already exists — whether it is for consumer purposes or the art market — is the shared idea of both shanzhai and Pop. The only difference is that the Chinese aren’t hiding their true “creative” motives.
“In the case of shanzhai, the Chinese are not trying to make a statement,” says Tong. “They’re trying to make a buck.”