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Rubber Duck Kaohsiung (Florentijn Hofman, 2013 18 x 15 x 16 meters Inflatable, pontoon and generator)

Rubber Duck Kaohsiung (Florentijn Hofman, 2013
18 x 15 x 16 meters,  Inflatable, pontoon and generator)

I’m sorry to post two duck posts in a row, but events in the art world (and beyond) necessitate such a step.  On September 27th (2013), Pittsburgh , PA became the first U.S. city to host Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman’s giant floating rubber duck statue.  Actually the rubber duck now in Pittsburgh is only one of several giant ducks designed by Hofman for his worldwide show “Spreading Joy Around the World,” which launched in his native Amsterdam.  The largest of the ducks, which measured 26×20×32 metres (85×66×105 ft) and weighed over 600 kg (1,300 lb) was launched in Saint Nazaire in Western France.

Rubber Duck Kaohsiung (Florentijn Hofman,  2013 26 x 20 x 32 meters Inflatable, pontoon and generators)

Rubber Duck “Kaohsiung” (Florentijn Hofman, 2013
26 x 20 x 32 meters, Inflatable, pontoon and generators)

Hofman’s statues are meant to be fun and playful.  His website describes the purpose of the giant duck project simply, “The Rubber Duck knows no frontiers, it doesn’t discriminate people and doesn’t have a political connotation. The friendly, floating Rubber Duck has healing properties: it can relieve mondial tensions as well as define them.”

Feestaardvarken (Florentijn Hofman, 2013, Metal, concrete and coating)

Feestaardvarken (Florentijn Hofman, 2013, Metal, concrete and coating)

A list of his sculptural projects reveals that he has the generous and delighted soul of a toymaker.  A few example are instructive:  he erected a large plywood statue of a discarded plush rabbit named “Sunbathing Hare” in St. Petersburg, a concrete “party aardvark” in Arnhem (Holland), 2 immense slugs made of discarded shopping bags in France (they are crawling up a hill towards a towering gothic church and their inevitable death), and many other playful animal theme pieces.

Slow Slugs (Florentijn Hofman, 2012, Metal, football nets, and 40.000 plastic bags)

Slow Slugs (Florentijn Hofman, 2012, Metal, football nets, and 40.000 plastic bags)

Not only do Hofman’s works address fundamental Ferrebeekeeper themes like mollusks, art, mammals, and waterfowl, his work hints at the global nature of trade, and human cultural taste in our times. With his industrially crafted giant sculptures and his emphasis on ports around the world, Hofman’s huge toys speak directly to humankind’s delight with inexpensive mass-market products.  The art also provokes a frisson of horror at the oppressive gigantism of even our most frivolous pursuits).

florentijn-hofmans-giant-inflatable-rubber-duck-floats-to-hong-kong-2

A Male and Female Wood Duck (Aix sponsa)

A Male and Female Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) photo by Steve Berliner

Judging by its name alone, the wood duck (Aix sponsa) sounds a little bland but it is actually one of the most colorful little waterfowl of North America. The male wood duck in particular is covered with iridescent green and red feathers which are grouped apart by lovely white and black demarcation lines.  In addition, male wood ducks have bright red eyes, orange beaks, yellow feet and white bellies.  The female wood duck is colored more subtly but is also very beautiful, as explained in a quote from artist and conservationist Robert Bateman who states, “the subtlety and form of the females display a classic elegance which suggests the wild and vulnerable wooded wetlands of this world.”

A pair of wood ducks by Katey Brown

A pair of wood ducks by Katey Brown

Wood ducks measure 47 to 54 cm (19 to 21 in) in length.  They feed on acorns, seeds, and berries from the land and on aquatic invertebrates and water weeds when on water.  Not only are they omnivores, but they can swim, dive, run, and fly quite well.  Wood ducks are close relatives of the equally beautiful mandarin ducks (Aix galericulata) of East Asia—the two species must have shared a Northern ancestor which lived near the dividing lines between the great continents.

Wood Duck Range (http://bioweb.uwlax.edu)

Wood Duck Range (http://bioweb.uwlax.edu)

 

The wood duck’s plumage is so lovely and vibrant that the species went into dreadful decline in the late nineteenth century as a result of the millinery industry (which was converting all the male ducks into ladies’ hats). Fortunately, today people do not set such high esteem by fancy hats. Additionally, conservation efforts have been adding to the ducks’ habitat (as have beavers, which, when spreading back to traditional habitats, create ponds where the ducks live) and waterfowl enthusiasts have been building little duck houses to help the ducks breed and nest.  Careful stewardship of hunting permits has kept duck hunters as avid partners in duck restoration and the wood duck is slowly regaining its (webbed) foothold as a part of the wild and quasi-wild places in North America.

A lovely wood duck painting from a site dedicated to their conservation (http://www.dbcl.org/woodduck.htm)

A lovely wood duck painting from a site dedicated to their conservation (http://www.dbcl.org/woodduck.htm)

Crown of Bahadur Shah II (circa 1825-50)

Crown of Bahadur Shah II (circa 1825-50)

Here is the crown of Bahadur Shah II, the last Mughal emperor who lived from 1775 – 1862. The Mughals were the most powerful Indian dynasty since the (quasi-mythical) empire of Ashoka the Great and they ruled over almost the entirety of the subcontinent for three centuries, however the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century were a bad time for them and their empire had blown apart into feuding principalities (and the remainder of Mughal lands was truly run by the East India Company).

Bahadur Shah II (August Schoefft, ca. 1854, oil on canvas)

Bahadur Shah II (August Schoefft, ca. 1854, oil on canvas)

Bahadur Shah II was an apt poet, calligrapher, and artist, however he was poor emperor. His father Akbar Shah II had preferred that a more warlike younger son, Mirza Jahangir, should take the throne, but the East Indian Company exiled bellicose prince so that Bahadur Shah II became Emperor in 1837.

The Red Fort in Delhi India

The Red Fort in Delhi India

Although Bahadur truly only ruled the Red Fort—the Mughal palace in Dehli, he was chosen as the nominal head of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 which had started as a mutiny by sepys (Indian troops fighting for the British) but grew into a powerful rebellion to throw the East India Company out of power in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, northern Madhya Pradesh, and Delhi.  The rebellion did succeed in getting rid of the East India Company which was dissolved in 1858.  The British army crushed the revolt and turned authority over India directly to the British crown. After the emperor and his sons were captured, a British calvalry captain named Hodson had Bahadar Shah II’s sons beheaded and then presented the severed heads to the emperor as a mocking Nowrūz day gift.  Upon being presented with this ghastly present, the emperor famously and nonsensically said, “Praise be to Allah, that descendents of Timur always come in front of their fathers in this way.” He was then exiled to Rangoon and the Mughal dynasty was extinguished.  His emerald and gold crown today belongs to the Queen of England who keeps it in her royal collection.

Capture of the King of Delhi by Captain Hodson (steel engraving)

Capture of the King of Delhi by Captain Hodson (steel engraving)

Prospect Park, Brooklyn

Prospect Park, Brooklyn

If you wander through the beautiful landscape of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, you will encounter many lovely sights: vistas of pastoral splendor will open before you filled with fields, trees, forests, streams, and lakes. There are stately statues, Victorian villas, gazebos, and landscaped gardens aplenty in the huge park–but there oddities too. Beside the Beaux Arts boathouse which floats above the lake like a huge elegant wedding cake, you will come upon a strange sight.  Completely bounded within a gothic ironwork fence, a horribly twisted and mutated tree is held together with bolts, crutches, and wire.  Although the tree’s trunk and limbs are monstrous, it is only 4 meters (twelve feet) tall and it is covered with lovely deep green hand-sized leaves in summer.

The Camperdown Elm in Winter (by Jim Henderson)

The Camperdown Elm in Winter (by Jim Henderson)

The tree is a Camperdown elm (Ulmus glabra ‘Camperdownii’) a bizarre mutant elm brought as a graft from the old world.  It was planted in 1872–the year that Ulysses S. Grant was reelected president (and also the first year that Arbor Day was celebrated). This particular tree has survived Dutch Elm disease, which wiped away America’s splendid elm-lined avenues, and the wizened tree somehow stayed alive during the urban decay of the 1960s-1990s (indeed its limbs are carved with obscure yet strangely familiar graffiti).  The wires, crutches, and supports are the work of gifted tree surgeons, brought in by the Prospect Park Alliance to keep the ancient tree alive.  It remains bonsai-like in its own little yard, a testament to the vigor of trees.

The Camperdown Elm in late summer (By Yi Jun Zhang)|

The Camperdown Elm in late summer (By Yi Jun Zhang)|

The story of how the weeping elm was discovered is likewise a strange trip into the past.  Between 1835 and 1840 David Taylor, who was the forester for the Earl of Camperdown, discovered a bizarre mutant branch of what seemed like an elm tree growing along the floor of the forest outside the Earl’s huge Greek revival manor house in Scotland.  The forester grafted the branch onto a normal Wych Elm and discovered that the resultant tree was a twisted weeping mutant.

The Camperdown Elm (by Will Woerner)

The Camperdown Elm (by Will Woerner)

During the Victorian age, there was a trend towards interesting and bizarre specimen plants in aristocratic gardens and arboretums (the perplexingly self-referential name of the aesthetic movement emphasizing such specimens was “gardenesque”).  Prospect Park’s Camperdown elm tree rode this movement across the ocean to Brooklyn where Olmstead and Vaux were putting the finishing touches on their masterpiece park.

The original grafted sport of Camperdown Elm in Dundee Scotland. It was once surrounded by wych elms but they were killed by Dutch Elm disease.

The original grafted sport of Camperdown Elm in Dundee Scotland. It was once surrounded by Wych elms but they were killed by Dutch Elm disease.

Have you noticed that in life that whenever, after heroic effort, you finally surmount some terrible problem, another problem promptly comes along?  Chinese mythology certainly reflects this truth (indeed, after millennia of continuous culture, the Chinese people are quite familiar with the way that one problem slides seamlessly into the next).   One of the most harrowing myths from ancient China is the story of Gonggong’s rebellion.  You can revisit the whole story here, but the quick version is that the evil water god Gonggong attempted to drown the world and was only prevented from doing so by the heroic last resort actions of the beneficent creator goddess Nüwa, who cut the legs off the cosmic turtle in order to set things to rights.

Xiangliu, the nine-headed snake monster, first minister of Gonggong the terrible

Xiangliu, the nine-headed snake monster, first minister of Gonggong the terrible (not to be confused with Xiang Liu, the Olympic track star)

In the chaos of the climactic battle, however Gongong’s chief minister and partner in crime Xiangliu the nine-headed snake monster completely escaped.  Filled with bitterness about Gonggong’s failure, Xiangliu crawled away across the soggy lands of Szechuan (which were water-logged after the nearly world-ending floods).  Wherever he went, the snake monster left permanent fens and swamps which were toxic to life.  His very being had become steeped in poison, and his progress through the damp and moldy world had to be stopped.

Kaiki-choju_Xiang-liu

Yu the hero, the third of the three sage kings, finally caught up with the nine-headed monster and killed him in a pitched battle .  Yet still there was a problem: Xiangliu’s pestiferous blood has poisoned the whole region, which now stank of rot.  Crops would not grow and civilization began to falter.  Yu dug up the blood soaked soil again and again, but the corrupted blood of the monster just sank deeper into the ground.  Finally, Yu excavated a deep valley by Kunlun mountain and rid the world of Xiangliu’s toxins.  With all of the land he had excavated he built a great terraced mountain for the gods.  Yu then went forth to found the kingdom of Xiam the first civilized state in Chinese history.

Proposed location of the Xia kingdom (ca. 2070 BC)

Proposed location of the Xia kingdom (ca. 2070 BC)

Of course some people say that Yu did none of this, that, it was the goddess Nüwa who once again came forth to battle the monster and undo the damage he had caused.  Then, with accustomed modesty she let Yu take the credit and begin his kingdom (for Nüwa cared not for empty praise and hollow glory but only for the well-being of her children).

A somewhat lurid contemporary sculpture of Yu the hero fighting Xiangliu

A somewhat lurid contemporary sculpture of Yu the hero fighting Xiangliu

Wooly Rhinoceros by Charles Knight (Los Angeles Natural History Museum)

Wooly Rhinoceros by Charles Knight (Los Angeles Natural History Museum)

Sadly, today the rhinoceroses are few on the ground.  There are only five extant species of the family Rhinocerotidae and none of them are doing well–because of habitat loss and humankind’s obdurate (and extraordinarily foolish) belief that rhino horns have magical supernatural powers. Yet once the rhinos were a mighty force—in fact, the largest land mammal ever, the Paraceratherium, was a sort of rhino.  There used to be multiple tribes of Rhinocerotidae, each containing numerous genera (which could in turn contain dozens of species) of these great horned perissodactyls. None of the extinct rhinos was more splendid that the magnificent wooly rhino (Coelodonta antiquitatis) which roamed Eurasia during the icy Pleistocene epoch and even survived (probably) up until the beginnings of human civilization.

The comparative size of a Wooly Rhinoceros

The comparative size of a Wooly Rhinoceros

A wooly rhinoceros was a substantial creature.  From fossils and mummified remains, we know they measured around 3 to 3.8 metres (10 to 12.5 feet) in length, and had an estimated weight of around 2,700–3,200 kg (5,999–7,000 lb)—so they were not much smaller than the still-living white rhinoceros (although wooly rhinoceroses are more closely related to the contemporary Sumatran rhinos—which do not become so big and heavy).  As you might guess from the name, wooly rhinoceroses had magnificent hairy coats to help them survive the cold and they had two large horns for defense and for mating displays.  For a long time, paleontologists have argued about whether the Coelodontas grazed grasses or browsed on tender shoots, berries, and mosses, but paleobotanical evidence (taken in tandem with fossilized skeletal features) now seems to indicate they were browsers, like bison or cows.

Wooly Rhinoceros (Illustration by Charles R. Knight, National Geographic)

Wooly Rhinoceros (Illustration by Charles R. Knight, National Geographic)

Wooly rhinos roamed the frozen steppes of Eurasia–a habitat which was much larger in those days due to the ice age and the lower sea levels of the Pleistocene.  For example, wooly rhinos could be found on the dry & icy wastelands of Southern England and they thundered across the cold plains which would later become the fertile hunting lands of Doggerland (which are now submerged beneath the North Sea).  They were also prevalent across northern Europe and down through Central Asia all the way to the Tibetan Plateau.

Wooly Rhinoceros from Chauvet Cave (ca. 30,000-32,000 years ago)

Wooly Rhinoceros from Chauvet Cave (ca. 30,000-32,000 years ago)

Based on cave paintings from tens of thousands of years ago, humankind seems to have had an early fascination with these great furry beasts.  Unfortunately the last wooly rhinos apparently went extinct around eight to ten thousand years ago (according to somewhat disputed carbon 14 readings from a specimen found frozen in the Siberian permafrost).  Many large species of Paleocene megafauna died off at approximately the same time: whether the great behemoths went extinct from humanity’s increasingly effective hunting, climate change, or from some great pandemic which affected large animals is unclear (although contemporary scientists have been inclining towards climate change as a primary cause).

Woolly Rhinoceros Hunt (diorama from Horniman Museum, London)

Woolly Rhinoceros Hunt (diorama from Horniman Museum, London)

kanaloa-god-of-the-ocean-jim-lee

In Hawaiian mythology the most important deity was the beneficent creator god Kāne, the deity of the sun, the dawn, and the fertile forests where people liked to dwell.  Yet there was also a deity in opposition to Kāne—an evil god of the dark depths of the ocean, and darkness, and the death of all things.  This underworld deity was known as Kanaloa and was sometimes envisioned as a black, poisonous squid or octopus.

kanaloa

The Hawaiian myth of creation involves an art contest of sorts between Kāne and Kanaloa: both deities carved human beings out of basalt but only Kane’s man and woman came to life.  Kanaloa’s people remained dark stone. In anger, Kanaloa seduced the first man’s wife and brought enmity between the sexes.  The dark deity then invented poison and thus caused many fish, plants, and animals to be injurious to the new humans.  Still not satisfied he crafted death so that men and women would have only a short time in the world.

kimages

Because of his mischief, Kanaloa was banished to the depths of the ocean, but he retained his power and godhood.  Sailors and fishermen pray to Kanaloa so as to remain safe when crossing his watery domain.  Likewise he is worshipped as the foremost god of magic.  I wish I had some good stories about Kanaloa doing interesting things while in his octopus form, but sadly stories of the dark god are rare.  Some ethnologists even suggest that his role was altered and stories about the deity were changed so that he would fit more coherently into missionaries’ stories about God and the Devil.

kanaloa2

00Brunswick green is an old and beautiful color with a long history of use in England and Germany.  The color was first manufactured from copper compounds in Braunschweig, Germany (a historical city in Lower Saxony which is known as Brunswick in English).  Brunswick green is traditionally a very dark yellowish green which can look almost black.  The color was first mass manufactured in the middle of the 18th century and it became an important color for machinery during the industrial revolution.  Railroads in particular tended to use various shades of Brunswick green to paint their rolling stock.  The color would start out black and then weather to a brighter green as the copper compounds oxidized.

60163 Tornado Locomotive

60163 Tornado Locomotive

England has deep and ancient ties to Old Saxony (the homeland of the Saxons, which includes the modern state of Lower Saxony), however the United Kingdom and Germany have sometimes fallen out rather badly (!).  Thus in 1923 after the horrors of World War I, Brunswick green was renamed English Green (which just goes to show that “freedom fries” and suchlike political bowdlerization of names is hardly a uniquely American phenomena).

Tylosaurus and the 108 Outlaws (Mu Pan, 2013)

Tylosaurus and the 108 Outlaws (Mu Pan, 2013)

Here is a large painting by contemporary Brooklyn artist Mu Pan.  Pan mixes Chinese and western styles to tell allegorical stories about the fight against authoritarian hegemony.  His complex pictures are filled with characters and objects from wildly different cultures and eras.

The 108 outlaws shown in the painting are the outlaws from Liangshan Marsh—the main characters of “Water Margins” a Ming dynasty era epic which is one of the four great classics of Chinese literature.  The outlaws of “Water Margin” are reincarnated versions of heavenly spirits who as humans are unfairly persecuted by the corrupt officials of an incompetent emperor.  Together they form an unbeatable army of martial artists which opposes the crooked government (although due to their leader Song Jiang’s loyal feelings for the throne of heaven, they never overthrow the system).

Detail

Detail

In this painting the outlaws have joined forces with sharks, rays, mermen, kalpas, porpoises, and other water creatures to fight with an immense deathless tylosaurus (a sort of giant mosasaur which lived during the Cretaceous). The writhing dinosaur clearly represents the great leviathan of Chinese central authority. The painting is alive with fantastic details and martial energy, but its title and subject also indicate that it is an unmistakable allusion to China’s most famous book about fighting against an inhumane and broken system. You can check out Mu Pan’s other amazing works (and buy prints) at his online gallery.

Japanese Bonnet Snail (Phalium/Semicassis bisulcata)

Japanese Bonnet Snail (Phalium/Semicassis bisulcata)

The helmet and bonnet snails (Cassidae) are slow moving hunters which live along sandy coasts in the tropics and subtropics.  Depending on the species (of which tere are approximately 60), these sea snails live anywhere from the intertidal zone to a depth of 100 meters.  During the day they bury themselves in the sand and at night they emerge to hunt their favorite prey—echinoderms (particularly sea urchins).

A Horned Helmet (Cassis cornuta) from the Hawaii coast

A Horned Helmet (Cassis cornuta) from the Hawaii coast

Most of the Cassidae are large snails with big mantles and heavy, muscular foot. They see by means of two eyes located at the base of a single pair of head tentacles and they use an extensible tube for smelling.

A helmet snail closes in on a sea urchin (image from wannadivekona.com)

A helmet snail closes in on a sea urchin (image from wannadivekona.com)

When a helmet snail catches a tasty echinoderm, the snail immobilizes its prey by holding the smaller animal within its mighty foot and releasing a paralytic enzyme from its salivary gland (which prevents urchins from using their spikes in self-defense).  The snail has a sharpened radula (an organ which consists of a chitinous tongue-like strip covered with razor sharp teeth) and two proboscis glands which produce a secretion rich in sulfuric acid.  Using the combination of radula and acid, the helmet snail bores a hole in the echinoderm’s armored body and devours the creature from within!

Shells from the Cassidae family (from OuterBanksShells.com)

Shells from the Cassidae family (from OuterBanksShells.com)

The shells of helmet snails are frequently large and beautiful.  Shaped like a heavy helmet, these shells consist of dextral (right sided) coils which whorl outward from a tight spiral spire.  The snails are divided into males and females (unlike many mollusks which are hermaphrodites or swap genders) and the females lay large masses of hundreds of eggs which can either hatch into planktonic free swimmers or into miniature crawling snails—depending on the species.  Some Cassidae are prized by shell-hunters and artisans such as Cypraecassis rufa, a snail from the coast of Southeast Africa which is favored by cameo carvers.

Bullmouth Helmet Shell (Cypraecassis rufa) from the store "Evolution"

Bullmouth Helmet Shell (Cypraecassis rufa) from the store “Evolution”

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