I have seen a lot of bugs since moving to Shanghai, but never have I seen ants this big. Or this colorful.
The giant ants comprise a small sculpture exhibit located outside a mall on West Nanjing Road (just west of the intersection with Huashan Road, if you’re in Shanghai and want to check them out), and I spotted them while riding the bus last week. I didn’t have a chance then to investigate further, but went back over the weekend to take a look at the ants up close.
Each three-foot-long ant is painted with a different motif, in the style of the CowParade public art exhibit that took Chicago by storm back in 1999. Who painted the ants? I have no idea. I looked around for some sort of placard that would explain the exhibit and identify the artist(s), but if there was one, I missed it.
I was the only one of the dozen or so adults viewing the sculptures on Sunday afternoon who didn’t have a preschool-aged companion. The exhibit is very popular with parents and grandparents, who pose their (grand-)children with the ants and whip out their cellphones to take a few snapshots. Though virtually every child I saw instinctively tried to sit on the ants (they’re the perfect size for a four-year-old to “ride”), a security guard was quick to reprimand them. Touching or hugging the ants for photos is okay; sitting on them is not.
Why ants? What are the different designs meant to express? I don’t have a clue. Most of the ants are painted with patterns, though a couple of them display pictures of objects or scenes instead. I think the large pink standing ant that served as a kind of centerpiece for the exhibit has a map of Shanghai painted on it, but I wasn’t able to examine it closely enough, or long enough, to verify that—it was the most-photographed ant in the exhibit, since its upright stance meant that kids could easily hug it. The ants are cute and clearly a big hit with young children, but I didn’t get much in the way of an artistic, or Shanghai-specific, message from them.
What’s more notable, I thought, is that 14 years after the first CowParade show, it’s still such a landmark public art exhibit that every major city, including Shanghai, automatically thinks it needs some version of it. Scanning the Wikipedia list of CowParade imitators around the world, it seems that cities usually choose a focus object that has some link to their community (Philadelphia—the Phillie Phanatic, Los Angeles—angels, Austin—guitars). So what do ants have to do with Shanghai?
Maybe nobody wanted to paint a giant rat.
(Yes, all big cities have rats, but Shanghai’s seem much bolder than I’m accustomed to. Living here has taught me that I can accept a mouse now and then as part of the apartment-dwelling experience, but I refuse to house rats unless they contribute to the rent. And stumbling over a dead rat on the sidewalk—which has happened to me twice—is one of the very few things that truly freaks me out, in an “Ew! Get it away from me, get it away from me!” way.)