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THE HEADINGTON SHARK

51.1872° N, 0.1142° E

  • Given that Oxford is roughly 100 miles from the ocean no matter which direction you go, it might surprise you that our chosen sight in this centre of educational excellence focuses on something a bit…well… fishy. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the suburbs, a 25ft shark crashes through your roof.

    Fortunately for Bill Heine, the house’s occupant both then and now, it didn’t come as too much of a shock to wake up to a sea creature sticking prominently out of his skylight, owing to the fact that it was his idea to put it there in the first place. Erected under cover of darkness, the shark is among sculptor John Buckley’s most famous works and, despite its initial cloak and dagger installation, it went on to cause quite a stir in both the local community and the wider worlds of art and politics.

    Installed in the August of 1986, on the 41st anniversary of the atomic bomb falling on the unsuspecting city of Nagasaki and mere weeks after the devastating events of Chernobyl’s meltdown, the frightening figure spoke volumes, as was its creators’ intention. When asked about what the sculpture stood for, Heine discussed the looming and very real fears surrounding nuclear power and weaponry, stating ‘The shark was to express someone feeling totally impotent and ripping a hole in their roof out of a sense of impotence and anger and desperation’. The subject was such a hot button topic at the time that the work quickly gained notoriety, being a literal embodiment of a ‘lethal weapon’ that reflected society’s vulnerability to attacks from above.

    Understandably, and not only for those who suffer from galeophobia, the aquatic oddity caused a bit of controversy in the somewhat conservative area, but threats to remove it on the grounds of public safety proved unsuccessful when, on inspection, it was deemed structurally sound. Other arguments against the headless megalodon focused in on its ‘incongruity’ with the historically rich and architecturally attractive surroundings, but this only served to reinforce its message once again. One supporter offered the point of view that, ‘In this case it is not in dispute that the shark is not in harmony with its surroundings, but then it is not intended to be. The basic facts are there for almost all to see. Into this archetypal urban setting crashes (almost literally) the shark. The contrast is deliberate.’

    Over time, the shark became a much loved part of its scholarly home and has subsequently been featured in everything from tourism flyers to ad campaigns, and though it may be a bizarre and amusing addition to the ancient and beautiful academic township, its powerful message still resonates.

    So there you have it; a shark with humanitarian leanings. If only Amity Island had been so lucky…

IMAGE CREDIT: James Turnbull
November 6th 2015