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From childhood memories, Laos many of us will associate the sight of shuttlecocks with languid, summer vacations, picnics, or just messing about in the backyard. At least for the game we played as children, Laos the high net could readily be rigged in any open space and boundaries didn’t matter Laos all that much. After all, it was hard enough for most of us to get the small racquet (or battledore) to even connect with the light, feathered, floating shuttlecock and, even if we did make Laos the hit, to send it very far. By contrast, the much more professional sport of badminton is a classy game that, requiring great anticipation and finesse, tends to be dominated by Asian athletes.

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Unlike a fast-moving squash ball, which fits very neatly into the eye socket and can blind you, there’s little chance of being badly hurt as a consequence of a high-speed encounter with a shuttlecock. That, though, isn’t the case for these Kansas City shuttlecocks, which are of sufficient magnitude and heft to cause some damage to anything, or anyone, that runs head-on into them. Still, they are made of aluminium and fiberglass so it wouldn’t be like hitting bronze or marble. Where did they come from? It seemed unlikely these feathered follies were just sporting equipment left lying around after a game by juvenile giants from Jonathan Swift’s Brobdingnag (could his 1726 Gulliver’s Travels be regarded as a precursor of The Wizard of Oz?) or the ever-playful gods of Mt Olympus! The answer is, of course, more prosaic, human and interesting.

My immediate thought was Claes Oldenburg. Implicating him as the creator of these shuttlecocks reflected my familiarity with his 14-metre-high clothespin (clothes peg) from an earlier 1970s’ life in Philadelphia. I was only half-right. The four big shuttlecocks are joint works with Oldenburg’s second wife, Coosje van Bruggen. Now in his late eighties, Oldenburg has long outlived the much younger van Bruggen. They were partners in life and work for more than thirty-two years, but she died too young, as many women still do, of breast cancer. Commissioned by the directors of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which stands in the background of these lively pieces, Oldenburg and van Bruggen evidently visited and envisaged the grassy surrounds here in Kansas as a giant’s playground. And it really is a spectacular and pleasing prospect.

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