In 1986, Bill Heine installed an almost 25-foot fiberglass shark sculpture on his roof. It has been the talk of the town ever since. So much so that the Oxford City Council, who originally fought to remove the shark, are now embracing the sculpture.
The whole point of the shark was not only to defy bureaucrats, but also to make an anti-war statement. Heine took issue with local authorities deciding what art is or isn’t acceptable for the public. This whole issue started years before when Heine collaborated with friend/sculptor John Buckley. They put a large sculpture of a pair of can-can legs on top of a theater Heine ran. The city ordered the legs removed. At the time Heine was an American who was studying law at the University of Oxford.
One night in 1986, Heine heard warplanes fly over his house. He found out the next day those planes where on their way to bomb Tripoli in retaliation for Libyan sponsorship of terrorist attacks. It got him thinking about how safe people believe they are in their own homes, until war breaks out. So, he and Buckley collaborated again, to build a great white shark dropping down on his roof, like a bomb would. They installed it on August 9th, 1986. Which was exactly 41 years since the United States had dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan.
As soon as the shark went up, the Oxford City Council deemed it a public danger. But engineers declared it as structurally sound, and submitted the official planning application. This application was, unsurprisingly, rejected, but ended up being granted upon appeal. After much public debate, the city’s planning inspector ruled it could stay.
“Before, when they hated it and you couldn’t possibly have it and there was a fight to be had there, they were trying to use the planning apparatus and the laws and the sort of threat implied behind that to forcibly remove it,” Hanson-Heine had to say on the whole ordeal. “And now they happen to have changed their mind and love it, and they’re trying to use exactly that same apparatus to force it to remain, in the event that I did want to remove that, which I don’t, as it happens. But nevertheless, the one consistent thing throughout is a sense of control and imposition.”
Over 30 years later, none of those councilors are there anymore. It seems the Headington Shark House has now become a well loved landmark. It’s such an attraction that current owner Magnus Hanson-Heine (Heine’s son) rents the home as an AirBnB. Unfortunately, Bill Heine passed away in 2019.
“I’m not sure they are celebrating the shark,” Hanson-Heine pointed out on As It Happens. “I think they’re quite explicitly ignoring the meaning and sentiment, and doing something that’s actually quite destructive to that side of the artwork, be that through ignorance, willful or otherwise.”