Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman makes giant sculptures of discarded animal toys. We talk to him about fame, finding your style and rediscovering your childlike wonder.
You’ve probably seen the duck. If you’re anywhere near the duck, it’s hard not to see it. Six storeys tall, bright yellow and floating down the world’s major waterways, it’s the art world equivalent of the Nike ‘Swoosh’. And the places the duck has been: Sydney (twice!), London, Taiwan, Osaka, Auckland, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, São Paulo, Baku (it’s the capital of Azerbaijan) and a whole host more. It’s the most well travelled toy since the garden gnome from Amelie.
The duck—called, simply, Rubber Duck—is the invention of Florentijn Hofman, a Dutch artist, designer and father of four who is the closest thing the world of public art has to a legitimate celebrity. Beyond Rubber Duck, now a veteran of more than twenty cities, Hofman has also built a giant octopus playground out of yarn (Kraken, Shenzhen); a giant, half-submerged wooden hippo to float down the Thames (HippopoThames, London); and a fully climbable, recumbent aardvark in a party hat (Partyaardvark, Arnhem). The aardvark is thirty metres long and weighs over 130 tonnes, and it apparently makes for quite a good playground. Then there are the rabbits, bears, rats, dogs, monkeys, flies and even slugs that Florentijn has blown up to an absurd size and tossed into urban landscapes all around the world. They’re fun, colourful, family-friendly and catnip for Instagram.
“If I had to define the philosophy behind my animals,” Hofman tells us, “I’d say the world is my playground and I want you to join my play!” The inspiration for the series came when he was picking up toys in his kids’ playroom years ago. “I had my head really low on the floor level, and I saw all these toys lying around in strange positions and I thought, Wow! This is good work.”
We’re speaking to Hofman during one of his all-too-rare breaks at his home in Arnhem, while he’s walking the family’s two dogs. “My dogs are jumping around me in a totally white landscape,” he says. “It snowed here last night and the fields are just completely white. It’s so beautiful.”
If there’s a certain childlike enthusiasm to the way Hofman faces the world, it has its roots in the child he once was. “I was not a common student at school,” he says. “I was always doing creative things: arts, cabaret. I remember watching a documentary about the artist Karel Appel when I was ten and I immediately thought: Yes, that is what I want to do. To be an artist in a studio and have assistants and spend my life making art.”
From the beginning, Hofman was obsessed with questions of scale. For a group project at university, he and a couple of friends painted a 15,000-square-metre mural on the side of an old nuclear plant’s cooling tower. “When you’re twenty-one and you’re doing such a huge project, nothing feels too big after that.”
Flush with success, Hofman convinced the owner of the takeaway restaurant he was working at in Arnhem to let him construct a sculpture out of leftover tables and chairs. Hofman laughs: “It got into the paper because it was so giant!”
Hofman was fresh out of university and looking for a new project when a visit to a gallery of old Dutch landscape paintings got him thinking about the aesthetic appeal of water. In typical Hofman fashion—the high and low merged together—this also got him thinking about a yoghurt ad he’d seen recently that featured a rubber duck. “I ran out of the gallery and thought, A giant rubber duck in the water! That’s it!” Tapping the yoghurt company in question for funding, Hofman slowly began constructing what would become his definitive work. It debuted in Saint-Nazaire, France, in 2007 and has barely stopped moving since, recently making its twenty-eighth stop in the city of Cikarang, Indonesia.
As popular as the duck is and has been, there are some principles on which Hofman will not be moved: the duck cannot be bought; it must be built anew in each city it visits; and it must be both free and temporary. “I think temporary work is so important in a world that has been kidnapped by money,” Hofman explains. “Art in particular has been kidnapped by capitalism. People buy art for investment. But art is for the people. Art should be in public space. Whether you’re a constructor or you’re a dentist, everyone should have a chance to see it.”
This philosophy permeates everything that Hofman does. “I want to engage with public space, but I don’t want it to become the Florentijn Hofman space. It needs to be free to see, to enter, to interact with.” In some cases, this leads to almost absurd timeframes.
In 2014, Hofman and his crew spent two months sewing together more than 40,000 colourful plastic bags for a work entitled Slow Slugs, a pair of bus-sized slugs that crawled through the streets of Angers, France. They were on display for three days. “It was the same with the monkey I made out of flip-flops in Brazil. Three days and then it’s gone. After I show them, you get back a public space that is the same as it was before, but which you can never look at in the same way again.”
Material is another key aspect of Hofman’s work. “I love taking these pure materials and turning them into something completely different—transforming them into skin.” Rather than bringing in a team to produce his work, Hofman always tries to work with a local community and local materials. “It’s really about making something that will stand for and with a city.” He cites Conibear, a thirteen-metre-tall bear he made out of fresh conifer for a town in the Netherlands with the help of a nearby high school and nursery. “We worked on it for a month, and then we got to watch it go from bright green to this rich brown.”
However, operating in public does bring its attendant risks. A piece called Moon Rabbit burnt to the ground after an accident at a nearby construction site sparked a grass fire. And the ubiquitous ducks have suffered their share of unfortunate events. The Osaka duck became stuck under a bridge, while its cousin in Taiwan suffered a power outage during an earthquake and slowly sank into Keelung Port. Three days later, the same duck exploded as organisers attemped to reinflate it.
Then there was the Belgium duck, stabbed 42 times under the cover of darkness, an act of sabotage that revealed a simmering resentment in the art world to Hofman and his works. “Rubber Duck sends an infantilising message about the role of public art in cities,” writes architect Kriston Capps on the website CityLab. “When it’s done right, public art expresses some unique value about a city’s particular cultural vantage point. Rubber Duck has all the nutritional value and regional identity of a Diet Coke.”
This resentment is fired by the sometimes-conflicting impulses coming from Hofman himself. He’s fiercely anti-commercial inasmuch as he continually complains about attempts to merchandise and copy his work, particularly when it comes to Rubber Duck. Yet Hofman’s deployment of the duck is undeniably a profitable endeavour, raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars for him and his studio. This for what is essentially an oversized, unlicensed version of one of the most iconic and widely recognised toys in the world.
Hofman’s work is also avowedly non-political, a stance that rankled many when Hofman spoke out against a replica giant duck with crosses for eyes being used by anti-corruption protesters in São Paulo. “We want to emphasise that it is a shame that this parody is used for propaganda,” the studio said in a statement. “It is a positive work and has healing functions.” One wonders whether Hofman is more concerned about demand for his art drying up—as an apolitical artist, his work can be easily installed in nations with dubious human rights records, such as China and Azerbaijan. (China banned searches for the phrase ‘big yellow duck’ after an artist superimposed Hofman’s duck on photos of the tanks from the Tiananmen Square massacre.)
But this is not the impression one gets while talking to Hofman. He seems more baffled than anything that people would think so little of his work, or of him. He also points out that after the incident in Belgium, the community came together and created a night watch to protect the duck. “It brought the people of the town together. It shows that this piece of art means a lot to people.” And then there are the people themselves, millions and millions of them, who come to witness their city reimagined, to feel for a moment that once-familiar sense of innocence and wonder. “Whether it’s an upside-down rabbit or a rubber duck on the water, I think it affects everyone, because we were all young once and we all remember how it felt. People take life so seriously. I like to provoke them, to snap them out of it, to help them be as open-minded as a child again.”
He’s only forty, but already Hofman has his studio, his assistants and his art, just like Karel Appel. “In some ways, I feel like I’ve realised my dream already,” he laughs. “But if you are successful in one thing, people ask you each time for the same thing, the same duck. So you have to have the guts to change. Now my dream just needs to be to stay open-minded and observe well and create as much work as I can. To proceed like that for a long, long time will be my biggest wish.”
Pic credits: 1. Stor Gul Kanin / Örebro (SE) 2011. The Big Yellow Rabbit was a temporary, 13-meter-high sculpture. 2. Partyaardvark / Arnhem (NL) 2013. A 30-meter-long concrete sculpture of an abstracted aardvark with a golden party hat on. 3. Slow Slugs / Angers (FR) 2012. Made out of 40,000 plastic bags that move in the wind. 4. Conibeer / Eelde (NL) 2016. An abstracted bear made from conifers.