News Column

The man and meaning behind 40-foot "Rubber Duck"

May 16, 2014

By Teresa Annas, The Virginian-Pilot

May 16--Florentijn Hofman's first "Rubber Duck" was downright frightening.

It was 2007 when he made that initial giant, inflatable duckling, a sculpture he intended to float on water, just like the bathtub toy, and cruise to waterfronts worldwide, such as Norfolk's, where it will cheerfully bob starting Saturday.

Hofman's "Rubber Duck," in a 40-foot version, will make its second U.S. appearance in the Hague inlet across from the Chrysler Museum of Art, which reopened last weekend after a lengthy closure for expansion and renovations.

The Dutch artist dreamed up the duck in 2001 while working on his graduate art degree. The piece fit in with his conceptual way of thinking, as it was evolving then.

As a student, he made sketches and models of it, then set it aside. Then the duck became real. He had been commissioned to build it for an international biennial exhibition in France.

At 85 feet, it was gigantic. "It was also dangerous, in a way. It was a sailing ship. It was so powerful and big.

"I remember the crew was scared of the whole production, doing it."

He made it out of a PVC fabric dipped in rubber, the same type of material used in children's bounce houses.

The team attached the piece to a heavy barge, then inflated it. "The material was so much, you could not hold it any more. You didn't know how to hold it, how to start. The material was all yellow, yellow, yellow, everywhere."

But once it was up, he said,

"it was amazing for me to see that we did it, and the impact it had."

___

Hofman's "Rubber Duck" has become famous for making onlookers happy, happy, happy. People flock to it by the thousands, take off from work just to see it and walk away smiling. His ducks have visited China, England, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Brazil.

In photos, Hofman himself is almost always smiling or laughing. But there's more to the duck than a glee that reaches back to childhood.

Hofman saw that with his first one, and that's what intrigued him most.

The spot he chose for premiering his oversized duck was the port of Saint-Nazaire, France, beside a submarine bunker complex built by Adolf Hitler during World War II.

The people of Saint-Nazaire have had a love-hate relationship with that site, Hofman said in a recent phone interview from Rotterdam in the Netherlands, where he lives and creates.

"But with this rubber duck beside it, it made the history fade away. It kind of neutralized it."

From that experience he identified a touch of alchemy that occurs in most of his temporary projects: His art alters people's perspectives on a setting. "It shows what is there and changes it."

Hofman, 37, said he was inspired by the artist Christo, who has made public art installations with a similar aim.

In 2011 Hofman made a gargantuan yellow rabbit sprawled on his back in a Swedish market square. The rabbit looks like it plopped down, legs up, against a statue of an important figure.

"Three months it was there, and then I gave them back their own historical market square with its historical sculpture again. And then it was fresh again."

Last year he and a cluster of volunteers covered a bronze statue in Abrantes, Portugal, with many hues of plasticine, a modeling clay.

Later, the non-hardening clay was removed and locals, Hofman hopes, saw it anew.

___

Hofman typically is involved with installing his projects, but is simply flying to Norfolk from Holland "to be there for the fun part," he said. A team from Pittsburgh came in earlier this week to prep the site and set up the piece.

His "Rubber Duck" is the only work he sends around and remakes. That's due to the concept: It goes wherever the current takes it. So he keeps making them as requests come in.

The Chrysler Museum, which brought "Rubber Duck" here, is hosting the same bright-eyed, orange-billed duck that was towed around the Pittsburgh waterfront last October. That was Hofman's first American commission.

As it does everywhere, the Pennsylvania quacker lured a curious, grinning, friendly mass of fans.

"People want to be filled with joy, I guess," Hofman said, explaining the crowds. "They want to be amazed, and also treasure that moment with connecting to each other amongst so many people."

Hofman sees many facets to "Rubber Duck."

Sometimes he imagines the public is staring at an alien. "The humans are curious: What is it? How does it connect with me?"

To him, the awed crowd can look worshipful, "like it's the messiah who is coming. Not joking."

He compared the interior of his duck to a cathedral, due to its golden yellow atmosphere. Installation workers get "instantly happy" inside of it, he said. "It's beautiful. That's the payoff for the crew."

___

The idea had come to Hofman while looking at waterscapes in a Rotterdam museum when he was 24. He thought to himself that he would like to add a contemporary object to the old harbor scenes. He later came up with the tub toy.

"I could have painted a rubber duck on a reproduction of a painting. But, no, it needed to be real. It needed to be a real, three-dimensional duck."

And now that simple idea has blown up into a giant phenomenon that gets international news coverage at many of its stops.

"In China they tell me I'm a rock star," he said, adding that stardom is baloney, except he used a stronger word.

"It's not just this or that," Hofman said, stressing his duck's layers of meaning. "It's this, this and this."

Looked at one way, it's not even what most people see it as.

"I always say, it's not a rubber duck. A rubber duck is a toy you have in your bathtub. As Magritte said, 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe.' "

He was quoting Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte, whose 1929 painting of a tobacco pipe above a French phrase for "This is not a pipe," is an iconic modern artwork.

Hofman appreciates Magritte's slippery, paradoxical idea, that an image is not the same as the thing depicted.

"It's not a rubber duck. That's what a lot of people find hard. Because then you have to think about it again. But I think this is very good."

To him, that's where the art comes in. "It's not just a happy toy, enlarged.

"If it was that, then, come on! I would not be so passionate about the work."

Teresa Annas, 757-446-2485, teresa.annas@pilotonline.com

___

(c)2014 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)

Visit The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) at pilotonline.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services


For more stories covering arts and entertainment, please see HispanicBusiness' Arts & Entertainment Channel



Source: Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA)


Story Tools






HispanicBusiness.com Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters