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INTERVIEWMeet the man behind giant rubber ducks that once took over Seoul

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Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman's 18-meter-tall inflatable "Rubber Duck" returned to Seokchon Lake in Songpa District, southeastern Seoul, in the fall of 2022 after its first appearance in 2014. Newsis

Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman's 'Inclusive' brings playful sculptural giants indoors
By Park Han-sol

There is perhaps no bath toy that is as well-traveled as Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman's six-story-tall "Rubber Duck."

Since its debut in 2007 in France's Saint-Nazaire, the super-sized inflatable icon has captured the hearts of millions in every port and harbor it has stopped by, from Los Angeles and Sydney to Osaka and Hong Kong.

The mammoth duck also made a splash in Korea on two separate occasions – in 2014 and again in 2022 – when it popped up in Seokchon Lake in Songpa District, southeastern Seoul. As many as 6.5 million visitors flocked to the lake last year to watch the doe-eyed, tangerine-beaked installation silently drift through the water – a much-needed touch of optimism for the pandemic-weary population.

Hofman, the mastermind behind these larger-than-life attractions that temporarily take over major cities before vanishing once again, has returned to Korea – this time, to bring his vision indoors for his inaugural solo exhibition in the country, "Inclusive," at Whitestone Gallery Seoul.

Installation view of Florentijn Hofman's solo show, "Inclusive," at Whitestone Gallery Seoul / Courtesy of Whitestone Gallery

Florentijn Hofman's "Rainbow Bear Family" installed near the entrance of Whitestone Gallery Seoul / Courtesy of Whitestone Gallery

The gallery naturally provides a much more confined space compared to his usual creative playground – the city itself – so to compensate, the artist offers the next best thing: scaled-down versions of his iconic public installations that once graced waterways, parks and plazas around the world.

Greeting visitors on the basement floor are the ceramic recreations of "HippoThames" (2014), a giant wooden hippo that glided across the murky waters of London's River Thames; "Flip Flop Monkey" (2010), an oversized inflatable ape clad with 10,000 flip flops seen in Sao Paulo; and "Moon Rabbit" (2014), a 25-meter-tall reclining bunny that appeared in Taiwan to put a playful spin on the Chinese folklore of moon-inhabiting hares, among others.

Alongside these whimsical miniature replicas are his newly unveiled outdoor works – "Rainbow Bear Family," as well as three sculptures of Korean native birds sporting party hats – at the gallery's entrance and on the rooftop.

The go-to motif for the Dutch artist's super-sized installations has long been instantly recognizable animals – or, to be more precise, the mass-produced toys or everyday objects in the shape of animals. But Hofman insists that his works have "never really been about animals themselves."

"They've always been a metaphor for us humans," he shared with The Korea Times on the opening day of his solo show, Dec. 2.

Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman poses with his artworks at his first solo show in Korea, "Inclusive," at Whitestone Gallery Seoul. Courtesy of Whitestone Gallery

His pieces can then be likened to modern-day, sculptural versions of fables. The creatures inhabiting Whitestone Gallery Seoul represent everything from freedom to hope and inclusivity – values that have increasingly become palpable to the artist, whose self-assigned role has been to connect people beyond languages, culture and geography.

"People flock to and gather around these big sculptures. Then, they start conversing with each other," he added, noting how the return of the "Rubber Duck" to Seokchon Lake almost a decade after its first appearance created – and brought back – collective memories for the audience.

"A generation grew up with that image and they really wanted to reconnect with it, and (by doing so,) reconnect with themselves, with each other."

Florentijn Hofman's "HippoThames," a giant wooden hippo that glided across the murky waters of London's River Thames in 2014 / Courtesy of Studio Florentijn Hofman

But the most salient feature of Hofman's urban art projects is not their animal-inspired motif, but their sheer scale.

Whether you revel in the sight of these gargantuan installations or not, it's impossible to take your eyes off them as their presence physically "disrupts" and redefines the very space they occupy.

"Size matters. When you blow up things, you (are bound to) look at it in a different perspective. Instead of us looking at it, it is now looking at us. So there is a shift in perspectives, which really intrigues me," he said.

His oversized sculptures demand attention, prompting viewers to reconsider their relationship with the surrounding environment, thereby adding a new layer of narrative.

"For example, I always call the 'Rubber Duck' a yellow catalyst, because (just by existing,) it asks for a narrative of your own. One person in Hong Kong told me that the duck seemed to expose how ugly the city's skyline was (when it was in Victoria Harbor). Likewise, Seokchon Lake will never be the same in people's eyes after the 'Rubber Duck' has visited there."

A sense of hierarchy or status also dissolves when visitors place themselves in front of Hofman's sculptures. They make everyone feel small – and in the end, equal.

"For me, working in public space means creating something for everyone. You don't need to carry a baggage of art history knowledge to connect with a rubber duck," he said.

"Whether you're a politician or a restaurant worker or a journalist, you're on the same level as anyone else when surrounded by my works."

Florentijn Hofman's "Big Yellow Rabbit," a 13-meter-tall sculpture of a plush rabbit that was installed in Orebro, Sweden in 2011 / Courtesy of Studio Florentijn Hofman

By their very nature, the artist's colossal outdoor projects are not without their challenges.

"Public space is difficult," he admitted.

There are different regulations on everything from crowd control to fire safety in each country. Sometimes, his sculptures have an unexpected run of bad luck. In the case of the "Rubber Duck," adverse weather forces the team to deflate it each time. It even met an unfortunate demise in 2009 in Belgium when vandals stabbed it 42 times.

But he also relishes the challenges that come his way. "They give you the strength to be creative in your solutions," he said.

Sometimes, the answer is found by incorporating materials that weren't part of the original conception, and at other times, for his enterable sculptures, it involves adding an ingenious twist to the dynamics of their spatial design.

Florentijn Hofman's "Narcissus Flycatcher" is perched on the rooftop of Whitestone Gallery Seoul. Courtesy of Whitestone Gallery

One theme that Hofman increasingly addresses in his recent pieces is sustainability.

His "Pissing Polar Bear" in the Netherlands' Amersfoort, a sculpture urinating into a canal "to show how we humans behave towards the world," and "The Bospoldervos" in Rotterdam, which depicts a native forest fox with a pink plastic bag in its mouth, make this point quite clear.

When asked about how he deals with the inevitable waste left behind by his temporary art installations, the artist noted that his team often seeks creative solutions.

A significant portion of the materials he uses for his public projects is reusable – cardboard, wood and steel.

For "Flip Flop Monkey" in Sao Paulo, he gave away all 10,000 sandals, which remain ubiquitous footwear for the local Brazilian population. As for the "Rubber Duck," its fabric skin has been upcycled multiple times into bags, wallets and even rocking chairs at one point.

"I do try to do my best, but at the same time, we shouldn't forget that as long as we drink water from plastic bottles and etc., we are a deep part of this cycle of pollution, much more than any one big artwork in public space."

"Inclusive" runs through Jan. 7, 2024 at Whitestone Gallery Seoul.

Park Han-sol


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