Notes/Spring 2018/Florentijn Hofman
The art of
temporality
Florentijn Hofman creates sculptures as if they were buildings: the installations are big and imposing and are always in a public space. But, in stark contrast to the works of architects, Hofman’s installations are temporary; his works only exist for a few months, after which they disappear. What is the basic principle of this artistic vision and what can architects learn from this?
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Rubber Duck
Hongkong 2013
Text Petra Quaedvlieg
Photography Studio Florentijn Hofman

‘The great thing about temporary public art is that it is fleeting. It stands in the public space for some time where people can see it, think about it, talk about it, and get used to it. Then, suddenly, it’s gone again,’ explains Hofman. The 41-year-old Dutch artist gained international fame with his Rubber Duck. This giant floating sculpture appeared in the harbours of cities across the world and became a popular temporary attraction wherever it went.

The rubber duck is characteristic of Hofman’s work, as he creates large reproductions of everyday objects such as toys. His sculptures are often of animals and are light-hearted and cheerful. Because the sculptures are of everyday objects, they are universally recognizable. Yet, the manner in which people engage with them depends on their location. In Japan, for example, it is believed that inanimate objects do have souls. Hofman creates all his works on location in order to truly immerse himself in the local population. Each location is altered by the arrival of his sculpture. Although the sculpture is eventually dismantled and physically disappears from the public space, the spirit of the work remains.


‘It’s fascinating to see that something which has been so intensely loved, can be tossed away so carelessly.’

This was exemplified by Sor Gul Kanin created by Hofman in 2011 in Örebro, Sweden. This giant, thirteen-metres-tall yellow bunny was placed on the square in front of the town hall. Its positioning, on its back with its bottom resting against a nineteenth-century statue, made it appear as if it had been carelessly dropped and abandoned by a giant child. ‘It’s something I saw with my children’s soft toys,’ Hofman explained in an interview. ‘It’s fascinating to see that something which has been so intensely loved, can be tossed away so carelessly.’

Hofman is inspired by the whimsical and sincere way that children treat their cherished objects. People can better understand the value of simple mass-produced objects when they see it on such a large scale. Moreover, the installations also prompt them to see the location in a different way. Before starting on a statue, Hofman takes some time to look at the location. ‘I want to see what happens there, how it feels. I take the time to wander, to take a step back, and to explore.’ During the construction of the giant yellow rabbit, Hofman asked someone whether they knew who the person represented by the statue against which the rabbit was leaning was. The man didn’t have a clue. ‘How long have you been living in Örebro?’ Hofman asked him. To which the man replied, ‘I have been living here my entire life.’ This is not an unusual response. There are many objects in the public space that we walk past every day that have simply lost their meaning; they have been reduced to landmarks.

Hofman’s delightful giant objects create excitement, buzz, and animation in public spaces. People come to see it, talk about it, and laugh about it. Seen from far away they look like real-life soft toys, but from nearby they are imposing installations that make people feel small. This is meant to create a bond between the viewers. ‘The sheer size of the object makes us all feel small, and this creates a sense of equality,’ explains Hofman.

He strengthens this feeling of connection by asking local volunteers to help with the construction and by using locally sourced materials. The large yellow rabbit was built together with 25 local volunteers from the Swedish material takspån. These are flat, wooden shingles arranged in an overlapping design.

Hofman believes that statues that bring joy should be placed in the public space where they can be seen by everyone. ‘It doesn’t matter whether you’re a banker or a plumber, you can engage with the object in exactly the same way. You don’t need cultural baggage for this.’

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Florentijn Hofman
Artist

The temporality of the object is essential according to Hofman. ‘The fact that people miss the object when it is gone is an added bonus.’ This is why he dismantles each sculpture and ensures that the material is reused. By dismantling the sculptures, they also cannot be put on the international art market for sale. In this way, Hofman prevents them from being bought by wealthy collectors who only see art as an investment.

Some communities want to keep a sculpture at all costs. This is what happened with the Feestaardvarken (Party Aardvark) in Arnhem. At 30 metres long, 9 metres high, and 13 metres wide, this is the largest open-air sculpture in the Netherlands. The dark red aardvark, wearing a party hat, is relaxing on his back, and is a playful invitation for children to climb and clamber all over it. This work has since become one of the Sights & Landmarks to see in Arnhem on TripAdvisor. The people of Arnhem have come to consider the sculpture as part of their city. The Feestaardvarken has been disconnected from the ideas of the artists and has, instead, become a part of the lives of the local people, as they are the ones who are interacting with it and enjoying its presence in their city.

Hofman’s work also prompts questions about the nature of architecture. Architects have long since moved away from designs meant to last an eternity, but perhaps their focus should now move toward the temporary. How can an architect ensure that people enjoy and are continuously inspired by their neighbourhood and encourage them to constantly see their living environment in a new light? Should the buildings of the future be more responsive?

‘The increase in flexible construction comes as no surprise,’ according to Hofman. ‘Outdoor spaces are becoming increasingly important as it combines the social aspect with living. You can create new experiences by highlighting the right and logical qualities of a living environment in a different way. This can be done by using interesting materials and combinations, while showing a passion for the materials and craftsmanship in the finishing ensures that people respect the work.’

‘Outdoor spaces are becoming increasingly important as it combines the social aspect with living.’

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‘Scale is great way to surprise people: from very small to very big and combinations of these two elements. Placing something large in a small space, just like the Feestaardvarken, works incredibly well. As an architect you can also use the characteristics of the seasons, such as blooming and wilting, in your work...’

Society is changing at a rapid pace. Hofman’s work demonstrates the importance of engaging with the people at the location, of talking to them and actively communicating. ‘You need to see if people are energized by a sculpture or space or whether it excludes them. You have to decide whether you’re going to impose a sculpture or building or if you’re going to work on it together with the users.’ According to Hofman’s vision, continuous interaction is essential. ‘A city has to remain flexible. Large imposing buildings and smaller lighter buildings and open and closed spaces have to create a good synergy, which is something that should also be present in society. It must be balanced and exciting!’

5 Paper Boats
Rotterdam,
the Netherlands 2010