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Interview with Florentijn Hofman

September 3, 2014

ArtsMixed MediaPerformanceSculpture | by Vicky Ilankovan

Candid sits down with Florentijn Hofman – charismatic Dutch artist and creator of the famous floating Rubber Duck sculpture – at the building site of his first ever UK commission for Totally Thames, launching on 2nd September. 

Florentijn Hofman and HippopoThames at Nine Elms on the South Bank credit Steve Stills

You’re most known for your massive sculptures of animals. Can you tell us a bit about your inspiration?

I wouldn’t say it was animals; I have only done 2 animal-inspired works. All the other works are inspired by toys or ceramic creations which your grandmother would have in her window or small ceramics you would buy at the flee market. They are abstractions of abstracted shapes of animals and most of the time they are mass-produced.

I show the beauty of these mass-produced toys and show them in a different way. They are somewhere in our minds because they are available globally, produced in China or Asia and are sent to the UK, to Holland, Scandinavia etc. I kidnap or want to show the beauty of these things that are mass-produced. I am a great lover of ceramics, of design and of toys which are spread around the world.


Is that why you do a lot of them in public spaces to bring people back to this idea?

Yes, bring them back. I place them in a public space to show people their local vicinities. It’s a four step rocket: it’s one way to show them the beauty of shapes and objects; it’s two to show them their own public spaces and to show it in a different perspective. It also shows them when the sculptures are gone what their public spaces as it is and they kind of miss it. Having them miss the object is a great bonus of art, it happens a lot with my work.

It’s also about filling the public space with work rather than going to a museum with a ticket; no matter if you’re a banker or a plumber, you can communicate with the object, with the work the same way. You don’t need cultural baggage or backpack. You don’t need cultural knowledge about what kind of art and why.

We’re all small compared to the object; it makes us all the same and equal. There’s a really relaxing area and atmosphere surrounding the work and I always say it’s not just the object but also the installation area. It’s not just about the object; it’s about you and the size of the work.


In what way is the hippo structure going to be able to allow people to interact?

Totally Thames invited me in October to show me the Thames and the foreshore which gives you a total different perspective of the city from the river. I like that and I want to show that to people. What I’m doing is making catalysts and they are there on the water, and when the foreshore is there, people can walk and try to touch the hippo.

They might think it’s all about the hippo but actually when they turn around and walk back it’s about seeing and being on the foreshore, seeing London and the Thames from a different perspective. I think it would be great if a lot of people were to walk on there and see how other people are doing the same and having fun; it’s a community project which is important to me.


Why the hippopotamus for the Thames? And how are you involved in the Totally Thames Festival and how you’re involved in it?

You know the Rubber Duck [a piece by Florentijn]? It’s a work on water and is an ongoing project for me. As you can imagine it’s very hard to come up with a runner-up after the rubber duck; it’s almost impossible.

I always say it’s like a cocktail of ingredients which makes a public artwork for me. The bridges are in that sense are kind of restricting size-wise; we could not go 7 metres because the bridges don’t open in certain places. I had to design a work with impact but with a certain size and height, I was automatically put in the direction of creating a stretched sculpture.

Then I go there with some research and with some help from a book from my daughter – she has a bubble book with a squeezer inside and one of the pictures was a hippo and I thought, ‘This is it’. Inspiration from a baby book and the restrictions from the height of the bridges and the unfortunate luggage of the Rubber Duck as a good work made me design this HippopoThames.

I was struck with the beauty and simplicity of the foreshore, we don’t have that in Holland that big, where you can walk on the floor where you can walk at low tide and I that believe people should see that. I needed an object, a material like driftwood joined with a toy object that was connected with water. The research by my assistant proved that in pre-historic times some hippos were found here in the Thames, so this made the match, together with the book.

So, as I said, it’s like a cocktail of ingredients: you shake it and a HippopoThames comes out.


Florentijn Hofman's HippopoThames for Totally Thames copyright Steve Stills


Can you take us through the process of how you went about creating this piece? It’s such a big project. How do you start it and get it to the finished product?

Well, firstly I do a site visit; see the bridges for sizing; and got some input from Totally Thames. Then I start designing for three months, then I came out with the design – in this case the Totally Thames completely loved it – then I started finding materials, together with my assistant. We searched for timber which was flexible but still strong – on the water with the currents you need some material which is water resistant but temporary.

We have been doing that since 2001, creating objects. We used to do it manually, I would sculpt the model then create cuts and all these cuts you bring together on paper and then enlarge. Nowadays we do it with a guy who works with us; he makes the work on the computer and cuts it and takes the slices, enlarges it and bring it to a C&C cutter which cuts and numbers them with a position, then you connect them, like a puzzle.

After you have the framework you need to find the pontoon. We had to find a barge for the base of the work which has to be a certain height, then we put the wooden structure on it. The difficult part was finding the pontoon which was available for a good price: in London, they ask for a lot of money as the companies that own these pontoons are not really culturally interested: they are interested in money.


What happens to the hippo afterwards? You said it was a very temporary thing.

Well, I like that. I like that people will miss it after 14 days. It will get tugged away and we’ll see what happens. It will probably go into pieces, but we’ll see what happens with it and what the influence the Thames has had on it. For me, for now after this it will be gone and hopefully someone can have some fun with the material after.


Rubber Duck by Florentijn Hofman - credit LasseYou mentioned you had a daughter, do you have other kids? They must love this.

Yes! I have 4, 2 boys and 2 daughters. They do, but they don’t like me travelling so much.


Do you have any plans for after this one is done?

We are working on something at the same time, some work in Taiwan. After London I am flying to Taiwan. I am making a moon rabbit: a rabbit which lies and looks at the moon. It invites people to lay and look at the moon with it. It’s based on an ancient story about two lovers and a rabbit who makes a love potion. If you look at the moon you can see the rabbit shape in it. I invite people to look at the moon again.

I’m working on 4 other projects, so we’re busy. It’s fun, good fun and that’s important.


Stepped access to the foreshore, near St George’s Tower, will be available for three hours a day at low tide throughout September.  


Vicky Ilankovan – Lifestyle Editor