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Artist Florentijn Hofman Makes the World’s Biggest Toys

Steven Stills

Florentijn Hofman’s art is incredibly huge, incredibly engaging, and incredibly complicated. The 40-year-old Dutch installation artist and sculptor has built an enormous bunny on a hillside in Taiwan, several rubber duckies the size of apartment buildings, and a remarkable new Kraken playground in Shenzen, China. These pieces are massively successful as art–the Jeff Koons comparison is inevitable–and as toys. But being a post-modern Geppetto ain’t easy.

“The artwork is my daily life,” Hofman says. “It consumes 18 hours of my day. I have four children and a dog and we live in the forest. Outside of work, I just take my children to school and we walk the dog.”

Hofman, who collaborates with studios all over the world to assemble his enormous structures and make them look effortless, spoke to Fatherly about how his children have changed his vision and when he’ll reveal his next masterful act of childishness.

Photo: Robert Stienezen

Your work definitely appeals to children, but it feels like part of the point is challenging adults to consider adult things, mostly logistics. How do you think about those two audiences?
 I’m trying to get both children and adults’ attention. I work in a public space and because of that, I’m able to reach everyone. In each adult, there is a child still. And I think that’s why my art connects with adults in addition to children. I think ‘child-friendly’ means you like it and you’re not supposed to say you like it.

How do you arrive at your concepts? For instance, how did the Kraken come to life?
I have to take you back to four years ago on the location of the Kraken. There was an enormous Russian battleship lying in the water and blocking the view of Hong Kong’s new territories. The commissioner and I found it a shame. It was such a great view, but the view of the new Hong Kong territories was blocked. They wanted the ship to disappeared. But of course, four years ago that was impossible for political reasons.

Then I came up with the idea of this Kraken coming from the bottom of the ocean and pulling that ship down underwater. What you see is the friendly Kraken. A Kraken is normally a monster, so I made it friendly. About three or four months ago we opened it. Somehow, like voodoo, by creating the Kraken, the battleship is gone and the view is open.

Photo: Roger D’Souza

Are you planning on creating more playgrounds?
Yes. I’m looking to connect the Kraken to my “Partyaardvark” from Holland. It’s a huge concrete playground that children play on. I have to mention, it’s not meant to look as a playground—it’s used as a playground. I find that interesting. I created a piece of artwork and I designed it so children could play on it, but of course, you have to wait and see if it happens.

What was the inspiration behind the giant duck?
We started in 2000, 2001 with the concept, just by putting rubber ducks on this massive world map. Initially, the idea came from a museum visit and I came out of the museum seeing these old Dutch landscape paintings with water and together with an earworm in my head—there was this television ad campaign at the time all about a yogurt for kids. The yogurt was called “Yogho yogho” and they would say, ‘You could win a Speedboat.’ And for the parents, they would win this big fat rubber duck. I ran out of the museum and I thought, ‘A big fat rubber duck…in a landscape…that’s it!’

The yogurt actually financed our study and the project was born.

Photo: Lasse Persson

What has been the response from spectators?
I think European people and American people have a different look at art in a public space than Asian people. I remember bringing the rubber duck to Osaka in 2009. We saw adults running towards the rubber duck, taking out their cameras and being totally excited. I remember in Europe and in America, people were excited, but they don’t show it. It’s a different approach.

You know, if you go to a museum or a gallery, you can expect art. But the people that don’t get to cultural institutes, they won’t see art. So that was always an aim for me—to connect with this big group of people from Brazil, Japan, America, and Holland. You can reach those people by putting work in public spaces.

Photo: Steven Stills

As a father of four, have your children influenced your artwork?
When we had our first child, as an adult I was working 20 hours a day, but when you have your first baby, you kneel down for the very first time in your life after standing up for so long. This is an interesting movement. When I kneeled down for the first time in 2008, I saw everywhere a landscape of toys on the floor. And I was amazed. It was a battlefield of toys. It was a cool, colorful battlefield of toys.

My kids throw their stuff animals after they get up from the bed and these stuffed animals would lay there in a bizarre position all day, either below the bed or under a chair. And I saw this and I thought, ‘Wow, this great. Me being a big child, I’m going to throw my sculptures all over the world.’ And that was where I started in 2009—the big toys being flung around the world. It’s still a movement I’m working on.

Courtesy Studio Florentijn Hofman

So what’s next?
We’re working on eight or nine projects worldwide. They’re all in progress. It’s a delicate thing. I can’t talk about them yet. But we’ll be surprising the world by the end of summer.

Giant ducks and Krakens are fun. Is that ultimately your goal to make art fun for spectators?
It’s not about me. It’s a pity that we live in a world filled with idols, and next top models. It’s bullshit. It’s hollow. Using your eyes and observing enriches your head. It’s all about that. It’s not about the fame, or the financials; it’s to enrich yourself with precious moments and I think we create previous moments.

I remember bringing the duck to Pittsburgh and some people said to me, ‘You changed Pittsburgh.’ He was so happy that 500,000 people came to the riverside, which had never been done before. We create those moments.