Rubber Duck

Artist: Florentijn Hofman
Location: Various
Year of completion: 2009

Researcher: Leon Tan

Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman has made a career out of oversized public sculptures. He often begins with toy animals, using these as models for his work. He has created larger-than-life penguins, monkeys, and bears, but the most well known is undoubtedly the rubber duck. Hofman’s inflatable duck has appeared in ports and waterways the world over, including Onomichi, São Paulo, Osaka, St. Nazaire, Auckland, Sydney, Hong Kong, Pittsburgh, Beijing, Taoyuan, and Kaohsiung. It is the Osaka event that has been nominated for the second IAPA.

Hofman’s Rubber Duck was commissioned for Aqua Metropolis Osaka 2009, a placemaking event organized by the Osaka Prefectural Government and the City of Osaka along the city’s waterfront in the summer of 2009. Implemented by a local team, the Osaka Rubber Duck starred as one of the major attractions in the Aqua Metropolis, contributing to the organizers’ objectives of (re)acquainting the city’s residents with the waterfront. The city also carried out improvements to river-facing buildings and constructed boardwalks to make public spaces in the area more amenable to leisure and recreation.

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If visitor numbers are anything to go by, the Rubber Duck in Osaka was a very successful event. Documentary images show a high level of interest from a large local audience—approximately 1.9 million visitors attended over 52 days. One wonders if it is the innocuousness of the object—a fact celebrated in the artist’s statement, “the Rubber Duck knows no frontiers, it doesn't discriminate against people and doesn't have a political connotation”—that gives it such wide appeal. The familiarity of the object, its existence in all societies touched by American media and culture (think of Disney’s rubber Donald Duck or the rubber duck that Jim Henson paired with the Muppet Ernie), may also contribute to its popularity.

The rubber duck is not only innocuous, it is also playful, and evocative of childhood. In an interview, the artist likens the duck to a giant toy, and then likens himself to a giant baby throwing his toys around the world. He also says that the duck is there to surprise people and interrupt their daily routines. Like the pop artists preceding him, Hofman understands how to create a spectacle. While it is beyond debate that his duck interrupts the humdrum daily routines of urban life, the question of what it does next is never raised. Hofman reportedly “kidnaps public space” for brief periods with the Rubber Duck, but the duck, like the glut of images in which the majority of urban dwellers tend to be immersed, does not seem to offer anything beyond visual entertainment.

One is reminded of something the Situationist Guy Debord wrote. He tells us the spectacle “says nothing more than that which appears is good, and that which is good appears…the attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance.” Many members of the audience took photographs of themselves (“selfies”) with the duck. This does not, however, mean that they were actively creating anything. On the contrary, they were more likely contributing to the surfeit of repetitive or derivative imagery characterizing the network society.

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency