The 'Rubber Duck' Artist Must Be Stopped

The inflatable spectacles of Florentijn Hofman don't belong in every harbor in the wide world.

Tragedy struck London this week: The city is the latest to fall under the influence of Florentijn Hofman.

The Dutch artist has just debuted, and I cannot believe I am about to write this word, HippopoThames, a wooden hippo river sculpture headlining a festival on the Thames. At least, that's what it's doing this week. In the months to come, you might find it on the Yangtze or the Ganges or the Rhône.

(Andrew Winning/Reuters)

Elsewhere this week, in Taiwan, Hofman introduced Moon Rabbit, a sculpture for a land-art festival in Taoyuan. This one looks like an Easter Bunny to me, though it must mean something else in Taiwan, where less than 5 percent of the population practices Christianity. I'm sure that whatever it means to the Taiwanese also translates anywhere else in the world: big funny giant floppy bunny rabbit.

Moon Rabbit, shown with human for scale. (Pichi Chuang/Reuters)

Rubber Duck, on the other hand—that's the floatation for which Hofman is best known—is a decidedly Western fixture. Los Angeles sculptor Peter Ganine patented the design for the original toy duck in 1947 and went on to sell millions of them. A generation later, Jim Henson breathed life into the rubber duckie with the greatest song about bath time ever recorded: "Rubber Duckie" only lost the 1971 Grammy Award for best children's recording because the statue went to the full Sesame Street album featuring the song.

But this summer (and increasingly, every summer), it's the Dutch harbor artist who's getting all the credit. Hofman's Rubber Duck, a 61-foot-tall version of Ganine's iconic design, spent a week in late August vacationing in the port of Los Angeles.

Floating near the Battleship Iowa in Aug. 2014. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Just as another version toured Pittsburgh last year:

On the Allegheny River in Sept. 2013. (Jason Cohn/Reuters)

Which was right around the time that a different duck arrived in Taiwan:

Meeting its public in the port of Kaohsiung, also in Sept. 2013. (Wally Santana/AP)

And on and on. Since 2007, Hofman's Rubber Duck has traveled to ports and harbors around the globe, from Beijing to São Paulo. It's easily the most visible public conceptual artwork in the world today—more so than any Banksy street tableau or Pussy Riot punk performance, if for its China tours alone. Rubber Duck is festival-ready, an insta-Instagram, approved by parents, developers, and even the authorities in such restrictive places like Baku. (A rubber duckie doesn't trigger government censors, silly.)

That's part of the appeal. "The Rubber Duck knows no frontiers, it doesn't discriminate people [sic] and doesn't have a political connotation," the artist's website proclaims. "The friendly, floating Rubber Duck has healing properties: it can relieve mondial tensions as well as define them. The Rubber Duck is soft, friendly and suitable for all ages!"

A deflated Rubber Duck in Beijing. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

While I'm hardly the first to say it—an unknown critic-assassin reportedly stabbed a Rubber Duck 42 times while it was docked in Belgium in 2009—the duck has got to go. How so many cities became ensorcelled by a gimmicky bath toy is really beside the point. Rubber Duck sends an infantilizing message about the role of public art in cities.

Rubber Duck is a bad bet for cities themselves, one that gets worse with every iteration. One reason is the cost. Figures for mounting Rubber Duck aren't public, but the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust is rumored to have paid $20,000 to the artist to bring his circus to town. A spokesperson for the organization wouldn't confirm Hofman's fee, but did state that the organization paid for logistics (including but not limited to fabricating, launching, and docking the piece).

Now, $20,000 might seem like a bargain for a spectacle of Rubber Duck's magnitude. But that figure ignores the enormous public subsidy that Pittsburgh gives the artist in the form of access to the Point, the meeting place of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers (and one of the loveliest vistas in the nation). The same is true for so many other harbors and waterways that cities simply open up to Rubber Duck gratis.

Hofman also benefits from another giant subsidy: His artwork trades on a Muppet-endorsed brand that is known and trusted around the world. It's hard to imagine what public work wouldn't succeed given these advantages of subsidized visibility and familiarity. Anchoring an oversized wacky waving inflatable-arm flailing tube man by the Golden Gate Bridge or an enormous bouncy kingdom in the Hudson River would accomplish the same thing.

Local businesses pay an opportunity cost when Rubber Duck comes to town. Hofman maintains a firm grip on licensing and merchandise connected to his project. While the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust sold rubber duck-sized versions of Rubber Duck for $10 (!), local vendors couldn't catch a cut.

In fact, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust issued a cease-and-desist order to one 'Burgher who created a "Quack N'At" T-shirt with a rubber duck on it in advance of the festival last year. "Quack N'At"—how Pittsburgh is that? And yet Marc Fleming, the Cultural Trust's vice-president for marketing, had a stern message for this entrepreneur, which he shared in an email to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "Frankly, the ill will that this is causing is not worth whatever dollars you'll make."

For what it's worth, all the proceeds from the Pittsburgh merch went to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust (an arrangement only slightly less cynical than it all going to the artist). But Hofman has complained about unofficial merchandise elsewhere, even canceling an appearance in Taiwan over the proliferation of rubber duck-themed transit cards and other unlicensed tchotchkes. Improbably, Chinese media has seized upon Rubber Duck as a totem in its battle to curb Chinese copycat culture. While Rubber Ducks are most definitely popping up all over China, these reproductions do not infringe on an intellectual copyright that Hofman can't legitimately claim as his own.

Cities that cash in with Rubber Duck are outsourcing their public art, meaning they aren't doing their artists or themselves any favors in the long run. In the same sense that building another Ferris wheel is a sure bet—if one that emblandens a city—tugging the same old Holman into the bay is a lost opportunity for a place to reach for greatness. Creativity is and ought to be a source of pride for cities as diverse as London, Beijing, and Los Angeles—and an engine for their economies. When I see images of it floating in a new harbor, I can almost hear Rubber Duck whispering, in a raspy duck voice: The place you love is no more.

OK, allergic to risk might be closer to the mark. While we're lamentably far off from peak Rubber Duck and the point of diminishing returns for monumental kitsch, it's clear how easy it is for cities to lose sight of what makes public art really register. When it's done right, public art expresses some unique value about a city's particular cultural vantage point. Rubber Duck has all the nutritional value and regional identity of a Diet Coke.

Finally, because it just can't be avoided: This art isn't all it's quacked up to be. I'm calling fowl. Cities of a feather shouldn't flock together. Oh god—it's time for a duck hunt.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a writer at CityLab. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.