Dutch artist on Tall Ships’ giant rubber duck fail: ‘I hope the festival got taught their lesson’

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When Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman gets interviewed about his famous rubber duck sculpture, he often describes it as a “yellow catalyst.” He believes his artistic creation absorbs the environment around it, whether that atmosphere is one of beauty or ugliness.

“This rubber duck catalyst shows exactly what he needs to show,” Hofman tells Billy Penn. “And that came out. I hope the festival got taught their lesson.”

In case you missed it, the massive rubber duck that was the centerpiece of last weekend’s Tall Ships Festival couldn’t handle the Delaware River. It sustained a 60-foot gash on Thursday and didn’t make a comeback. This Philadelphia duck wasn’t Hofman’s, though. It was built and operated by Draw Events, an event management company based in Minnesota. Earlier this month, Hofman claimed in an interview with Philly Mag that Tall Ships was illegally using his design. He had originally contracted with Tall Ships for using his design patterns for the duck sculpture in Los Angeles but not here.

“That’s what you get when you’re using an unauthorized work,” he says. “You don’t get the technical information from the artist and his production team.”

Don’t take his response as complete schadenfreude. Hofman says he is more disappointed than anything and believes the problems in Philadelphia inflict further damage on his work of art. He says Tall Ships used his patterns and design to make a “commercial milk cow” rather than respect his work.

Hofman’s rubber duck design, which has been used more than 20 times internationally since 2007, stems from a famous Rene Magritte painting of a pipe, featuring the words “This is not a pipe.” His duck is not meant to be a “rubber duckie or something funny” but an image for people to see so they can disassociate from the stresses of their lives and be “free again as (they) were in youth.”

Tall Ships producer Craig Samborksi told Philly Mag earlier this month the duck used for Tall Ships Philadelphia wasn’t Hofman’s duck but “another large inflatable duck.”

“He makes it into a joke,” Hofman says. “It’s contemporary art. Maybe that’s difficult for a lot of media to understand. But it is art. It has higher purpose and not to just be used to promote a Tall Ships Festival. That was never the idea when we started working with them. They unfortunately disrespected that goal.

“Now the rubber duck made a really bad impression in Philadelphia by what we read and heard this last week. It created even more damage to the project, makes it even more ridiculous. It’s a pity and shame.”

A few fans from Philadelphia have been sending Hofman emails after the mishaps with Tall Ships’ duck. One of them, he says, was about karma. He is not one to believe in religion or karma, but he did find some meaning in that email when it came to his yellow catalyst.

“This,” he says, “is what you get when you do things like this.”

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