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Rabbits In An Expanded Field

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by Henderson Downing, for outsideleft.com
originally published: April, 2005
Imagine an episode of Sesame Street made by Gordon Matta-Clark in collaboration with Jim Henson

In the village of Nieuwerkerk aan des Ijssel, the lowest point in the lowlands, Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman designed and coordinated the building of a giant musk rat out of a wooden frame thatched with hay. Partly a satirical response to the musk rat being labelled a 'big problem' in that part of the Netherlands - their natural digging instincts destroy the infrastructure of the dykes and waterworks - it proved to be another trippy addition to Hofman's growing sculptural menagerie.

Imagine an episode of Sesame Street made by Gordon Matta-Clark in collaboration with Jim Henson and you might begin to understand the semi-collaborative performances with local communities that are central to Hofman's work. In a glasshouse in Amsterdam's Botanical Gardens he glued 210 paper sparrows onto what he describes as 'the most non-natural place of the hortus, its heating pipes, the "blood vessels" for the greenhouse'. The birds were made from 'cloned' photocopies of a sparrow model kit sent to friends and acquaintances all over the world for them to build and return. As Hofman puts it, 'thus, the birds travelled without flying'. In the NDSM yard in Amsterdam North he stencilled more than a hundred Banksy-like koi carp onto the vast dry dock. In Vlaardingen he designed and helped local people construct a massive rabbit sculpture out of salvaged wood as if to document his own presence in that sculptural orgy where site and structure and landscape and architecture fuck like rabbits in an expanded field.

Asked by the borough of Delfshaven in Rotterdam to work on the site of a derelict block awaiting demolition Hofman painted the entire exterior of the property with a 2 micron layer of blue paint that transformed it into the most photographed section of the city. The application of the paint was intended to slow further deterioration. Such urban dereliction is usually a material reminder of the alienating power of urban planners and developers to disperse communities and erase local history. By amplifying the memory and meaning of the space for those people living and passing through the neighbourhood the surreal energy of Hofman's work temporarily reclaims that alienation while the building awaits reconstruction via the wrecking ball.

While at art school Hofman was part of a team that painted an enormous Alpine mural on the side of a tower of a nuclear power plant. Sharp angles and curving white slopes ascend the tower from the flat land. His subsequent work explores themes already present in that mural - from the interplay of scale, colour and iconography to the social and geographical histories of the host sites. The plant, near Kalkar in the Netherlands, was bought by a Dutch businessman and turned into an amusement park after a mass protest successfully stopped the production of nuclear power before it even began to operate.

Hofman now drives a van sprayed with the exact colour and logo of the DHL fleet. An everyday 'performance' which allows him to escape parking tickets (a tribute to the mercy of Dutch traffic wardens) and wave at other DHL couriers as if part of some Pynchonesque cabal of delivery workers. Although his fluctuating subtlety sometimes seems more the product of skunk-fuelled conversations than rigorous artistic debate his work has a knowing confidence that suggests his spatial humour will prove sufficient to salvage even those weaker projects - like the giant rubber duck work-in-progress - that threaten to solidify his approach to space and materiality into a formulaic style.

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Henderson Downing

Henderson Downing has written for various literary journals and small press magazines, he lives in London

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