War and Pieces, Holburne Museum, Bath, 2012 (detail) View full image

Bouke de Vries

War and Pieces

Born in The Netherlands, Bouke de Vries studied at the Design Academy Eindhoven, and Central St Martin’s, London. After working with John Galliano, Stephen Jones and Zandra Rhodes he switched careers and studied ceramics conservation and restoration at West Dean College. Every day in his practice as a private conservator he was faced with issues and contradictions around perfection and worth: The Venus de Milo is venerated despite losing her arms, but when a Meissen muse loses a finger she is rendered virtually worthless.

Using his skills as a restorer, his exploded artworks reclaim broken pots after their accidental trauma. He has called it ‘the beauty of destruction’. Instead of reconstructing them, he deconstructs them. Instead of hiding the evidence of this most dramatic episode in the life of a ceramic object, he emphasises their new status, instilling new virtues, new values, and moving their stories forward.

The more contemplative works echo the 17th and 18th century still-life paintings of his Dutch heritage, especially the flower paintings of the Golden Age, a tradition in which his hometown of Utrecht was steeped (de Heem, van Alst, van Huysum inter alia) with their implied decay. By incorporating contemporary items a new vocabulary of symbolism evolves.

War and Pieces was first created in 2012 as a direct intervention with the Holburne Museum, Bath. The creation of an installation including an 18th century Chinese export porcelain tobacco-leaf service and 18th century English glassware, collected by Captain Holburne in the 19th century took de Vries' work into an exciting new direction building on de Vries' practice of taking broken ceramics and presenting them in a new context, thereby bringing them back to life and giving them a future.

In the 17th century wealthy households decorated their dining tables with extravagant sugar sculptures: classical figures, architectural follies and allegorical scenes. These were not made to be eaten, sugar was worth its weight in gold, they were put away carefully and used again. From the early 18th century onwards these sugar table decorations came to be replaced by porcelain ones. Meissen, Europe’s first porcelain factory employed many highly skilled confectioners, as sugar sculptors were called to make their first models.

Fascinated by this link between the reckless ostentation of sugar, a real status symbol among the rich and fashionable, reminiscent of our own ostentatious recklessness before the present global financial crisis and the almost alchemical beginnings of European porcelain-making.

This work is a war banquet, staging a battle royal between ancien-régime sugar and revolutionary porcelain, referencing the 18th and 19th century tradition of grand banquets given on the eve of battle, such as the famous ball given for the Duke of Wellington and his officers and allies the night before the battle of Waterloo; memorably recalled in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.

De Vries introduces supposedly indestructible plastic elements. The ever increasing omnipresence of non-biodegradable plastic brings the installation forward to our own, more toxic times. The field of battle is the seven-metre-long central table in the Holburne Museum’s ballroom. The battling figures themselves are based on a pair of Derby porcelain figures in the classic 18th century tradition, except that they are mutating into cyborgs with colourful plastic ‘bionic’ limbs and heads, from broken Transformer toys, in strong contrast to the whiteness of the porcelain and sugar.

The inevitable centrepiece of the installation is the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb made of a myriad porcelain shards. These include many of the motifs de Vries has used in earlier works: crucified Christs, Guan Yins, skulls and ‘frozen Charlottes’. War and Pieces has toured various international, historically significant destinations, enroute the piece has evolved to reflect the significance of the surroundings.

War and Pieces will be touring the USA and Canada, 2018 - 2020

Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Alabama - September 2018 - January 2019

Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut - February - May 2019

Gardiner Museum, Toronto - Beginning of 2020

Selected other works by Bouke de Vries

Bouke de Vries - Biography