This week the Visual Arts department was pleased to welcome Dutch artist Bouke de Vries as visiting speaker. After giving a talk on his practice, Bouke spent the rest of the day conducting tutorials with the full-time students across all disciplines. Bouke’s presentation detailed how, after studying at Eindhoven’s Design Academy and Central St Martin’s in London, he switched careers to enrol on West Dean College’s Ceramics Conservation programme. The skills he developed throughout his time at West Dean would not only feed an ongoing career as a professional conservator, but also provide a unique language for an art practice that finds expression in very particular ceramic sculptural objects, installations and decorative tableaux. In fact, it was through a collaboration with Grayson Perry, bringing together artist and conservator, that Bouke first made sustained contact with the art world.
Bouke explained that his private conservation work continually raised questions about ideas of perfection and value. He soon engaged with these ideas and began to establish a body of work that combined variations on a theme of re-contextualising found objects through skilled intervention. Using his skills as a restorer, he produced a series of what he describes as ‘exploded’ artworks – sculptures that reclaim shattered pots or broken figurines by de-constructing (rather than re-constructing) them, transforming evidence of traumas they’d suffered into new qualities – ones that suggest an entirely rewritten originality for the objects. As Bouke puts it, his interventions instilled “new virtues, new values” onto the artefacts, “moving their stories forward.”
The form of Bouke’s work is informed by serendipitous finds in flea markets and junk shops, as well as fragments of porcelain sourced through his contacts in the restoration trade. He makes clear that his practice involves responding to these ‘original’ artefacts rather than seeking them out, often being surprised by how their damaged elements might immediately suggest methods of reconstruction or specific interventions, not only in the techniques that might be employed but also in the kinds of ‘image’ that result. The referential qualities of specific historical materials also proved crucial, such that when manufactured objects spoke strongly of a specific place, time and cultural heritage (busts of Chairman Mao, for example), these connotations could be used as a form of quotation, playing on accepted associations of particular styles and materials, further implying that their breakages can be considered a direct metaphor for historical context and commentary. As well as social and political themes, such as the effects of free market capitalism, celebrity culture or the prevalence of knife crime, Bouke’s works often draws on older traditions of art history – particularly Dutch still life painting and its use of metaphor and coded meaning.
The use of specific display cases was also a running theme to the work, emphasising the delicacy of the porcelain pieces and the reliance the work has to an occasionally tacit or neatly hidden presence of violence. Bell jars, vitrines and cabinets of curiosities were all alluded to, together with other more specific methods of exhibiting partial objects associated with museum artefacts and suggestive reconstruction: perspex mounts that elevate objects in glass cases or metal rods linking the missing limbs of classical sculpture.
Finishing with an account of a recent installation, War & Pieces, on the Holburne Museum’s Ballroom table – a work inspired by the eighteenth-century fashion for decorating banqueting tables with extravagant porcelain and sugar sculptures – Bouke then answered a number of questions from the audience. The resulting discussion was a fascinating examination of how the worlds of Fine Art and Conservation have come together in his work, which, given the setting, was an extremely current and relevant subject to discuss.