A nuclear bomb seems to have been dropped in this installation by artist Bouke de Vries. The eight-metre table, with a mushroom cloud as its centrepiece, is the scene of a fierce battle: thousands of fragments of porcelain mixed with parts of modern plastic toys. De Vries’s huge War & Pieces is a contemporary interpretation of the decorative sculptures that adorned 17th- and 18th-century banqueting tables. Specially for the Gemeentemuseum de Vries has for the first time designed cutlery, producing his ominous-looking set entitled Kalashnikov. His work is an interesting contrast with the reconstructed table settings in the museum’s Dutch dining exhibition – opening at the same time – that gives a unique insight into the history of dining culture in the Netherlands.
A bridge between the past and the present
In previous centuries an extravagant ball or banquet might be held on the eve of a major battle – notably that given by the Duchess of Richmond the night before the battle of Waterloo in 1815, exactly 200 years ago. The decorative sugar or, later, porcelain table sculptures at such events might depict classical allegories, temples of love, or perhaps even the impending battle. War & Pieces is Bouke de Vries’s (b.1960) contemporary response to this old tradition. Besides war, chaos and aggression, the installation also features humour and beauty, undermining classical symbols in a satirical and critical way. By mixing contemporary references and objects with historical ceramics, De Vries builds a bridge between the past and the present and creates his own visual language.
The beauty of imperfection
In his work as a restorer, Bouke de Vries became moved by the beauty of imperfection, of deconstruction. Six years ago he started producing artworks using broken ceramics that were beyond repair. ‘A beautiful 17th-century soup dish with a small hairline crack has almost no market value. Which is strange, because it is still lovely to look at. Rather than hiding the cracks, I emphasise the imperfections and give the piece a new life,’ he explains. He never deliberately breaks objects to use in his work. Instead, he sources his old ‘bits and pieces’ online, through auctions, and at antique markets such as Portobello Road near his home in London.
War & Pieces, the largest work in the exhibition of the same name, is a travelling installation that de Vries adapts to each new location. Originally created in 2011 for the Holburne Museum in Bath, it has also appeared at Charlottenburg Castle in Berlin, Chateau de Nyon in Switzerland and at the Taiwan Ceramics Biennale. The exhibition at Gemeentemuseum Den Haag also features a number of his smaller sculptures, including a series of ‘memory jars’ – in which broken pieces of Delftware are contained within glass jars made in the shape of the original object – and a ceramics map of the Netherlands entitled ‘Homeland White’. In this collage, de Vries uses shards of 17th- and 18th-century Dutch white domestic Delftware recovered from archaeological digs.