Dutch artist Bouke de Vries is an art historian’s dream come true. The progression of his career, and the way that life experiences are communicated through his artistic practice, are just so enjoyable to write about.
After training at the Design Academy Eindhoven and Central St Martin’s, de Vries successfully entered the fashion world, working with well-known designers such as John Galliano, Zandra Rhodes and Stephen Jones. But the experienced designer made a bold decision to change careers, and re-trained in ceramic conservation and restoration at West Dean College.
Coming from a dual background, where judgements of value, quality and worth are constantly being made, de Vries began to question this decision-making process. Why is something viewed as valuable, even when damaged, while something else immediately becomes worthless? This question is all the more interesting when working in the delicate world of ceramics. We have probably all experienced that exciting moment of finding a beautiful piece of bone china in a charity shop – only to find that it is chipped or cracked. In his ‘exploded’ artworks, de Vries adds value to similarly damaged ceramics; turning them into new objects, he plays with the idea of art object as commodity – will an art collector view re-formed ‘rubbish’ as something of worth?
The artist’s installation at Pallant House, ‘Bow Selector’, refers to the wall-mounted porcelain displays of Daniel Marot. Each piece in the installation is taken from the Geoffrey Freeman Collection, which was bequeathed to Pallant House in 1999. From ferocious dogs and crossed knives, to beautiful natural forms and teapots, the collection shows a range of china products that were made by the Bow Factory between 1747 and 1776. The Bow Factory was originally situated in the Lea Valley in East London, now the home of the 2012 Olympic Stadium. The installation was consequently made to celebrate the Games.
The piece, however, does not immediately fit into de Vries usual contemplative approach to value and worth. When asked to make use of a huge collection of ‘valuable’ china, I imagine that the artist was confronted with a dilemma. For someone whose work usually interrogates value judgements, it must have been incredibly difficult to select pieces to include in the final installation. This is perhaps why the title refers to this selection process, making transparent the fact that difficult decisions had to be made, rather than creating the impression that each object had been skilfully chosen by a connoisseur (as was the intention of Daniel Marot’s displays). It is hard to know without asking the artist himself, of course!
De Vries’ appropriation of Marot’s style is described as ‘playful’ in the exhibition label, but I detected a more sombre tone. For me, the placing of delicate objects on small plinths in a public space brings to mind the fragility of life, much like the momento mori of seventeenth century Dutch art. Through this installation, Bouke de Vries is able to reflect on the transient nature of life and refer to a tradition in design that still shapes contemporary taste. And this is no mean feat!