Artists in lockdown Q&A: Bouke de Vries

Over the past year we have learned to organize our daily life in a different way. A lot has changed for artists too: there were no – or fewer – opportunities to exhibit work, while a lot of time was spent in the studio. How do artists shape the changing world? In the Artist in lockdown-series, we’ll talk to our artists about their experiences during the pandemic. Today’s Q&A with: Bouke de Vries.

“I believe in the power of the human spirit and creativity;
we will find new and positive ways to deal with a lot of the issues that we face now.”

How has life been during lockdown? Has it been a time of solitude or has it brought you and your family closer together?
Life has actually been ok. I’m very fortunate to have a comfortable house with a large garden leading to my studio and I have pretty much been able to continue what I was doing before lockdown. Working in solitude has not been an issue because I have worked alone for 30 years and actually it was good to just work without the disruptions of travel etc. I was lucky to have several commissions that were initiated before the lockdown and I had the time to focus on them and also catch up with things I’ve been wanting to do. And the dog got more walks in the park than ever. It has also been a great opportunity to read more. On the family front, I’m close to my sister in Leiden and although I’ve not been able to visit her we’ve been having daily live chats on WhatsApp – modern technology at its best – seeing each other this way is so direct and has been very important.

Did the lockdown alter your vision of the world?
The lockdown has underlined how fragile our existence is and that globalization is making us more vulnerable. I think it’s going to take a while to really see how the world has changed but I believe in the power of the human spirit and creativity; we will find new and positive ways to deal with a lot of the issues that we face now.

How did the lockdown affect your art practice?
As I said, I have been able to continue my work over the past year and sales have been good. Personally I think 2021 is going to be more difficult than 2020. I had enough things that had already started before the first lockdown and they have carried me through – but times like these give you the opportunity to experiment, to try new things and follow new ideas, which can only be a good thing.


Could you tell me more about one specific work you created during lockdown?
Totally unexpectedly, I was invited to create the entrance for a pop-up gallery at Sotheby’s London. It all had to be done at very short notice but it was a wonderful challenge and the result was great and a new way of working for me.  At the same time one of my works was shown in the main Sotheby’s Bond Street window for several weeks.

What do you think about the surge of online activities during lockdown? Besides negative experiences, like being unable to see art in real life, were there any positive experiences? Is there a specific initiative that inspired you?
Amazing progress with online content has been made by museums and galleries – it’s now possible to see exhibitions on the other side of the world. I’m very much looking forward to doing a virtual tour of the new ‘hang’ at MONA Tasmania, which includes one of my works. I was also very excited to be able to watch the premiere of Marina Abramovich’s opera ‘The Seven Deaths of Maria Callas’.

What will 2021 bring us?
Who knows. News of the vaccines is great but I think we still have a really tough period to go through before things get better. Two things I am personally looking forward to are: the unveiling of my first public sculpture, commissioned by University College London for their Gower Street Campus, which is planned for the spring; and my first limited edition, in collaboration with FKAWDW, to be launched at Art Rotterdam. Both new and exciting developments for my work.


ABOUT Bouke de Vries

Bouke de Vries (1960) was born in Utrecht, NL
He lives and works in London, UK

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 (c.f. Ron Mueck’s model-maker skills), 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.

These ‘dead natures’ – natures morts – give everyday household objects, a plate, a milk jug, a teapot, a modern poignancy that refers back to the vanitas and memento mori paintings of that period. An installation in de Vries’s London house is arranged in the manner of Daniel Marot with white Delft domestic pottery rescued in fragments from 17th- and 18th-century rubbish tips, now dug up and partially pieced together. Among them are two small artists’ paint pots with the pigment still in them, as possibly once used by – who knows? – Vermeer or Rembrandt.