TimeOut: Visit London’s most secretive new public artwork

Bouke de Vries’s piece marks the second anniversary of the pandemic

Written by Chris Waywell. Tuesday 11 January 2022

In a secret garden tucked away in Bloomsbury, a new piece of public art has just been unveiled. ‘Fragments of Memory’ by Dutch artist Bouke de Vries takes the form of an ‘exploded’ soy sauce vase, which might on the face of it seem a rather random subject for a piece of outdoor sculpture in London. However, the layers of meaning in the piece and the special resonance of its unveiling give a particular poignancy to the work.

Described as a ‘message of the acceptance of trauma and the beauty of healing’, ‘Fragments of Memory’ coincides with the second anniversary of the start of the pandemic. But it was not originally intended as a piece to mark it. De Vries’s work is sited in UCL’s Japanese Garden. The sculpture’s form is drawn from a fractured seventeenth-century Arita soy bottle and reflects on the political, geographical and social fragmentation of Japan’s history. The outline of Japan’s islands is traced in the fracture lines of the piece.

If you’re not familiar with UCL’s Japanese Garden, it’s a magical and tranquil place, open 24 hours a day, in central London to pause a moment and contemplate whatever needs contemplating (no shortage of subjects right now). There is a raised seating area around the work so it can become a focus point for musing. The garden is also home to a memorial to the Chōshū Five, who sneaked out of Japan in the 1860s, when foreign travel was illegal in the country, travelled to London and studied at UCL before returning to their home country with revolutionary results.

Along with the news that the Covid Memorial Wall on the Embankment has had a bit of a spruce-up, be sure to visit this very particular milestone of the pandemic in London and take a moment…

UCL Japanese Garden, 27-28 Gordon Square, London, WC1H 0AH.

The Article

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.