In A Staged Tabletop Battle, A Sculpture Of Porcelain, Sugar And Plastic

Nov 6, 2018

Dutch artist Bouke de Vries has toured his sculpture “War and Pieces” around Europe for a few years. Now the work is on display in Hartford at its first American museum.

In Europe toward the end of the Renaissance, banquet tables of the wealthy were sometimes filled with more than food.

Long centerpieces depicted soldiers made from costly sugar and porcelain who battled it out among the dishes. 

Inspired by these centerpieces, Dutch artist Bouke de Vries made a 21st-century version, and it’s at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.

The sculpture is displayed on a long table with 12 place settings, but no chairs.

As in historic Europe, the sculpture is made from sugar and porcelain. And it has one other ingredient, which seems to be the enemy.

“I decided, rather than have a real-life battle -- given the choice -- we'll have a battle on the table, between porcelain and sugar and plastic,” de Vries said.

Bouke de Vries, War and Pieces, 2012 (installation view). 18th-, 19th-, and 20thcentury porcelain, plastic, sprayed plaster, acrylic, steel, aluminum, gilded brass, and mixed media. Photo courtesy of Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
Bouke de Vries, War and Pieces, 2012 (installation view). 18th-, 19th-, and 20thcentury porcelain, plastic, sprayed plaster, acrylic, steel, aluminum, gilded brass, and mixed media. Photo courtesy of Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.

As compared to costly sugar and porcelain hundreds of years ago, plastic is cheap. It’s also a material most people use daily in work and in play.

"I've actually added little fragments of plastic from children's toys, as the modern material that's sort of taking over from everything," de Vries said.

The sculpture is mostly white, but it has flecks of red, blue and green. A Power Ranger arm, connected to a porcelain statue, juts out in defense. Chest armor from a Transformer action toy covers a headless figurine.

Bouke de Vries and his porcelain, sugar and plastic table sculpture, "War and Pieces," at the Wadsworth Atheneum.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR
"War and Pieces" at the Wadsworth Atheneum.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR

The sculpture is beautiful and violent at the same time. At the center of it all is a mushroom cloud rising almost four feet off the table. It's also made of sugar, and dozens of random porcelain heads and limbs.

“And in here, they're being sucked up into the mushroom cloud," de Vries said. "There is the goddess Guanyin, who is the goddess of compassion in Buddhist tradition. You see the figure of Christ, surrounded by roses. The whole mushroom cloud is covered with little animals and little dolls."

Bouke de Vries, War and Pieces, 2012 (installation view). 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century porcelain, plastic, sprayed plaster, acrylic, steel, aluminum, gilded brass, and mixed media. Photo courtesy of Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
Bouke de Vries next to the highest point of his sculpture, "War and Pieces."
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR

“War and Pieces” is a confluence of de Vries’s thoughts about the futility of war, and also about how little humans value the stuff of modern life, quickly throwing out old for new. Much of that stuff is plastic, de Vries said, now building up in the ocean. But porcelain, a ceramic material beloved by many sculptors, is different.

"It's been used for hundreds of years," de Vries said. "And even if it's broken and goes into the earth, it doesn't do any harm to the planet."

It’s also reusable -- at least by an artist like de Vries, who started out as an art restorer, mending breaks in antique ceramic statues and containers. To him, every crack tells a story, and makes the porcelain all the more beautiful.

The exhibit required more antique porcelain than de Vries has ever needed, including large shards of it, which cover nearly the entire tablecloth. Even if he could find such a large amount, de Vries said, it would be very expensive.

“And I wouldn't want to smash it up," he said. "So I actually was very pragmatic."

Bouke de Vries, War and Pieces, 2012 (detail). 18th-, 19th-, and 20th- century porcelain, plastic, sprayed plaster, acrylic, steel, aluminum, gilded brass, and mixed media. Courtesy the artist and Ferrin Contemporary.
Credit Tim Higgins

He went to IKEA. A material that, centuries ago, could be priced as high as gold is now common. De Vries bought stacks of white porcelain plates and broke them.

The sculpture itself, including the mushroom center, is a series of smaller sculptures reconnected each time “War and Pieces” travels.

It can take days to set up, de Vries said, and the display changes a bit each show.

“War and Pieces” has mostly toured in Europe, where centerpieces like this were first set up hundreds of years ago.

Viewers have different reactions to “War and Pieces.” Some people weep when they see it, de Vries said, as they make connections to their ancestors’ historic battles.

Kids -- not surprisingly, he said -- think it’s fun.

At one stop in England, de Vries said a mother and daughter were arguing about the sculpture's meaning.

"The mother said, 'I see destruction!' The daughter said, 'No, I see hope,'" he said.

De Vries said the art is doing its job.