Bouke de Vries: War & Pieces 

Thru December 31

By Angela de Gregory

Bouke de Vries’ “War & Pieces” is a powerful meditation on the follies of war and the dangers of consumerism, mass production, and waste. Trained as a conservator of art objects, de Vries uses broken and discarded ceramics as the primary medium for his artwork, celebrating the “beauty of destruction” through his fragmented sculptures.

“War & Pieces” was inspired by the elaborate centerpieces of 17th-century European banquet tables, first made from sugar, a rare and valued commodity at the time, and later from porcelain. The artwork presents a grand war banquet combining sugar elements, porcelain shards, and modern plastic fragments. Across a series of vignettes, the past and present clash in a battle of objects and materials, climaxing in an apocalyptic nuclear mushroom cloud.

The combatants include sugar-coated plaster figures of Mars and Minerva, the Roman gods of war, molded from 17th-century originals made at a Derby porcelain factory in England. Other figures have mutated into cyborgs sprouting bionic limbs and heads from modern plastic toys. These plastic elements, which de Vries calls “modern interlopers,” symbolize today’s ubiquitous nonbiodegradable plastic waste. 

Since de Vries’ battle takes place on a table, the fighting figures wield cutlery as weapons, and their battle flags are emblazoned with two crossed knives, a reference to the Meissen porcelain factory signature mark of crossed spears. In composition, the battle vignettes reference iconic images of war, including Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of United States Marines raising the American flag at Iwo Jima and Eugène Delacroix’s painting,  “Liberty Leading the People.” 

At the center of the artwork a mushroom cloud explosion towers over the battle, representing the most devastating act of war. The cloud comprises ghostly porcelain cherubs, skulls, and disfigured dolls, along with the figures of Christ, Buddha, and Guanyin—symbols of compassion  and sacrifice—a moving consideration of the toll of war.

The table is set with objects that reinforce de Vries’ themes. Place settings feature neoclassical-style plates with transfer-print decoration featuring profile portraits of Mars and Minerva. In addition to the plates, de Vries created knives and forks that take the form of gilded Kalashnikov rifles—ostentatious symbols of luxury and violence. Their appearance is disconcerting, matching the initial sensation of encountering a mushroom cloud rising in the Lightner Museum’s Ballroom Gallery.

Lightner Museum, 75 King St, St. Augustine, (904) 824-2874,

Author: Arbus

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