As we approach the second anniversary of the pandemic, artist Bouke de Vries has unveiled a new public artwork in the UCL Japanese Garden which celebrates the beauty of healing and the power of resilience.
Inspired by UCL’s rich history, and by UCL EPICentre’s research on the resilience of communities and the built environment to natural hazards, ’Fragments of Memory’ was commissioned by UCL’s pioneering Public Art programme which allows artists to freely explore their practice in collaboration with UCL’s world-class academics.
The two-metre-high bronze sculpture’s form is drawn from an original fractured 17th century Arita soy bottle, reflecting on the political, geographical and social fragmentation of Japan’s later history, as well as offering echoes of contemporary global turbulence. The outline of Japan’s islands is traced in the fracture lines of the piece.
Bouke de Vries’ practice questions the reverence of perfection, seeking instead to venerate the whole narrative of an object’s life and craft, encompassing the trauma as well as the resilience. ’Fragments of Memory’ reflects this philosophy, presenting a work that celebrates vulnerability and fragility as much as aesthetic beauty.
At the start of the project, de Vries explored UCL Petrie Museum art collections and was introduced to the cross-disciplinary UCL research group EPICentre, who work at the forefront of earthquake zones around the globe. Their work supports psycho-social and physical resilience in the face of disaster, understanding the need for recognition of trauma, alongside the restoration of life and structure.
Professor Helene Joffe, psychologist co-founder of EPICentre , worked closely with Bouke to support the formation of the ideas for the artwork. Informed by this, ’Fragments of Memory’ melds ancient and contemporary art practice, echoing the ancient ritual and high-tech preparedness that characterise Japan’s response to seismic events.
’Fragments of Memory’ realises several innovations within the discipline of sculpture, deploying techniques for dealing with material trauma that have been transposed from ceramics and conservation practice; there is a unique representation of the Japanese technique of kintsugi in bronze, while the armatures used to host the island forms within the piece draw on conservation methodologies.
EPICentre’s Professor Joffe introduced a psychologist’s perspective to the practice of kintsugi, suggesting it as analogous to the resilience seen within the trauma literature on disasters of all kinds, from earthquakes to COVID to climate change, an idea which operates to powerful effect in the final work. De Vries has also created a beautifully realised ’clay’ patina effect on the bronze surface.
Bouke de Vries said: "On a sociological level, a vase can symbolise fragility: the risks and damages caused through earthquakes on a human and domestic level. Kintsugi, the Japanese tradition of repairing broken ceramics using gold lacquer, venerates old and broken pots, celebrating the traumatic damage as an integral part of the object’s history.
"In my practice I am faced with issues and contradictions around perfection and worth. My artworks reclaim broken pots after their accidental trauma. I call it ’the beauty of destruction’. Instead of reconstructing them, I deconstruct them. Instead of hiding the evidence of this most dramatic episode in the life of a ceramic object, I emphasise their new status, instilling new virtues, new values, and moving their stories forward."
De Vries also took the history of the ’Choshu Five’ as a springboard for exploration; the five were members of the Choshu clan in western Japan who secretly left the closed country during the turbulent times toward the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate and escaped to London on a daring sea voyage. A fortuitous introduction in England led to their enrolment at UCL, the first university in England to open its doors to students of any race or religion.
Each member radically impacted Japan on their return, forming the core of a new Japanese government, including the first prime minister of the Meiji period, who led the nation’s transformation from an isolated state to one of the world’s foremost technological powers.
Bouke de Vries said: "It struck me how politically and sociologically volatile this period of Japanese history was and how deep the fault lines were that ran through Japanese society. Curiously echoing this, the tectonic fault lines of that part of the Pacific Rim run through the Japanese archipelago, bringing great natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis. These parallel fractures - societal and geological - strike resonances with aspects of my work, in which fractures play an important part."
Sam Wilkinson, Head of Public Art at UCL, said: "It’s about turbulence. Geographical. Social. Political. It’s a beautiful reflection of that.
"What’s interesting is how Bouke wants people to engage with it. It’s been designed so that people can sit with it, touch it, engage with it. It’s a piece of art for the public. There will inevitably be changes, and that’s encouraged."
Simon Cane, Executive Director UCL Culture, said: "This work is about what it means to be human. It addresses what binds us as human beings - fragility, aesthetics and strength."
Professor Anthony Smith, UCL Vice-Provost (Faculties), said: "Bouke has produced a stunningly beautiful work. What makes it even more compelling is how Bouke has worked with UCL academics to create a work that not only acknowledges our historic links with Japan but one which also speaks to modern-day challenges."
Born in Utrecht, Bouke de Vries’ work sits within a long tradition of Dutch artists exploring memento mori and vanitas. His work sits in distinguished public and private collections worldwide. ’Fragments of Memory’ is the artist’s first public artwork and is the first bronze work the artist has created at such scale.