Artistic expressions of today: Communication

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Over the last year, we have acquired several artefacts that discuss how the impact of the pandemic and wider socio-political subjects have inspired the creation of some remarkable works of art, craft and design that reflect these times. Sarah Rothwell, Senior Curator of Modern & Contemporary Design, continues our mini-series with a satirical work of ceramic art questioning the power of communication. Through this, Sarah discusses how misguided rhetoric and actions, at a time when delicacy and diplomacy are called for, can be exposed to other forms of commentary.

As confinement took over our lives in 2020, the daily briefing from local governments and world leaders ironically became the television serial to watch (well, that and Tiger King, of course). Some, however, came to view the main protagonist’s actions and announcements on and outside of the “Daily Briefing” as provocative and misjudged. And could be classed as something closer to the storyline of any teatime soap.

Memes and reaction GIFs flooded social media in response to what was unfolding. Perhaps as a way to find light within the chaos. And as an antidote to the increasing level of fear and anxiety that was spreading through the population, thanks to the ‘do as we say, not as we do’ proclamations. As such, many were motivated to respond creatively in a satirical way to the drama.

Can of Brewdog beer called "Barnard Castle Eye Test".
Limited edition ‘Barnard Castle Eye Test’ beer can produced by Scottish brewery BrewDog, Aberdeenshire, 2020. Images courtesy of Dan Potter: colleague, fellow Leither and admirer of satire.
An eye test that spells our I went to Barnard Castle and all I got was this lousy eye chart.
‘I WENT TO BARNARD CASTLE AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSEY EYE CHART’, by an unknown designer. Spotted on Leith Walk, June 2020. Images courtesy of Dan Potter: colleague, fellow Leither and admirer of satire.

My personal favourites include the ‘Barnard Castle Eye Test’ beer by BrewDog. And a rather wonderful sight test poster that I came across on some hoardings in Leith one day (on my daily allotted hour to exercise). Both poked fun at the behaviour of a leading politician who chose to visit this small town in County Durham (with what can only be described as a farcical excuse at the very height of the pandemic).

As part of this wave of creative satire, one artist compelled to respond was the internationally renowned artist and conservator Bouke de Vries. After what he saw was becoming a global issue around misinformation and miscommunication being delivered by some of the most powerful and influential heads of state. Bouke creates works of ceramic art that blur the boundaries between conservation and making. He reclaims broken ceramics following incidents of trauma to produce sculptural reimaginings of beauty, from evocative still lives and comments on society, to whimsical creations that he calls ‘the beauty of destruction’. 

A man in a studio surrounded by porcelain pieces.
Bouke de Vries in his studio. Image courtesy of the artist.

His ongoing series Shut-up is a satirical take on the great and the good, and those who sometimes have let their elevated positions within society get the better of them. Even when they, more often than not, forget to think before they speak. He decided this series would be the perfect vehicle through which to show his frustration of the unfolding melodrama.

Entitled The Covid Criminals, the triptych sees Bouke employing an old ceramic repair technique of rivets to hold the two halves of the commemorative plaques together, visually stapling shut the mouths of the then leaders of the UK, US and Brazil. Symbolically stopping any inconsistent and dangerous rhetoric around the spread of the disease being articulated and causing more concern and panic.

Ceramic plate with world leaders (Boris, Bolsonaro and Trump) on them, that are broken and have been stapled back together.
The Covid Criminals featuring Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. Porcelain with ceramic transfers and metal by Bouke de Vries, London, England. 2020 (K.2021.43) Image © National Museums Scotland.

These men are distorted by fine cracks within their facades, and Boris Johnson also has an unfortunate case of glaze pooling, suggesting these three men are not immune to injury either. The portraits are each surrounded by various incarnations of the virus, emphasising the dire situation that not only they, but also their respective countries, were facing. While they remained somewhat blinkered, shall we say, by their own policies on how to respond to this developing situation. 

“During lockdown I was astonished by the ineptitude and downright bad management of the COVID situation by world leaders. And although I don’t often make ceramic objects myself (I use existing damaged ceramic objects for my work) I decided to make a triptych of wall plaques to express the way I felt about three of these leaders. The plaques have been an ongoing occasional series where I use the technique of repairing ceramics with metal staples and for the purpose of these plaques the rivets run across the mouth of the subject on the plaque in order to ‘shut them up’.”

Bouke de Vries, 2021 
Ceramic plate with world leaders (Boris, Bolsonaro and Trump) on them, that are broken and have been stapled back together.
The Covid Criminals featuring Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. Porcelain with ceramic transfers and metal by Bouke de Vries, London, England. 2020 (K.2021.43) Image © National Museums Scotland.
Ceramic plate with world leaders (Boris, Bolsonaro and Trump) on them, that are broken and have been stapled back together.
The Covid Criminals featuring Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. Porcelain with ceramic transfers and metal by Bouke de Vries, London, England. 2020 (K.2021.43) Image © National Museums Scotland.
Ceramic plate with world leaders (Boris, Bolsonaro and Trump) on them, that are broken and have been stapled back together.
The Covid Criminals featuring Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. Porcelain with ceramic transfers and metal by Bouke de Vries, London, England. 2020 (K.2021.43) Image © National Museums Scotland.

For centuries, ceramics have been used as a vehicle to commemorate and promote politics to the masses. Similarly, satire in print publications has been used to ridicule the shortcomings and antics of individuals or groups of political standing. They have often been combined to poke fun at social and political narratives of the day, creating collectable whimsical figurines or humorous transfer printed plates and mugs. These were then displayed proudly within the home, to show off your political affiliations and feelings to all who visited.

Ceramic plate with world leaders (Boris, Bolsonaro and Trump) on them, that are broken and have been stapled back together.
The Covid Criminals featuring Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. Porcelain with ceramic transfers and metal by Bouke de Vries, London, England. 2020 (K.2021.43) Image © National Museums Scotland.
Ceramic plate with world leaders (Boris, Bolsonaro and Trump) on them, that are broken and have been stapled back together.
The Covid Criminals featuring Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. Porcelain with ceramic transfers and metal by Bouke de Vries, London, England. 2020 (K.2021.43) Image © National Museums Scotland.
Ceramic plate with world leaders (Boris, Bolsonaro and Trump) on them, that are broken and have been stapled back together.
The Covid Criminals featuring Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. Porcelain with ceramic transfers and metal by Bouke de Vries, London, England. 2020 (K.2021.43) Image © National Museums Scotland.
Ceramic plate with world leaders (Boris, Bolsonaro and Trump) on them, that are broken and have been stapled back together.
The Covid Criminals featuring Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. Porcelain with ceramic transfers and metal by Bouke de Vries, London, England. 2020 (K.2021.43) Image © National Museums Scotland.
Ceramic plate with world leaders (Boris, Bolsonaro and Trump) on them, that are broken and have been stapled back together.
The Covid Criminals featuring Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. Porcelain with ceramic transfers and metal by Bouke de Vries, London, England. 2020 (K.2021.43) Image © National Museums Scotland.
Ceramic plate with world leaders (Boris, Bolsonaro and Trump) on them, that are broken and have been stapled back together.
The Covid Criminals featuring Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. Porcelain with ceramic transfers and metal by Bouke de Vries, London, England. 2020 (K.2021.43) Image © National Museums Scotland.
Ceramic plate with world leaders (Boris, Bolsonaro and Trump) on them, that are broken and have been stapled back together.
The Covid Criminals featuring Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. Porcelain with ceramic transfers and metal by Bouke de Vries, London, England. 2020 (K.2021.43) Image © National Museums Scotland.
Ceramic plate with world leaders (Boris, Bolsonaro and Trump) on them, that are broken and have been stapled back together.
Close-up of The Covid Criminals featuring Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. Porcelain with ceramic transfers and metal by Bouke de Vries, London, England. 2020 (K.2021.43) Image © National Museums Scotland.

In creating his triptych, Bouke de Vries aligns himself with generations of satirists who have gone before. Not looking to celebrate or glorify these individuals, he instead wanted to point out the inconstancies in their policies and actions through the fragmentation and distortion of their portrait plaques. Demonstrating that, despite their positions of power, these individuals are as fallible as the rest of us.

This work of ceramic art is a powerful commentary on how easily things can (and did!) become misconstrued when articulated incoherently. It represents what many of us felt during those uncertain first months of the global pandemic after listening to, what my dear friend referred to as, ‘just plain waffle’.

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