Artist In A China Shop Stockmans Blue

PHOTOGRAPHY HANS FONK | TEXT NIEK DEPREST

Immediately after the closure of Winterslag coal mine in Belgium in 1987, the significant site acquired fresh use and protected status. It is now called the C-mine (C = culture) and is specifically intended as a venue for small projects with big cultural ambitions. A crucible for the creative economy. One such project is Stockmansblauw (Stockmans Blue), a porcelain studio-cum-gallery space and a shop showcasing the work of the artist Pieter Stockmans. Today, the industrial heritage fuses with contemporary art in what was once the central warehouse, with the ‘white gold’ recalling the black of times gone by.

Pieter Stockmans’s latest work is a model of a dystopian landscape, with a coastline that has been pushed many kilometres inland. At some imagined time representing for Pieter Stockmans the opposite of utopia, much of the land is flooded and huge porcelain towers serve as breakwaters. Porcelain is all that will still recall Man’s great past, the artist explained. After all, it has always been that way. Shards are extremely valuable artefacts for reconstructing cultural history. Porcelain does not decay or discolour, not even if it spends centuries in the soil or beneath the sea in the hold of a sunken Dutch East India Company ship.

Pieter Stockmans studied art, but started his career as an industrial designer for a German porcelain factory. He realised straight away that porcelain was his medium and was already building a multi-dimensional career as a ceramist, industrial designer and visual artist. His early artistic work centred upon the characteristics of porcelain: he emphasised its solidity and thickness with round blobs. He mixed the porcelain with lesser materials like plastic, and experimented like mad. In those days Stockmans would sell pretty well everything found in his studio, from mortars with coloured raw material adhering to them, to experimental panels, thus making his first statement as an artist. Later he was to reduce his use of colour to the absolute essence and explore the power of repetition. A well-known work from 1986 consists of 10,000 little blue and white pots. The endless repetition of the operation was an almost religious experience of the artist, with the same effect as a mantra.

The process of creation took precedence for Stockmans over the objects themselves. As he put it: he allowed himself to intervene in the industrial process where and when he wished, exploring the life cycle of porcelain, of the unfired material, including the waste. Even at the end of the life cycle, when the broken piece was completely worthless, he still recuperated it as an art object. Stockmans nailed the fragments of porcelain against the wall.

He literally drilled through them, thus searching out the limits to breakability. The small wooden boxes became one with the work, or else he accentuated the rough treatment of the fragile porcelain with a series of teapots in cast concrete blocks. Completely outrageous, absurd scenes of horses standing on their heads and cars driving into coffee pots were part of his experimental period.

It came to an end when Stockmans met with severe personal adversity. Grave doubts about the world marked the start of an interesting new development in his work. He shed naïve commitment as Atlas did in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. In that book, the Titan was tired of his punishment of carrying the heavens on his shoulders. He felt it was time to think of himself and literally shrugged his shoulders to rid himself of the heavy burden. To some extent Stockmans did the same. Not only did he rid himself of colour, but literally showcased his disillusionment with society. To that end, he applied the techniques of commedia dell’arte that presents the same stock characters (in this case Stockmans himself). He made porcelain masks of his own face and tore them off symbolically. An action that he repeated until catharsis approached.

After that period Stockmans’s self esteem was restored – which is evident in the monumental nature of his new work. Yet the subject matter is still incisive and infused. He is constantly querying and questioning the human soul. ‘Remember thou art of porcelain and shalt return to porcelain’. That is the revealing title of an installation of female body casts. The life cycle of porcelain as represented by Stockmans is reminiscent of the ouroboros, the serpent swallowing its own tail, an ancient symbol of the cyclicality of life. Since then, casts of bodies have been a recurring theme. Stockmans set up an ambitious project with 21 young people, almost all students. It was an artistic exchange ending in a performance and an installation in which the back of the casts was more important than the front – which after all merely serves as a human shell.

Stockmans often uses the colour blue. For him, blue emphasises the cool colour of the purest porcelain. He even made a porcelain cloak in blue. It was inspired by the colourful feathered cloak worn by Motecuhzoma, a 15th-century Aztec leader. The name, meaning ‘he who makes himself ruler by his rage’, once more demonstrates the profundity of Stockmans’s status as a ceramist and his quest for stories with a deep, dual meaning.

Nowadays much of his work is on show at Stockmans Blue, where the floating, light, masonry of the old mine provides a poetic framework. However, the studio is also open to other artists wishing to work with porcelain. For instance, Pierre Alechinsky and Jan Fabre have already featured there.