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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

PHOTOGRAPHY HANS FONK
TEXT NIEK DEPREST