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Estana 1, 36 x 36″, mixed media on canvas

Clew:
A Rich and Rewarding Disorientation

Deborah Barlow, Todd Hearon, Jung Mi Lee and Jon Sakata
Lamont Gallery
Phillips Exeter Academy
January 20 – April 15, 2017
Opening Reception: Friday, January 20, 5-7pm
Gallery Talk: Saturday, January 21, 10am

For more information about the collaboration and the artists:
Lamont Gallery

Like most visual artists, I work alone in a studio. Over the years I have often imagined how it would be to do a transdisciplinary, collaborative project. It has always seemed like something that could be delicious but highly unlikely, requiring a “perfect storm” singularity of just the right people, intentions and opportunity.

Clew became that perfect storm singularity for me. My collaborators—poet Todd Hearon and soundmasters Jon Sakata and Jung Mi Lee—are brilliant, open, curious, idea-rich. What emerged from of our collective efforts quickly took on a life of its own. During the many months of preparation I thought frequently about a statement David Salle made about how good art is often a story you didn’t even know needed telling. This project felt like that—a story that I didn’t know was there, but is.

For word lovers, here is a more detailed description of the project:

Clew: The word can mean variously a ball of yarn, part of a ship’s sail, and an expanse of wings. The most famous clew in Western culture was the ball of thread given to Theseus by Ariadne, used to guide the hero back through the labyrinth of the Minotaur. Over time clew has come to mean “a fact, circumstance, or principle which, being taken hold of and followed up, leads through a maze, perplexity, difficulty, intricate investigation” (OED). The labyrinth in that famous story is often a metaphor for what is baffling, complex and unfathomable. But a labyrinth can also suggest the mysterious and uncanny. Wandering through a maze—to be in a state of “amazement”—can be a rich and rewarding disorientation. When sailing in uncharted waters, the clew we need is one that brings us into proximity to the unknown and then back out again. Wings open and expand.

Clew is an artistic collaboration that emulates the labyrinth with its confluences and unexpected turnabouts. Using overlays of music, poetry and visual arts, four artists give viewers and listeners new ways to see, hear and navigate a tripartite, intricately layered world. Within the setting of a physical gallery space, all three formats intermingle freely, and scheduled events shift the central focus from poetry to sound to the visual. Experienced individually or collectively, Clew compounds and expands into a journey of multidimensionality and surprise.

Join in if you can.

Lamont Gallery
Phillips Exeter Academy
11 Tan Lane
Exeter NH 03833
603 777 3461

GALLERY HOURS
Mondays: By appointment
Tuesday-Fridays: 9-5
Saturdays: 10-5
Closed Sundays

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My granddaughter Siena drawing in the Rothko room at the newly opened East Building of the National Gallery, Washington DC (Photo: Mona Wilcox)

We have to help each other. That may sound trite, but it has come to mean a lot more to me over the last dark weeks. When my spirits flagged, I have been helped by friends and strangers with the steady flow of digitally-delivered wisdom.

One post by writer Chuck Wendig (his blog is Terrible Minds) arrived at just at the right moment:

What I mean is this: if you’re a person who Makes Art, then that’s who you are, and there’s nothing precious or small about that…Art is vital, and as such, the artist is vital for making it. Part of the goal of the chaos going on is to put a rope around your wrists, your throat, and your heart and try to stop you from making cool stuff. It’s designed to hamstring you creatively and critically. You can’t let that happen. You gotta carry on. You gotta do the work. YOU GOTTA MAKE THE THINGS.

Wendig went on to list ten things for every maker to keep in mind. These are simple statements, but they are solid. (For more details on each, go to the post, How to Create Art and Make Cool Stuff in a Time of Trouble.)

1. IT’S OKAY IF YOUR OUTPUT SLOWS

2. IT’S NOT OKAY TO STOP ENTIRELY

3. THE TOOLS OF ART ARE YOUR WEAPONS

4. ART CAN ALSO BE YOUR ESCAPE

5. SHUT IT ALL OFF FOR A WHILE

6. CONSUME ART GREEDILY IN GREAT, HEAVING GULPS

7. REMEMBER YOUR AUDIENCE

8. PRACTICE SELF-CARE

9. MAKE A CHANGE

10. YOU MATTER, THIS MATTERS, YOU CAN DO IT

Here’s one more shout out. My friend, poet Fanny Howe, is interviewed in the latest issue of The Paris Review. She discusses her new collection of essays, The Needle’s Eye, and she shares her worthy and wise Fannyisms.

When asked about “the value of poetry in such a brutal world,” Fanny is ready with her response:

You’d have to ask that about all the arts. They lift everyone up. If you ask what good is music you’d say it’s an absurd question. Poetry is innate. You can’t not have poetry if you want to have a whole human being. I heard a Brazilian man at a party say, I hate going to poetry readings but my brain loves hearing it.

A student asks a poignant question: “What do you do if you have no belief?” Fanny’s answer is right in line with what I have come to know:

There are always the arts and they are just as good as reading theology with belief. I feel that the person making the art and the person seeing the art are engaged in a transcendent experience.

So here’s to being whole human beings, to participating in transcendent experiences, to sharing our wisdom with each other. Onward my friends.

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Fingersmith, at A.R.T. (Photo: A.R.T.)

Counter-narratives become much needed palliatives when the storyline of daily life becomes poisonous. Watching the transition to a new regime of power in Washington is like a flashback to the most addled aspects of the 1950’s. As Thomas Friedman recently wrote in the New York Times, “There is actually something ‘prehistoric’ about the cabinet Trump is putting together. It is totally dominated by people who have spent their adult lives drilling for, or advocating for, fossil fuels — oil, gas and coal.”

Many forms of expression can provide counter-narrative relief. One of the best is theater. For example Phyllida Lloyd, the applauded English director of stage and film, has taken Shakespeare into new territory by mounting three of the plays with an all female cast set in a women’s prison. Women, playing men, are prisoners performing Shakespeare behind bars. That layered complexity transforms our view of Julius Caesar, Henry IV and Prospero in The Tempest. (BTW The Tempest is coming to Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse from January 13 through February 19.)

Another immersive counter-narrative theatrical production is on stage now in Boston/Cambridge: Fingersmith, at the American Repertory Theater. Based on the intriguing 2002 novel by Sarah Waters, the play is a masterful, watchmaker-perfect production that will sweep you out of the current shared reality for two hours and forty minutes. The story has both male and female characters, but it is, at its essence, a woman-centric tale. The men in this Dickensian setting are either servile operatives or menacing obstacles around which a powerful pack of self-preserving females each plot a survival route out of difficult lives. Full of surprises, twists and turns, the plot is as engaging as the characters are complex.

In the words of the playwright Alexa Junge:

Sarah Water’s novel is a valentine to the gothic thriller, domestic drama, and Victorian sensation novel…In centering the story around three active, assertive women, the novel flies in the face of traditional portrayals of what was considered appropriately “feminine” at the time. The result is that in addition to creating a sexy and delicious yarn, Waters has imaginatively created a history (and fiction) that never existed by exposing the blind spots of history and bringing marginalized women to the light.

As so many of us are marginalized in this latest power grab, keeping these other storylines active is more important than ever. This matters.

Fingersmith runs through January 8.

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From Doris Salcedo’s Disremembered series. These sculptures are made with raw silk threads interspersed with more than 12,000 tiny, blackened needles. “Handwoven thread by thread and needle by needle, each delicately beautiful but menacing garment embodies a painstaking gesture of mourning.”

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(Detail)

I’m not the only one stymied. Many of us are struggling with we how to manage the interior and the exterior: Defending the sovereignty of creativity (and its nursery-like need for quiet) while navigating a toxic political landscape from which no citizen of the earth should step away. This battle has become a difficult daily exercise for me. I care about both domains, but they are not amicable bedfellows.

Some artists can combine these concerns in their work. Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo‘s exhibit at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, The Materiality of Mourning, is a powerful statement about the victims of political violence and war. Her work is a muscular critique of oppression by way of works that possess an extraordinary delicacy and vulnerability.

But many of us work in a non-representational manner that, by design, lives outside a prescribed narrative or response. The political and the personal don’t cohabit for us as they can in Salcedo’s work.

Poet Charles Simic‘s latest collections of essays, The Life of Images, offers some help in managing this conundrum. Born in Belgrade in what was then Yugoslavia, he grew up in a world at war. “Being one of the millions of displaced persons made an impression on me. In addition to my own little story of bad luck, I heard plenty of others. I’m still amazed by all the vileness and stupidity I witnessed in my life.” Simic has deep credentials as a poet and a survivor of political violence.

In one of the essays in the book, “In Praise of Invective,” he addresses the essential tension between the body politic and the interior domain:

At the end of a murderous century, let’s curse the enemies of the individual.

Every modern ideologue and thought policeman continues to say that the private is political, that there is no such thing as an autonomous self, and if there is, for the sake of common good it is not desirable to have one…Orthodoxy, groupthink, virtue by decree are the ideals of every religion and every utopian model of society…Ideologies from nationalism to racism are not really about ideas; they’re revivalists’ tents offering a chance to the righteous to enjoy their sense of superiority. “We will find eternal happiness and harmony by sacrificing the individual,” every congregation of the faithful continues to rhapsodize.

He goes on to bring his fierce defense of the individual into the sphere of art making:

Historical experience has taught me to be wary of any manifestation of collectivism…Young poets and painters do associate and influence each other and partake of the same zeitgeist, but despite these obvious truths, what literature worth anything is written by a group? Has any genuine artist ever thought of himself or herself exclusively as a part of a movement? Is anyone seriously a postmodernist, whatever that is?

I don’t find systems congenial. My aesthetic says that the poet is true because he or she cannot be labeled. It is the irreducible uniqueness of each life that is worth honoring and defending.

It is easy to take an artist’s deferment from political action. That’s not the answer, and Simic’s life is a model that informs my own. Like him, I don’t find systems “congenial.” But being a witness and taking action against oppression are not in violation of my devotion to the inchoate inner life that is my work. How this plays out is a work in progress, like so much else in life.

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Earth rising as seen from the lunar surface via Apollo 8 (Photo: NASA/Bill Anders)

Lessons learned from the last U.S. election cycle are still being processed and discussed. A big theme for me is just plain epistemological: How do you know what you know? The strange and the unreal took over somewhere in this process, and I am left wondering how it gets sorted out. Who would have guessed that reality itself would become such a crucial player—unreliable, furtive, indeterminate and squirrely.

If you are up to a full on confrontation with the strange circumstances that define our world today, watch Adam Curtis‘ documentary HyperNormalisation.

A description of the film from Curtis’ blog:

We live in a time of great uncertainty and confusion. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless migrant crisis, random bomb attacks. And those who are supposed to be in power are paralysed—they have no idea what to do.

This film is the epic story of how we got to this strange place. It explains not only why these chaotic events are happening – but also why we, and our politicians, cannot understand them.

It shows that what has happened is that all of us in the West—not just the politicians and the journalists and the experts, but we ourselves—have retreated into a simplified, and often completely fake version of the world. But because it is all around us we accept it as normal.

Chuck Klosterman addresses similar “what is reality really?” questions in his new book, But What If We’re Wrong? He uses the concept of gravity as an example. Some now believe that it might not be a fundamental force but an emergent force (meaning gravity might be a manifestation of other forces, not a force itself.) In considering the history of our beliefs about gravity Klosterman asks, “If mankind could believe something false was objectively true for two thousand years, why do we reflexively assume that our current understanding of gravity—which we’ve embraced for a mere three hundred fifty years—will somehow exist forever?”

He goes on:

The practical reality is that any present-tense version of the world is unstable. What we currently consider to be true—both objectively and subjectively—is habitually provisional. But the modern problem is that reevaluating what we consider “true” is becoming increasingly difficult…If there’s a rogue physicist in Winnipeg who doesn’t believe in gravity, he can self-publish a book that outlines his argument and potentially attract a larger audience than Principia found during its first hundred years of existence. But increasing the capacity for the reconsideration of ideas is not the same as actually changing those ideas (or even allowing them to change by their own momentum.)

This touches into the concept that environmental philosopher Timothy Morton has called hyperobjects—“entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place.” In Morton’s view we live inside an array of hyperobjects—climate, nuclear weapons, evolution, nature—that we cannot comprehend and that cannot be parsed with normal reasoning.

The implications of this are demonstrated with the example of global warming as described by Morton:

We can’t directly see global warming, because it’s not only really widespread and really really long-lasting (100,000 years); it’s also super high-dimensional. It’s not just 3-D. It’s an incredibly complex entity that you have to map in what they call a high-dimensional- phase space: a space that plots all the states of a system.

In so doing, we are only following the strictures of modern science, laid down by David Hume and underwritten by Immanuel Kant. Science can’t directly point to causes and effects: That would be metaphysical, equivalent to religious dogma. It can only see correlations in data. This is because, argues Kant, there is a gap between what a thing is and how it appears (its “phenomena”) that can’t be reduced, no matter how hard we try. We can’t locate this gap anywhere on or inside a thing. It’s a transcendental gap. Hyperobjects force us to confront this truth of modern science and philosophy.

And to close, an excerpt from another writer/thinker I admire, Kathryn Schulz, who brings another dimension to this concept of what we know and what we don’t:

Even here on earth, with our senses seemingly full to the brim, we see almost nothing of what matters. Molecules, microbes, cells, germs, genes, viruses, the interior of the planet, the depths of the ocean: none of that is visible to the naked eye. And, as David Hume noted, none of the causes controlling our world are visible under any conditions; we can see a fragment of the what of things, but nothing at all of the why. Gravity, electricity, magnetism, economic forces, the processes that sustain life as well as those that eventually end it—all this is invisible. We cannot even see the most important parts of our own selves: our thoughts, feelings, personalities, psyches, morals, minds, souls.

I have no answers to offer. But it seems clear to me that we are in need of a different set of tools, ones that can allow us to access new ways of perceiving, conceptualizing, describing, decoding, envisioning and enacting.

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Howard Zinn (Photo: History is a Weapon)

What is left to be said? Ten days in, I have read hundreds of opinions about the outcome of the election, conversed with sympathetic friends and family, sought for ways to stay grounded in this increasingly surreal landscape we now share in the United States. For all the opinionating and pontificating, I still don’t have a definitive and complete explanation for how this happened or what the best strategy will be going forward. I’m perplexed by all of it. Perplexed and utterly, utterly devastated.

If I am aligned with anyone, it would be with many of the writers from one of my favorite books, The Impossible Will Take a Little While*. It was published by Paul Rogat Loeb in 2004, during another era of extreme political pain. The contributors to this collection of essays are familiar names from many walks of life—Maya Angelou, Nelson Mandela, Václav Havel, Adrienne Rich, Cornel West, Joanna Macy, Pablo Neruda, Alice Walker, John Lewis, Terry Tempest Williams, among others. But they share a common message: Do not be daunted, even if your first efforts feel tiny and insignificant. This book is full of inspiring stories of how to effect change and how to tenaciously attend to efforts that often start small but end up making a difference. In some cases, a very big difference.

Howard Zinn, ever wise and much loved here in Boston/Cambridge even after his passing in 2010, wrote an essay for this volume: The Optimism of Uncertainty. What a concept! The content of that essay is so apropos it could have been written this morning.

Is the optimist necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time? I am totally confident not that the world will get better, but that only confidence can prevent people from giving up the game before all the cards have been played. The metaphor is deliberate; life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. to play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world.

What leaps out from the history of the past hundred years is its utter unpredictability. This confounds us, because we are talking about exactly the period when human beings became so ingenious technologically that they could plan and predict the exact time of someone landing on the moon, or walk down the street talking to someone halfway around the Earth.

And this:

The bad things that happen are repetitions of bad things that have always happened—war, racism, maltreatment of women, religious and nationalist fanaticism, starvation. The good things that happen are unexpected. Unexpected, and yet explainable by certain truths that spring at us from time to time, but which we tend to forget.

Political power, however formidable, is more fragile than we think. (Note how nervous are those who hold it.)…

Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society…

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.

So begins this latest zigzag. And for me, a daily practice of steering clear of hate while staying focused on compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

Once more with feeling, since most of us have been here before. Is this my last chance to really get good at this?

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*The title of the book references lyrics written by Bob Russell ( “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”, among others) for Billie Holiday back in the 1940s:

The difficult I’ll do right now
The impossible will take a little while.

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Benedictions

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Sally Mann (Photo: Liz Liguori)

Finding fully immersive distractions to defend against the relentlessly ugly political news has become a daily ritual. Like so many others, I go out each day in search of sustenance in a landscape that has been ravaged by the locusts of lies, hatred and distrust. Protecting the inner landscape and keeping it moist has become an epic task during this season of my greatest struggle with EAD (see below.)

Books, good ones, work better than just about anything.

Thank you to Sally Mann for her completely captivating memoir, Hold Still. My copy is margin marked as I encounter her artistic insights and understandings. She is a masterful photographer, writer and observer.

For example here’s some of her wisdom about that inevitable process every maker knows about: You have one lucky break—a great painting or photograph or poem emerges out of nowhere. That success brings on a “cocky confidence,” but the next attempts all fail. On cue, the voices of doubt and despair appear and suggest you just give up. They tell you that you have made all the good works you can and that you have nothing more to say.

Mann shares her experience:

That voice is easy to believe…it leaves me with only two choices: I can resume the slog and take more pictures, thereby risking further failure and despair, or I can guarantee failure and despair by not making more pictures. It’s essentially a decision between uncertainty and certainty and, curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice.

So you soldier on, with just enough good outcomes to keep you going. Soon new work appears, and with it comes the disempowering of the older work. So the struggle continues.

Others looking in from the outside don’t understand how this works and how this feels.

How can they understand the paralyzing, dry-well fear I live with from one good picture to the impossible next? Who can know the agony of tamped-down hope between the shutter’s release and the image in the developer? Or the reckless joy when I realize that, at last, I have a good one; eagerly, my ebbing confidence throws off the winding-sheet and resumes business at the old headquarters, a wondrous resurrection.

But of course, it is also a fleeting one. It lasts about as long as the exquisite apex of a wave and, just as the wave takes the sand castle, it sucks my confidence out with it as it recedes. In its wake, it leaves the freshly exposed reminder that, however good that last image was, the next picture must be better. Each good new picture always holds despair within it, for it raises the ante for the ones that follow…

I practice my skills despite repeated failures and self-doubt so profound it can masquerade outwardly as conceit. It’s not heroic in any way. To the contrary, it’s plodding, obdurate effort. I make bad picture after bad picture week after week until the relief comes: the good new picture that offers benediction.

So here’s to those who slog through to get to those good new pictures, paintings, plays, poems, music. And here’s to the slogging we also have ahead of us in repairing a political landscape drained of compassion, empathy and collaboration. Taking some wisdom from Mann, it isn’t heroic but a plodding, obdurate effort that hopefully brings about a benediction.

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*EAD: Election Addiction Disorder. Thank you to my friend, psychiatrist Harvey Roy Greenberg, for sharing his wickedly funny, DSM-ready description of the epidemic that overtook so many of us these last few months.

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Judy Pfaff at Wheaton College

Judy Pfaff is an artist’s artist. Perhaps I should be more specific and say she is my kind of artist’s artist. And “my kind of artist” is a much bigger category than me and my friends. Legions of us have followed her for years, and we keep being compelled, enthralled, delighted and at times left speechless by the stamina of this woman who is part whirling dervish and part postmodern alchemist. There’s no flagging or slowing down with this one. Great work just keeps coming from this timeless, energetic and passionate artist.

If you are in the Boston area, you have a chance to see a spectacular selection of her work at Wheaton College in Norton: Judy Pfaff: Drawing Thick and Thin.

This show is full of those Pfaffian marvels—exploding images and colors in every shape and size, natural elements such as leaves and branches alongside industrial materials including foam and flexible ducting, plastic that has been made to look like molten glass, wall colors individualized for specific pieces, cut outs and mark making that force the two dimensional into three, backdrops constructed from photographs and images, creating a veritable cornucopia of images in lively juxtaposition. The joy of making, looking, discovery—this whole show is an unabashed celebration of just being alive.

I’ve written about Pfaff many times on Slow Muse. In an interview with Constance Lewallen published by Crown Point Press a few years ago, Pfaff had words that are still feel relevant and meaningful to this current show as well as the larger arena of art making that is coming from a like-minded place:

Lewallen: [Your] work is not ironic as so much of the work being shown today, in which the artist is the art critic as well…You once said to me that a positive way of looking at this phenomenon is that now artists have created another arena for themselves–they can be critics, they can be businessmen.

Pfaff: When I am in a generous mood I think that. But often I think it is very depressing that the whole art world seems to demonstrate that attitude now—cool, detached, competent. I think one of the things about being an artist is that you should be allowed to test murky, unclear, unsure territory or all you have left are substitutes that signify these positions. Having it all together is the least interesting thing in art, in being alive.

Lewallen: Someone once wrote that your work deals with art at the fringes of confusion of life itself.

Pfaff: I like that.

I spent two hours in the gallery today, and I hope I can return again. I’ve posted a slew of images below, many of them detailed views, that speak to the extraordinary richness of Pfaff’s multidimensional explorations into the “murky, unclear and unsure territory” that is her art making.

The show runs through November 11. Kudos to Gallery Director Michele L’Heureux for making this exhibit happen. For more information about the exhibit, click here.

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Edmund de Waal, detail, Princeton Museum

Continuing with themes inspired by Edmund de Waal in his latest book, The White Road

In a profile of de Waal that appeared in the New York Times, Sam Anderson describes de Waal as an evangelist of touch. “Thinking is through the hands as well as the head,” de Waal has said.

De Waal worries that modern humans are beginning to lose our fluency in touch. He thinks that we live in a world impoverished by a lack of attention to tactility. Our culture has a deeply embedded shame of the body, shame of skin, shame of “mere” sensation—a desire to transcend the animal coarseness of nerves, hair, blood flow. To live in clean, noble abstractions: things that we think will last. All of our digital technology, all of these portable virtual worlds, only make it easier to live in touchlessness. If you put on virtual-reality goggles, there will be plenty to look at and pretend to touch, but nothing to actually feel. But touch, de Waal insists, is fundamental to the human experience. If we can’t fully inhabit and value the world of touchable objects, de Waal told me, then we can’t fully value other human beings.

The power of objects to connect us with our living, breathing bodies and selves is not trivial. Even if we don’t pick up one of de Waal’s fragile vessels, its made by handedness is so essential to its essence. We can see how it came into being, how a human shepherded it into existence, step by step.

Paintings and sculpture may not be designed with the same implicit suggestion of being held in the hand, but they also, like de Waal’s vessels, can claim a very personal, very human etiology. Sarah Sze‘s installation, Timekeeper, currently on view at the Rose Art Museum, speaks to the suggestion of high touch, yet another form of touchability. Meticulously intricate and outrageously eclectic, this signatory Sze creation sits in the center of a very large gallery, whirring and “breathing” as you enter the space. Constructed from torn sheets of paper, photos, mirror shards, text, embedded LEDs, projections, reflections off the surface of water, multilayered mini-scaffolding, Timekeeper speak to how Sze “blurs the line between organic and mechanical structure.”

From the curatorial statement:

Timekeeper has no relationship to the mechanical devices we use to mark the literal passing of time, but instead to the way we recall and replay our lives, in selected fragments that, strung together, account for the passage of years. Timekeeper may not keep the time, but it keeps our time.

While very different in spirit and form from de Waal’s ever growing tribe of tiny pinch pots, Timekeeper feels human-sourced, made by hand. It too claims its place in the celebration of the power of thingness and of touch.

Installation views of Timekeeper by Sarah Sze, at the Rose Art Museum:

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Edmund de Waal installation currently on view at the Princeton Museum

With the publication and international success of his family memoir, The Hare With Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal became a literary sensation before many knew he was, first and foremost, an artist whose specialty is ceramics. Notoriety tends to spills over, and soon his artistic efforts were being heralded as well. In 2013 an installation of his work was featured at Gagosian Gallery in New York.

Not everyone was a fan of that show. New York Times’ Roberta Smith was dismissive (“Time spent with Mr. de Waal’s work can teach a lot about the nuances of ceramics, but his work is ostentatiously precious and ultimately naïve”.) I was moved by the energy of his intentions, but I did have mixed feelings about such quiet, contemplative work being displayed in an environment like Gagosian where the high pitched din of art commodification drowns out the subtle registers.

While the context did seem wrong to me, so many other things about de Waal’s approach seemed right. In an interview with Iain Millar, de Waal speaks in a way that feel very aligned with my views:

One of the really interesting things in contemporary art is about the loss of time. The process is neutral, it’s not a good thing or a bad thing, but long looking and long making do something different from short looking and short making.

He also addresses his discomfort when the making and the selling are too closely aligned, and more boldly, of his dislike of art fairs:

Millar: I was wondering what would bring you out in hives again.

de Waal: When I discovered that I don’t agree with art fairs, that an artist going to art fairs make me ill…

Millar: You’re a refusnik?

de Waal: The brutality and the commodification of what you’ve just done is just too total for me. I’m English enough to enjoy that separation. I like making stuff, talking about how it’s going to be curated and then finding out later about whether someone’s bought it or not. That interim process of seeing it being sold is a bit of a shock.

It may be that de Waal’s work exists outside the familiar categories, and naive is the easiest way to describe that mismatch. Martin Roth, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum said of him, “He doesn’t fit into a niche, and that’s his strength. He’s not copying 18th-century or ancient Asian porcelain. His work is completely modern, but it is steeped in a great knowledge of history.”

Apropos to that blend of the modern and the historial, de Waal published a second book, The White Road: Journey Into An Obsession, in 2015. In this volume de Waal shares his lifelong passion for his preferred medium, porcelain. The book is, inter alia, a fascinating chronicle of his journeys to the “white hills” where porcelain is found. His first stop is to the belly button of porcelain production, Jingdezhen, China. He subsequently travels to other “white hill” locations in Germany, England and America, moving easily from historical narratives to accounts of his very personal experiences of looking, making and connecting with objects.

It is his devotion to the power of things that most connects me with de Waal. “Thingness” and how we can sense their power have been running themes on Slow Muse*, and de Waal’s The White Road is in line with so many of my experiences:

I hear objects. With objects it is possible not only to sound them, name them and make sense of them through language, but hear their kinship with words themselves. Some things feel like nouns, words with physicality, shape and weight. They have a self-contained quality, a sense that you could put them down and they would displace the same amount of the world around them. Other objects are verbs and are in flux. But when I see them I hear them. A stack of bowls is a chord.

de Waal has described his work by saying, “It’s patently sculpture of a kind, it talks to architecture I hope, it’s very much rooted in poetry and music, it’s pottery at a very real level.” This book, like his work, has many tracks that all come together to make it a memorable and provocative read.

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* For more posts that explore the concept of thingness, click here.

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