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