‘[...] Porcelain is the whitest material in the world. It is translucent, a material that defies its origins in the earth. Its whiteness is a kind of candour. But here it is black milk, curdled. There is a terrible beauty in this blackness: one material on the edge of becoming another. There is a kind of silence.’
E. de Waal, Irrkunst, exh. cat., Berlin: Galerie Max Hetzler and Holzwarth Publications, 2016, pp. 7–8
‘a sort of speech is an exhibition of new and recent work staged across both Galerie Max Hetzler locations in Berlin. The new installations are a “series of detours” through the work of Robert Walser, the modernist Swiss writer, whose literary output is the central inspiration behind the exhibition. Walser’s so-called “pencil method” – an obsessive form of notation in microscript – allowed him to explore the immersive qualities of writing, something which has long held great significance for de Waal; “I love his writings...the way he made texts. I love his understanding of making as a way of marking time. Text can be sculpture, sculpture a sort of speech”.
In response to this idea, de Waal has made a new series of sculptures – free-standing vitrines holding paper-thin sheets of porcelain, embossed with his own handwritten texts, which are leant or stacked like pages of a notebook against vessels or marble fragments. Some hold these porcelain elements without any vessel forms – the first installations of their kind. For the 10m-long wall in the Goethestraße gallery, he has also made his first site-specific text piece for Berlin. Gilded with sheets of gold leaf and overpainted with kaolin slip, de Waal has written into the surface, transcribing his own Walser-inspired texts and microscripts.’
‘Much of my work is around the strange contingency of memory: trying to bring particular histories of loss and exile into renewed life. […] Trying to navigate the history of the ghetto is complicated. Some facts are undisputed: it was decreed in 1516 that all the Jews of Venice were to leave their homes and live “united” in the square of houses near San Girolamo in the Cannaregio area of the city. […] It was to be a place of safety – Venetians were to be safe from the contamination of the Jews. By extension, Jews were to be safe from the pogroms which had periodically swept through cities. […] Everything else is contended: five centuries of debate about meaning and symbolism, about containment, a powerfully demarcated place of enforced separation, of the guarding of gates, blocking-up of windows, prohibitions and demands. As the Jewish population increased, the housing became denser: houses were subdivided, then divided again, with ceilings in new buildings dramatically lowered, so that a cross-section of the houses looks like an architectural impossibility. The overcrowding was notorious and the buildings were badly constructed, crumbling, dilapidated. It is a place at the very margins of the city: when you look at the great bird’s-eye Renaissance maps of Venice, the ghetto is barely there, tilting off the city into the lagoon. […]
This place is embedded in metaphor. It is on the edge of the world, it is a place of concentration, a place of powerlessness.
There is another history, other metaphors. Sitting here I think of the great sweep of languages of this place, the mingling of high and low argot and slang, of the dialects and cultures of the German, Flemish, Persian, Ottoman, Spanish and Portuguese Jews alongside Italians, an almost unimaginable array of clothing, food and music. It was a place of constant translation, a testing ground for comprehension and nuance. It was noisy with learning, education, debate, poetry and music, liturgy and exegesis, with Hebrew as the only common denominator. […]
Everything is plural here, one history reaching out to another, a palimpsest of voices. And this is where this project finds its core. I thought of how the psalms work as songs of exile from the city, the ever-present absence of Jerusalem. Of how much the psalms work as songs that move between the singular and the plural, the solitary voice and the tribal, anger and despair, lament and joy. And how the psalms are cornerstones of all three Abrahamic traditions.’
E. de Waal, ‘A library of exile: Edmund de Waal on Venice’s Jewish Ghetto’, in The Guardian, 2019
‘This is a library of exile. A storied space, one created for reflection.
The library contains two thousand books written by those who have been forced to leave their own country, or exiled within it. This is a history from Ovid, through Dante, to Voltaire and Victor Hugo. It is the history of the twentieth century. It is also the history of our times too: the recent decades of extraordinary writers from Lebanon and Syria, the literature of exile of Iran, Palestine, Tunisia. The perpetual pulse of repression and the answering response of new literature. On the walls of the library I have written a new text – a listing of the lost and erased libraries of the world – from Nineveh and Alexandria to the recent destruction of Sarajevo, Timbuktu and Aleppo and Mosul. It includes the Madrasah libraries and the rabbinical libraries of Lublin and Warsaw. I write down the library of my great-grandfather. I write the words of Heine “Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen”, “Where books are burned, in the end, people will also be burned.” [...]
This new library has books from fifty-two countries.
Come and sit and read. There is a book plate in each book – add your name. There are readings and conversations about literature, about history and translation, a new dance work, storytelling for children, music. This library celebrates the idea that all languages are diasporic, that we need other people’s words, self-definitions and re-definitions in translation. It honours the words of André Aciman, himself an exile from Alexandria, that he understands himself “not as a person from a place, but as a person from a place across from that place. You are – and always are – from somewhere else”.’
Edmund de Waal, 2019
‘Elective Affinities is a temporary exhibition of new, site-specific installations, made in direct response to the works of the Frick Collection in New York. It is also the first exhibition of contemporary art staged by the museum.
Displayed in the main galleries, the works are intended as a series of encounters and conversations with the museum’s masterpieces, its spaces as well as its history. In de Waal’s words, “this is a storied place whose collections have a depth that is unparalleled: to spend time thinking about them has been one of the great moments of my life”.’
‘I work with things. I make them, from porcelain. And then I arrange them, find places to put them down, on shelves or within vitrines, in houses and galleries and museums, move them around so that they are in light or in shadow. They are installations, or groupings, or a kind of poetry. They have titles, a phrase or a line that helps them on their way in the world. [...]’
E. de Waal, Irrkunst, exh. cat., Berlin: Galerie Max Hetzler and Holzwarth Publications, 2016, p. 5
‘Edmund de Waal made his Royal Ballet debut in the 2017/18 Season designing Wayne McGregor’s new ballet, Yugen, at the Royal Opera House. Set to The Chichester Psalms, the production formed part of a programme celebrating the centenary of Leonard Bernstein's birth. For these “heart-breaking songs of exile”, the artist created “structures for the dancer, places of refuge and pause”, and costumes in a spectrum of reds with the fashion designer, Shirin Guild.’
‘De Waal’s first architectural intervention in America was at the Schindler House in West Hollywood: a landmark of West Coast Modernism, built in 1922 by Viennese émigré architect, Rudolph Schindler. Conceived as a modular, changeable live-work building for two families, it became a site of forward-thinking aesthetic, cultural and political activity, frequented by architects, dancers and artists from Frank Lloyd Wright to John Cage.
For de Waal, the Schindler House “is an idea about beginnings. It stands as an attempt to create a place for both cooperative living and cooperative practice, to reset the conditions in which a modern family could live and experiment... The last decades of travelling to Vienna have made me think of what it might mean to be an émigré and build a house, to question what you bring with you when you start again so definitively.” The exhibition included works which respond directly to the materials and spaces of the house, and a sound piece conceived with the composer, Simon Fisher Turner, “a layered memory soundscape of Vienna through its Raumplan, its volumes”.’
‘Both these protagonists [Edmund de Waal and Ai Weiwei], who could hardly be more different, can today be seen as leading figures in the engagement with ceramics. A dialogue on their positions forms the basis of the exhibition. It is an attempt to map out a zone of tension for current consideration within this infinitely varied and thus complex field located between diverse traditions, historical developments and artistic positions; one that shows how artistic impetus and the need always to create a context pushes ceramics to the very nub of several discourses in contemporary art.’
B. Steiner and P. Pakesch, eds., Kneaded Knowledge: The Language of Ceramics, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Graz, Graz; Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2016, p. 21
‘This is my first exhibition in Berlin. It is a city I know best through the writing of Walter Benjamin, a city I am coming to know through walking and retracing particular journeys. Walking is many things. It is a way of thinking: walking alone is always walking in conversation. [...]
He [Benjamin] was [...] a walker and writes that there is an art to getting lost, Irrkunst: the art of noticing what has been disregarded. Benjamin says that he had “a very poor sense of direction ... it was thirty years before the distinction between left and right had become visceral to me, and before I had acquired the art of reading a map”. So he wanders. [...]
I follow him.’
E. de Waal, Irrkunst, exh. cat., Berlin: Galerie Max Hetzler and Holzwarth Publications, 2016, p. 5
‘It is a vitrine, one of the largest I have attempted. And onto its nine shelves I place small silver aluminium containers that were used for the spare parts for guns. Some are filled with lead, some leadshot, some with broken pieces of porcelain. I stack small pieces of lead and I make porcelain vessels and they are glazed in black and with oxides, heavy with the minerals of alchemy. I create my own kind of Kunstkammer and bring this installation to the Kunsthistorisches Museum as my attempt at holding things together. It will hang alongside Dürer’s night time terror, the Handstein, Cranach’s strange portrait of a young woman and her shadow, the reliquaries, the masks, Orpheus and the Thracian Woman, bezoars, gilded amulets. It will hang here for the whole winter. And I’ve named it During the night.’
E. de Waal, During the night, exh. cat., Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 2016
‘White is aura. White is a staging post to look at the world from. White is not neutral; it forces other colours to reveal themselves. It moralises – it is clean when nothing else is clean, it is light when most things are heavy. It is about impossibility. Think of Moby Dick and Captain Ahab, the question crying out, “What is this thing of whiteness?”White is a place to begin and a place to end.’
E. de Waal, in the brochure published on the occasion of the exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, 2015
‘A handful of clay from a Chinese hillside carries a promise: that mixed with the right materials, it might survive the fire of the kiln, and fuse into porcelain – translucent, luminous, white.
For centuries, porcelain has transfixed emperors and alchemists, philosophers, craftsmen and collectors – all eager to learn the recipe for this versatile and valuable substance. Porcelain was melted, smashed, or snapped into pieces as men struggled to decode the secret of “white gold”.
Acclaimed writer and potter Edmund de Waal sets out on a quest – a journey across continents that begins at Jingdezhen in China, the birthplace of porcelain, and embraces Venice, Versailles, Dublin, Dresden, the Appalachian Mountains of South Carolina and the English South-West, to tell the unbroken story of a global obsession. Along the way, he meets the witnesses to its creation; those who were inspired, made rich or heartsick by it; and the many whose livelihoods, minds and bodies were broken by it.
In these intimate and compelling encounters with the people and landscapes who made porcelain, Edmund de Waal comes to a more profound understanding of the material he has worked with for decades. It is a journey into an obsession with white itself.’
‘The Pier Arts Centre must surely be the most coastal of all art galleries. Our buildings are never more than mere yards from the waves, and the tides ebb and flow against the seawalls of our foundations. Around all our shores are two parallel lines that will be familiar to anyone who has walked a storm-beach and teens the ribbons of the tangled ware that mark high water spring and high water neap tides. Around the Arts Centre’s pier-edge a darkened band of stones marks this inter-tidal margin, where the waves speak loudest. In and between those lines are many intermingled narratives of salt and loam, air and water, nature, man and time.
wavespeech, the title for a work of art, this book and the exhibition from which it arose, represents a remarkable collaboration between the artists Edmund de Waal and David Ward. The two golden lines of text that make up the work, which runs the full length of the Centre’s longest wall in the Pier Arts Centre’s galleries, is a beautiful coalition of ideas that eloquently delineates the push and pull of meanings that so strongly reside in transitional places, such as our pier. These two separate lines and their joined meanings, which emerged from conversation but were written in seclusion, speak of two artist in tune with each other and with the poetics of place, memory and meaning.’
N. Firth, ‘Introduction’, in Edmund de Waal / David Ward. wavespeech, exh. cat., Bath/ Orkney: Wunderkammer Press and Pier Arts Centre, 2018, p. 7
‘In my opaque vitrines, objects move between profile and dimensionality, blur into a haze and come suddenly into focus. Which is how memory works, of course, shimmering like a mirage heralding us towards the wrong places. [...] This holding back is not a retreat from the world, not an attempt on gravitas through obscurity, not a greying varnish to smoke over the details and make it old. I dislike manufactured obscurity. I use this blurring because it is a more accurate means to keep objects in flux than having them under museum condition lights, pinned in an airless box. Clarity can delude. There can be more lucidity in the shadows. They have what Keats called in a marginal note in his copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost “A sort of Delphi Abstraction, a beautiful thing made more beautiful by being reflected and put in a Mist”.’
E. de Waal, in Edmund de Waal, London: Phaidon, 2014, p. 210
‘In response to an invitation by the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Edmund de Waal made a piece to hang in the Theseus Temple in Vienna as part of a series of contemporary installations. There is only daylight there, through the great double doors, and it comes in through the skylight and ebbs and flows across the walls, changes. On the wall opposite the doors are two huge vitrines. They hold hundreds of small porcelain vessels, some have a touch of silver on their rims or bases. Lichtzwang takes its name from the title of a book of poems by Paul Celan, a man for whom language was a necessity and a terrible response to silence. The vessels are placed like words on a page, or people passing through a building, held only by “Lichtzwang” – the pressure, force, compulsion of light.’
‘The chasm of sky above my head
Is Heaven's profoundest azure; no domain
For fickle, short-lived clouds to occupy
Or to pass through; but rather an abyss
In which the everlasting stars abide
And whose soft gloom, and boundless depth, might tempt
The curious eye to look for them by day’
W. Woodsworth, The Excursion (Book Third, 1814), exh. cat., Kent: Turner Contemporary, 2014, p. 18
‘Out of conversations came the challenge of making work for Waddesdon. But how to make anything for this extraordinary place, this series of rooms in which every surface holds an object, every wall is layered with tapestry, paintings, panelling? My work is austere. Waddesdon is not. Bluntly, almost comically, the question was asked “Where is the room for something new?” My pact was not to move anything out, but to only bring objects in. This meant working out how to create installations to place on eighteenth-century console tables, on marble, against mirrors and panelling, hard up against Sèvres, close to putti. I had to think of work that had to be contingent on its surroundings: it had to be put on something else while keeping its autonomy. […] Several of my installations are responses to particular parts of the collection itself. […] Other installations spin off from ideas about the house rather than particular settings. The first time I came to Waddesdon, I was struck by the beauty – and the melancholy – of the stacks of wooden boxes made to transport porcelain. They were placed inside the great fireplace in the Red Drawing Room. In this, the grandest room at Waddesdon, a Savonnerie carpet on the floor, Gainsborough and Reynolds portraits on the walls, the sense of works in transit, seemed haunting. And so I have made a series of intimate installations, on the properties of fire, each contained within a lead-lined box. Objects to pack up and take with you.’
E. de Waal, ‘Something else, somewhere other’, in Edmund de Waal at Waddesdon, exh. cat., Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire; Waddesdon: The Rothschild Foundation, 2012, pp. 7–9
‘De Waal continues to find in each new project the opportunity to ask new questions, or to find new expression for thoughts that have matured over a lifetime. So, in his first public art commission for Cambridge University, a local history, he has sunk three vitrines into the paving outside the Alison Richard Building on the Sidgwick Site. Inside are collections of porcelain – allusions to other collections long lost or buried, which lie everywhere still beneath our feet.’
E. Crichton-Miller, ‘Can a Poet be a Potter of Song?’, in Edmund de Waal, London: Phaidon, 2014, p. 83
‘I have spent the last few years writing a very personal book. It is the biography of a collection and the biography of my family. It is the story of the ascent and decline of a Jewish dynasty, about loss and diaspora and about the survival of objects.
The collection is of 264 Japanese netsuke. It is the common thread for the story of its three Jewish owners and the three rooms in which it was kept over a period of a hundred and forty years.
The first of the three rooms is the study in Paris in the 1870s of the art-critic Charles Ephrussi, the model of Swann in Proust, hung with Impressionist paintings by Renoir and Degas. The second room is the dressing-room of my great-grandmother Emmy von Ephrussi in the vast Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse in Vienna. The third room is that of her son Ignace, my great-uncle Iggie, in Tokyo in the 1970s, an apartment looking out across central Tokyo.
I am the fifth generation of the family to inherit this collection, and it is my story too. I am a maker: I make pots. How things are made, how they are handled and what happens to them has been central to my life for over thirty years. So too has Japan, a place I went to when I was 17 to study pottery. How objects embody memory – or more particularly, whether objects can hold memories – is a real question for me. This book is my journey to the places in which this collection lived. It is my secret history of touch.’
Edmund de Waal, 2010
‘The work as a whole is a homage to memory, both collective and personal. De Waal reached back into his own memories of visiting the galleries as a schoolboy. [...] Rather than exhaustively referencing the entire V&A ceramics collection, de Waal chose to focus on those parts of it that had meant most to him: the Chinese porcelains, the eighteenth-century porcelains and the modern porcelains from Vienna, the Bauhaus, and the Constructivists. [...] The circular arrangement was a significant departure. Instead of decisive demarcation, here was a piece without beginning or end.’
E. Crichton-Miller, ‘Can a Poet be a Potter of Song?’, in Edmund de Waal, Phaidon: London, 2014, pp. 75–77
‘More indirectly, the practice of porcelain enforced a new idea of scale. Clay pots are meant to be used. Porcelain pots, traditionally, are meant to be seen, and not just on the tables, or displayed in porcelain chests, but often in entire porcelain “rooms” - those blue-and-white environments that once filled princely palaces and were among the proudest “exhibition spaces” of the Enlightenment. “It was by thinking about these eighteenth-century rooms – about great cargoes of porcelain rooms that helped show me a way”, de Waal says. “I made a porcelain room in a museum in London, a wall of five hundred pieces of porcelain, and I was doing it to have something that is so total as an experience – akin to being able to stand in front of Newmans and be utterly owned by the space”.’
A. Gopnik, ‘The Great Glass Case of Beautiful Things: About the Art of Edmund de Waal’, in Atemwende – Edmund de Waal, exh. cat., New York: Gagosian Gallery, 2013, pp. 8-10
‘[...] The results of his [de Waal’s] intellectual researches became the ground-breaking book Bernard Leach, published by Tate Publishing in 1997, part of a small series of books about St Ives artists. In it, de Waal dismantled Leach's authority, exposing, among other things, his limited understanding of Japanese culture. Leach had been revered as the great interpreter for the West of the great mysteries of the East. Yet, as de Waal showed in forensic detail, his grasp of the Japanese language was weak, and the people he met, including the charismatic Sōetsu Yanagi, were a highly educated, often Western-educated elite, with little or no contact with the much idealised rural peasant craftsmen. Along the way de Waal confronted the whole legacy of Japonisme, the passionate and often creative misreading of Japanese culture by the West, which had dominated thinking about Japanese arts and crafts for a hundred years.’
E. Crichton-Miller, ‘Can a Poet be a Potter of Song?’, in Edmund de Waal, London: Phaidon, 2014, p. 29
‘[...] First at Egg in 1996 and then at the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh in 1998, de Waal began to group his pots and call these collections “cargoes”. A visitor expecting to be able to buy individual pots in the usual way was confronted with the notion that, for the moment, the pot they preferred was playing a part in a larger story. “The idea was of something in transit”, de Waal explains. More particularly, he was gripped by the idea of the Silk Road, that conduit of luxurious goods and cultural knowledge, from East to West, and by the image of porcelain pots being unloaded in the docks over many hundreds of years. If the Silk Road was a conduit for porcelain, he was, as he explains it, “claiming porcelain as a conduit of an idea”.’
E. Crichton-Miller, ‘Can a Poet be a Potter of Song?’, in Edmund de Waal, London: Phaidon, 2014, p. 32 and 42