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Edmund de Waal

library of exile (solo show)
The British Museum, London
27 August 2020 – 12 January 2021

Installation view: British Museum, London, 2020. Photo: Hélène Binet
Installation view: British Museum, London, 2020. Photo: Hélène Binet

Created as a 'space to sit and read and be', library of exile is an installation by British artist and writer, Edmund de Waal, housing more than 2,000 books in translation, written by exiled authors.

Unveiled to great acclaim during the Venice Biennale 2019, this porcelain-covered pavilion is intended as a place of contemplation and dialogue. 'It is about exile,' says de Waal, 'what it means to have to move to another country, to speak another language.'

From Ovid and Dante to Marina Tsvetaeva and Judith Kerr, the library forms a record of repression while celebrating the response of the displaced. Almost all of the books are in translation, reflecting the idea of language as a form of migration. Each book has an 'ex libris' label so visitors can write their name inside ones that matter to them. The collection can also be explored through an online catalogue where new titles can be suggested.

Alongside the books hangs a quartet of de Waal's own vitrines, psalm, I-IV (2019), holding pieces of porcelain, marble and steel. Their arrangements echo the composition of Daniel Bomberg's 16th-century edition of the Talmud – a central text of Judaism – printed in Venice and notable for holding the Hebrew, Aramaic translation and commentary on a single page.

The external walls of the library are painted with liquid porcelain into which de Waal has inscribed the names of the great lost libraries of the world – from Nineveh in sixth-century BC Assyria to those recently lost in Tripoli and Mosul. Following its time at the Museum, the books will be donated to the library of the University of Mosul, Iraq, which is currently undergoing reconstruction, with the help of Book Aid International.

The British Museum


Additional:

Edmund de Waal

library of exile (catalogue)

The British Museum has published a catalogue on Edmund de Waal's work, centring around his "library of exile", currently shown at the museum.

"This beautifully produced book reflects upon the themes raised by de Waal’s thought-provoking work of art. A preface by Booker Prize-nominated author Elif Shakef considers the importance of literature and its capacity to transcend language and borders. The introduction from British Museum Director, Hartwig Fischer, positions the artwork within the wider context of the Museum’s collection, highlighting the dialogue between objects through time, from ancient history to the contemporary. Finally, de Waal concentrates on the work itself, its journey to the British Museum via Venice and Dresden, and its future role in the foundation of the new University of Mosul Library. 'Library of exile' is a contemplative read which celebrates language and the opportunity for dialogues with the displaced."

British Museum


Edmund de Waal et al.

No frontiers: celebrating writing in translation (online event)
26 November 2020, 5.30 – 6.45pm (BST)

Edmund de Waal, photo © Ben McKee
Edmund de Waal, photo © Ben McKee

"Literature knows no frontiers and should remain a common currency between nations despite political upheavals", according to the PEN Charter.

This charter acts as the guiding principles for PEN International's Centres, which defend the rights of writers and readers around the world.

This panel discussion celebrates the role of translation in breaking down barriers. Chaired by Associate Editor (Culture) for the Guardian and English PEN Trustee, Claire Armitstead, it features Syrian translator and author of The Frightened Ones, Dima Wannous; Chinese-born British poet and author of Red Dust, Ma Jian; and his translator and interpreter, Flora Drew.

This is one of four thought-provoking events exploring the themes inspired by the library of exile, presented in collaboration with Edmund de Waal, English PEN, and the British Museum.

British Museum


Edmund de Waal

Edmund de Waal in conversation with Whitechapel Gallery Director Iwona Blazwick (podcast)

Edmund de Waal. Photo: Ben McKee
Edmund de Waal. Photo: Ben McKee

Renowned artist, ceramicist and writer Edmund de Waal joins Whitechapel Gallery Director Iwona Blazwick to discuss the legacy of British artist and potter Bernard Leach. Founder of the Leach Pottery in St. Ives 100 years ago and celebrated in Kai Althoff’s current show, Leach drew on traditional Japanese ceramics to lay the foundations for modern Studio Pottery. Author of a critical account of Leach’s genesis and aesthetic, de Waal discusses his enduring appeal.

Listen to the podcast by clicking here.

Whitechapel Gallery