Falling for de Waal and into archives

Autumn leaves on de Waal's 'A Local History'.

Autumn leaves on de Waal.

Today was a most exciting day for me because I launched a new video feature of Edmund de Waal on his first piece of public art. Called ‘A Local History’ it was commissioned for Cambridge’s Alison Richard Building, home to CRASSH, POLIS and various regional studies centres.

I’ve become a bit of de Waal fan over the past few years: meeting Edmund at CRASSH on a number of occasions, following his media appearances (for example on Desert Island Discs), attending public talks and organising one with him earlier this year. Of course I’ve also read and loved The Hare with the Amber Eyes; The Exiles Return by his grandmother Elisabeth is next on my reading pile; and most of my family received The Pot Book for Christmas. Last year I gate-crashed the opening of his exhibition ‘a thousand hours’ at Alan Cristea Gallery and whenever I find myself anywhere near the V&A I pop in to admire his installation for their ceramics gallery.

I think my first brush with de Waal though was in the Master’s Lodge at Trinity Hall where, after a long and ambitious performance of both Brahms clarinet sonatas, my accompanist almost knocked over a pair of long and lovely white vases. Edmund studied English at Trinity Hall (incidentally I also studied English, but at Christ’s College).

Edmund is an absolutely charming man and a wonderfully articulate speaker. So when we were organising a lecture at CRASSH to launch his installation for the building, I thought it would be fun to do a video interview with him beforehand. With the help of CRASSH’s media man Glenn Jobson we spent an hour filming Edmund telling us all about the pots he’s placed underfoot at the entrance to Sidgwick Site, home to most of the arts and humanities disciplines in Cambridge. I hope you like the result.

Edmund was a pleasure to interview not least because he speaks so clearly and well, thoughts coming to his mind seemingly fully formed and structured. While we meandered around he explained how he is inspired by words and writing; this is for me the key to my fascination with him and his work. His atlas, for the inside of Alison Richard Building, draws its structure from early printed books with a central piece of writing framed by commentaries and further notes on those commentaries all held together on a single page. I had hoped we would move onto Proust’s manuscripts and Wallace Stevens’ poetry, both of which Edmund draws on, but this proved too much for ten minutes. Each of his three outdoor vitrines has a textual structure made of not only objects but also words, like a palimpsest where one text is effaced and written over. Each vitrine is an archive of porcelain and through the moulds of Chinese Ming Dynasty, French Sèvres, and Staffordshire dishes gestures to the Silk Road. The vitrines also contain shards and broken pots, gilded with gold leaf to make them incredibly precious, a wonderful inversion of objects losing their value because they have been broken.

With more than a modicum of perversity, Edmund talked about his obsessions with hiding work and leaving it unsignposted, often poorly lit or high up out of sight (let alone reach). (I have to confess I had to ask at the V&A information desk where to stand in the atrium to look up and get a glimpse.) Edmund told me how the vitrines should be discovered by happenstance, walked over and forgotten but that they were there if you ever needed to be reminded about the beauty of archives – and that is the point in the video when I am moved to tears, despite having spent hours of editing work on it and despite never having worked in archives.

Once the video was on YouTube I twittercasted it on #deWaal. During the course of the sunny afternoon #deWaal reached 14,222 accounts and 82,503 impressions. My 50 tweets from @CRASSHlive gained 15 contributors who either retweeted or replied and the video has had 50 views already.
Since the installation was put in place last September I’ve been keeping a kind of photo diary of it in all seasons and weathers via Pinterest. I’m looking forward to seeing the vitrines in summer, with dappled light adding a new layer to the layering of objects and texts. Edmund says he might even use one of the snowy images for his Christmas card, so let’s hope he puts me on his Christmas card list.

I shouldn’t end though without thanking the obliging pianist @Melibeus who recorded the extract from one of Mozart’s piano sonatas for the video. He is the same one who almost wrecked de Waal’s gift to Trinity Hall four or more years ago, so I like to think it’s his form of atonement.

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