Sprawled on stage at the V&A’s lecture theatre is a long limbed and long fingered man in jeans and a white shirt talking about pots and his life with pots. He is the man responsible for ‘Signs and Wonders’, an installation of 425 pieces high up in the cupola of the V&A’s entrance hall situated in the ceramics gallery, and this evening’s lecture launches the first monograph of his work.
The speaker is, as you may have guessed by now, Edmund de Waal, a self-styled ‘potter who makes poetry’ and, as the FT has it, a ‘conceptual artist‘, although known to most through his bestselling personal family biography The Hare With the Amber Eyes. Here he is in conversation with the V&A’s Alun Graves, senior curator of ceramics, who you would imagine Edmund got to know rather well installing Signs and Wonders.
The evening begins with a tour of Edmund’s installations to date and it is through this meandering that I follow the course of his personal history of making, writing and pottering – without having to fork out for the book in addition to the lecture ticket.
Edmund, following an apprenticeship with Geoffrey Whiting and then a degree in English at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, went to the Welsh borders to make ‘terrible brown pots’; casseroles and honey pots which are the only examples of his work any of us are likely to be able to afford. From here he went to Sheffield and made porcelain that no one wanted but that he was trying to use to articulate serial pots – as Edmund punned, with an s rather than a c. It was here that he began to think about repetition and whiteness and began to make the kind of pottery he wanted to make; that is, gestural pots alive to movement and scale that say something about rootedness in place.
It was in his early installation for a ceramic room at the Geffrye Museum that he first had the opportunity to experiment with tucking bits of pottery away in attic and floor spaces. Each different bit of porcelain has a meaning, and here it was Bach and music. Edmund started to get interested in making porcelain as a whole sculpture, as plural rather than singular even though it always starts in the singular, with a lump of clay. Edmund gives us ‘tenebrous’ to take home; full of darkness or figuratively obscure, I check later in my Shorter OED. His work at this stage tried to make his pots exist like that, despite complaints that his work was hard to see and not properly lit. That is, for Edmund, rather the point: to light the extraordinary moment when objects are isolated with another and held together with a synapse of energy. Back to the V&A, and here you can’t see the whole installation at once but must move round and round with the pots.
Edmund’s inspiration comes from Ezra Pound’s Cathay, from Walter Benjamin, Wallace Stevens, from Proust’s manuscripts, and for him his work is very wordy. He feels rather than conceptualises the spaces between words to the extent that the pots come to feel like words and sound as phrases of music. They have their own kind of structure and being as a collection of spaces in the world, often held behind glass. This is how he came to write his book about why vitrines matter, The Hare with the Amber Eyes.
Not only is his work about words but it’s also about errata and things that have gone wrong. His University of Cambridge installation outside the Alison Richard Building is full of broken pieces for argumentative academics to argue over as they stumble across them on the way to work. They disappear under leaves and rain (and indeed snow).
Mine and Glenn Jobson’s interview with Edmund de Waal.
It is from Paul Celan that he borrows the ‘breath-turn’, the idea of the moment between breathing in and breathing out which is the moment when all things are possible, an energetic moment of timelessness when pure poetry exists. His installations, even his huge a thousand hours, are about making small spaces – a word, breath, space – in the world as a kind of poetry.
His most recent installation is for Vienna’s Theseus Temple. It was a complicated and difficult thing for Edmund to return something to Vienna, so his installation here is a pair of vitrines with small objects, held together as dense, complicated and fragmented spaces. In contrast, his installation for Lent at Southwark Cathedral this year placed twelve singular pots in a set of twelve free-standing vitrines.
It is at Waddesdon Manor, a faux-French chateau, that we first see vitrines floating, here to forge a new way of moving through this already stuffed building. We find them floating again at Margate in the sun at the Turner Contemporary, Edmund’s way of pulling the sea and sky into the installation. This is both Turner, ‘atmosphere is my style’, and Constable ‘skying’ on Hampstead Heath, lying on your back to look skywards.
In defense of making pots, Edmund argues that one of the reasons pots matter is because we’ve always made them and because the earth is full of their shards. It’s about letting something go in the world with your fingerprints on it, and Edmund always does leave that little characteristic indent.