Object lessons in new shapes

Ceramicist and scholar Edmund de Waal argues for combining museum collections with recent work. Matthew Reisz reports

June 2, 2011

At the beginning of his career, Edmund de Waal once recalled, he set out to become "a good ruralist potter" producing "cheap domestic pots with good earth colours".

This was an ideal associated with the great English ceramicist, Bernard Leach (1887-1979). But although de Waal made a valiant attempt to follow in his footsteps, he eventually realised that he was producing the work he felt he ought to be making rather than what he actually wanted to make. He liberated himself by writing a revisionist monograph about Leach - and particularly about what he calls the "Orientalist fantasy" of Japan as "a country of continuity and tradition, a society that functioned through respect and lack of ego".

"I still think his work is extraordinary," de Waal comments now, "but he was also a fantasist and slightly monomaniacal, and he took himself too seriously. I thought these were quite straightforward things to say, but the response from his admirers was: you shouldn't be doing this, the discipline can't cope with it, we don't want criticism of our founding father. I was considered part of the family who had committed an act that amounted to patricide."

Last year, de Waal shot to fame with the publication of his extraordinary family memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance. The son of a former Dean of Canterbury, he describes himself as "a public-school C of E boy". Yet he is also a direct descendant, through his paternal grandmother, of a vastly wealthy Jewish banking dynasty that once owned palaces in both Paris and Vienna.

Despite what he calls "their dreadful business dealings and their glitz and their shopping and their love affairs and all that stuff", de Waal created a sympathetic account of his ancestors' glamorous and ultimately tragic lives that was built around their extensive collection of netsuke - the ivory and wooden toggles for closing the little bags or boxes the Japanese attached to their sashes.

Alongside his newfound acclaim as a writer, however, de Waal is also a celebrated ceramicist who now specialises in "interventions" in existing collections. When the Victoria and Albert Museum decided to refresh the presentation of its unrivalled ceramic holdings, for example, they turned to him. The result, unveiled in 2009 as Signs and Wonders, was an installation in the uppermost cupola of the museum.

"I came up with the idea of doing something that hung above the galleries," he explains, "450 pots in a red steel shelf in the dome, which you can just see as you come into the V&A and you're having your bags searched. They form a conversation with the historic collection" where de Waal spent so many teenage afternoons.

Such site-specific projects take him out of his South London studio and into a variety of new settings, he says, "down in the archives, looking at the architecture, spending time with the collections, thinking how they have been put together, and then working out how I can connect with them.

"It's a complete joy to be able to muck around with other people's collections. But it's not a conventional potter's life of coming into the studio, spending a morning throwing and an afternoon glazing. I might go for six weeks without touching clay."

Over the past 20 years, it has become increasingly common for museums to ask contemporary artists to produce such "interventions". Some of them, in de Waal's view, are "incredibly dull", with "artists trying to foreground museum practice by tripping visitors up, making labels illegible, hiding things or bringing out the suppressed colonial history. All that is fine as polemic, but we get the point. I'm interested in bringing people back to what's there."

Such issues are at the heart of de Waal's latest endeavour, a huge project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to the tune of £325,000. It is, he says, designed "to give an intellectual backbone to the contemporary process of interventions in museums".

"There hasn't been any serious intellectual work on the history and on what happens when you bring contemporary work into museums," he explains. "My project looks at how it alters curatorial practices and how you design museums, what's temporary and what's permanent, and what it does to our understanding of historic ceramics. I think it can be a genuine interpretative tool, if it's handled properly. I'm convinced that contemporary practice can help people understand historic practice."

De Waal spends part of his time as professor of ceramics at the University of Westminster. His co-investigators on the AHRC-funded project, Christie Brown and Clare Twomey, also work in clay and have academic positions at Westminster. Their joint efforts on "Behind the Scenes at the Museum: Ceramics in the Expanded Field" will lead to a major academic book, journal articles, seminars and conferences, and also three complete "interventions" within well-known collections.

Next summer, de Waal's own artistic contribution to the project will take the form of a semi-permanent installation at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, where he has been "asked to work with their fantastic Chinese collections and to go to the place where porcelain began a thousand years ago, so I can make things there and bring them back. The Fitzwilliam holds both original Sung dynasty Chinese pots and porcelain that was commissioned in 18th-century England to be made in China. So I will also be commissioning pieces from workshops in China."

Never one to be constrained by particular media, de Waal imagines that his travels and reflections on Western responses to China may also "generate a short story or series of poems".

There may have been a time when ceramics was largely a solitary, single-minded and rather puritanical pursuit, with potters tight-lipped about their work. All that has changed. De Waal may have left school early to become apprenticed to a master potter, but he went on to do an English degree at Cambridge. He now finds that aspiring ceramicists come with "the strangest hinterlands possible". His assistants have included graduates in film studies, actors, a senior management consultant and even a greengrocer.

Yet something is still missing. "As a would-be academic discipline," de Waal argues, "ceramics is massively in deficit, compared with film studies, for example. There hasn't been the groundwork for proper writing about the history or ceramics in museums. There's very little on collecting, the cultures of collecting, or how you display and interpret them."

Furthermore, at a time when art is deeply intertwined with the academy, de Waal is impatient with the practitioners who feel that it is enough for them to produce their videos, murals or sonatas, and leave it to others to interpret or ignore them.

"I have a bedrock belief that good writing matters for artists," he declares. "In the university world, one of the things I've done is hold 'Can't write, won't write' seminars for people in ceramics, film and the visual arts. On a university course, people should have to articulate what they are doing.

"In ceramics, there used to be a huge culture of complaint - nobody understands our work. My response is: what are we going to do about it? If you want people to come and take your discipline seriously, it can help to try and talk more coherently about what you are doing. It's not compulsory, but it may help."

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