Is it unusual for an artist also to be a best-selling author?
It is unusual to both be passionate about writing and passionate about making, but for me they’re not far apart. Thinking and shaping in words and thinking and shaping with clay have a similar genesis. There are many real connections of ideas and themes, but much more significant for me is that the reason for writing or making something is entirely the same. There is not a breath of difference.
Why did you write your first book ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’, a memoir about your family?
To understand inheritance, what I’ve been given and where I come from. The key is that I’ve been given objects, because objects matter so powerfully to me. It’s a book about memory through touch, about obsession and collecting, and families. At its heart is an attempt to recover a lost history.
Then you wrote ‘The White Road’ about your craft as a ceramicist. Why?
Also an attempt to understand who I am, it’s a pilgrimage about my beginnings, and why for almost 50 years I’ve been making white pots. It’s ridiculous. A middle aged man, doing this since the age of five! Why am I still wanting to go to my studio and make white porcelain?
breathturn, I, 2013. Installation view at Gagosian, 980 Madison Ave, NY.
© Edmund de Waal. Courtesy Gagosian. Photo: Rob McKeever
Do you fit perfectly with Giorgio Morandi, an artist obsessed by bottles and pots?
Morandi takes the bottles and jars of a kitchen cupboard, and spends enough time, a lifetime, returning and returning to them in different lights, in different shadows, in different configurations. That idea of obsessive return, of trying to understand something by looking at it incredibly hard, seems to me fantastic.
Does your pottery change all the time?
They are basically simple vessels. Like Morandi, they are just a simple form, porcelain cylinders.
Is it that white pots are so aesthetically to your taste that you can’t make red ones?
No. I also may do black pots. The reason that I return and return to this simple white pot is that it gets more complicated for me.
Whiteness is very peculiar; a color of effacement, a color of deletion, the color of the infinite. A color which works in metaphysical as well as aesthetic ways. This isn’t about taste, it’s about ideas. White is an idea, as much as it’s a series of colors.
What are you making?
I’m making poems. My art is using the idea of the vessel and abstracting, making it into poetry. I’m making things come together in particular ways which have groups and pauses and silences and repetitions. It’s a new art coming from an old tradition. What I’m not doing is making crockery.
Are you never tempted to experiment in other colors?
In my studio there are something like a thousand different whites. I’ve got a similar number of black glazes as well. Am I interested in purple? No. It’s not about taste, not about good manners, not about minimalism, and not about style. It’s about ideas.
Is there a political statement for or against something in your work?
Why I make things and where I put my work is very political. Last year I did two serious exhibitions, one about memory, working with the Walter Benjamin archive in Berlin. The second, an exhibition I curated in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Vienna is complicated for me, where all my Jewish family lived, were exiled from, and killed. An invitation from Vienna to make work is in itself political. I’ve just been in the ghetto in Venice, working on a project for the Biennale.
Are you creating ceramics from the ashes of the Holocaust and your Jewish family heritage?
Making something both historically resonant and literate, and completely new, you’re always moving towards loss, towards the fragmentary, towards the unsayable. Increasingly I come back to the impossibility of art. You need to do something and you know you’re going to fail, but you’ve got to keep going against the backdrop of real, profound complexity. I understand less as I get older about why I am doing it.
Is it that you use white clay in your pottery as a metaphor to express yourself?
After a long training, have you now learnt the craft so well that you can truly express yourself?
After training and repeated playing of a particular piece of music, musicians inhabit the music differently and are in the music in a particular way. The training to use clay and learn the whole art of ceramics meant decades; an old fashioned apprenticeship where you throw on a potter’s wheel 20,000 pots, again and again and again. It’s a skill that you have to learn in lots of places. I learnt it here, I learnt it in Japan, in China. In my 50s I’m beginning to do the things that I would like to do with my métier.
Were the Masters you encountered artists and poets who transmitted a secret language?
There were extraordinary artists who knew entirely the reasons for what they wanted to express. There were also people, who I respected a lot, who were craftsman, who delivered perfect, beautiful objects, but bounded and held within the tradition. That was all they did.
What else are you doing?
A project designing a series of spaces on the huge stage at the Royal Opera House, for Leonard Bernstein‘s Chichester Psalms in March 2018. Moving people rather than pots.
What kind of music do you listen to?
Always Bach of course. Most recently to György Ligeti; a lot of early 20th century music; Arnold Schoenberg. All kinds of music, lots of music.
Where else are you working?
A ceramics exhibition in San Francisco and Los Angeles, something else for New York. In Dresden I am curating a big exhibition about the beginnings of porcelain.
What are you trying to teach people about ceramics?
I am trying to make it more complicated.
Are you trying to make a new art form?
I’m trying to make people look again and think that there is value in ceramics, not financial value but cultural value.
Do you have pupils, followers, a school?
No. It does feel reasonably solitary, but I’m incredibly lucky. I’m doing what I want to do. I go around the world, I have my studio, I’m doing projects, I write when I want to write, I make when I want to make.
Edmund de Waal, Giorgio Morandi, installation view, April 7–October 1, 2017 Artipelag, Gustavsberg, Sweden.
© Edmund de Waal. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger.
during the night, installation view, Kunshistoriches Museum, Vienna 10 October 2016 – 29 January 2017.
Edmund de Waal’s studio. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Helene Binet, 2014.
Uk paperback edition, Vintage Books, London, 2011. © Edmund de Waal. Courtesy Edmund de Waal
UK hardback edition. Chatto & Windus, London, 2015. © Edmund de Waal. Courtesy Edmund de Waal
Atemwende, 2013. © Edmund de Waal. Courtesy Gagosian. Photo: Mike Bruce.
Are you writing another book?
Another kind of memoir, about language and poetry.
Are you inspired by poets?
Poetry is a constant. I studied English at Cambridge and love Rainer Rilke and Paul Celan, wonderful German poets; American poets, Wallace Stevens in particular.
Do you consider yourself basically German and Jewish?
I’m an odd, unsettled mixture. I understand my Jewishness more and more. I felt very English, but I’m profoundly, catastrophically distraught by Brexit. I feel profoundly European.
Where do you locate yourself as an artist in the art world of today?
I try not to locate myself. I don’t fit. Primo Levi writes in ‘The Monkey’s Wrench’ (La Chiave a Stella) about the incredible integrity of slowly putting something together and standing back and seeing what you’ve done. Rather than all that grand glamorous art world stuff, the things that truly are about Homo Faber, about what it is to be a human being and make something, are the things which I think are intensely important and significant, also political.
Do you feel that there’s a great difference between America and Europe?
I’m so anxious, at the moment I can’t read what’s going on. The polarization of discourse is so profound in America, and increasingly in Europe. People aren’t prepared to listen. Language is becoming more difficult and angry. It’s a terrible time. I thought life was going to get easier, that the world was going to get safer from ‘89. It isn’t. It’s got repercussions on everyone.
Is your work a solution?
No, I don’t think art is a solution to anything.
What is art?
It’s a witness. It’s a way of reframing possibility. But it’s certainly not a solution.
November 2, 2017
Portrait of Emund de Waal from a photo by Ben McKee
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