There is an artist represented by Gagosian that I find very intriguing, mainly because he is a ceramist. His name is Edmund de Waal and had his first solo show at that mega-gallery earlier this year. There, in those large white Madison Avenue spaces, De Waal introduced hundreds of his monochrome porcelain vessels, grouped in vitrines or arranged in on girders and brackets. Entitled ‘Atemwende’ or’breathturn’, the show takes its name from Paul Celan’s 1967 poetry collection and declaration in a related essay, that ‘poetry is perhaps this: an Atemwende, a turning of our breath’.
In relation to De Waal’s installation, it points to the creative process whereby the single bvessel becomes, when used like a musical note or single word as part of a larger pattern, expressive of meaning that relate as much to music and art, to modernist architecture and to modern poetry,as to the history of ceramic. As De Waal explains in the catalogue for the show: ‘I’ve been thinking about new ways to make pauses, spaces and silences, where breath is held inside and between each vessel, between the objects and the vitrines, the vitrines and the room’.
De Waal, originally from Lincoln learned pottery with Geoffrey Whiting who was a disciple of Bernard Leach, who introduced De Waal to the oriental tradition, skewed as Leach’s view was towards the pots of Japan and Korea. Then, when visiting the Victoria and Albert in London he encountered Chinese porcelain: ‘Not just the celadons and the fluted bowls and the bottles with their vivid gestural cuts through white slip, but the late austere porcelains from the 18th century with their almost clinical profiles’. He spent so much time looking at the objects that ‘I can see one specific bowl next to its neighbour’.
Then he went to Japan where he apprenticed with a friend of Bernard Leach’s, Shōji Hamada and then back in England he held true to the Anglo-Japanese pot making: ‘It was all about modesty. Not a lack of ambition, but modesty of intento, to make pots for a s many people as possible, of real beauty, austerity and function. Everything was brought back to its core belief’. But he went back to Japan and wrote the groundbreaking and controversial book called ‘Bernard Leach’ (1997) where he dismantled Leach’s authority, exposing his limited understanding of Japanese culture. Then he researched the ‘fiercely white’ functional porcelain designed by Henry Cole in Victorian England, and the old Korean celadons so prized in Japan.
It is like this that De Waal brought porcelain in conversation with all other things he valued, ‘Looking in some depth at what porcelain has meant to me, of course, to cargoes; took me into Kunstkammers, and then to the Porcelain Rooms and then to the revelation that porcelain wasn’t an adornment, that actually it was architectural. How you used porcelain wasn’t an added extra; it was the imperative behind how you walked through spaces, how you changed the environment, and it was porcelain in quantity of course -not just the single object’. There too in the porcelain tradition he found ‘a kinship with the language of serial music or minimalist painting or modernist architecture. Party this is because Chinese porcelain pots are made in series and are meant to be seen in series’.
Thus in 2008 he devised and created his magisterial homage to ceramic history, Signs and Wonders, the circular crown like permanent installation int he dome of the V&A, high above the new Contemporary Ceramics Room and now his installation at Gagosian. I have to say that the installation do not convince me visually but the logic behind is revealing. This is one of those cases that I like him more as a researcher than as an artist or, let me put it this way, it is in his artistic intent (Gagosian, for example) where his whole thing loses specificity but I love his gentlemanly connoisseurship. Just a thought.