Edmund de Waal Conceptions Of Space In A Non Digital World

Review – Edmund de Waal certainly has a lot going for him. A glance at his biography shows that he always has. He received a place to study English at Cambridge, but deferred entry to be apprentice to Geoffrey Whiting, who in turn was disciple to Bernard Leach. During this time he made hundreds and hundreds of basic pots, likening it to a musician learning scales and arpeggios. In 1983 he went to Cambridge. In 1986 he left with First Class Honours, returned to pottery, and began to examine the Eastern pottery traditions. Art, in its turn, lead back to literature which his 2010 memoir “The Hare with Amber Eyes”- a story of 5 generations of his family, told through the inheritance of 264 Japanese netsuke miniature sculptures. He is a well-rounded man, who has managed to use his well-roundedness to push in one direction.

Netsuke sculptures are ornate pouches, in materials like wood and ivory, used as a stand-in for pockets when wearing traditional Japanese garb. The collection of these small holders, as a collection, seems to have influenced “a thousand hours”. All of the pieces here consist of multiple ceramic items, mainly small, upright vases, exhibited in vitrines. The emphasis is on the collection and the impact of the representation of the collection. His stated goal is to “slow down time”, to emphasise the long hours spent at the potter’s wheel and that are therefore somehow contained in this exhibition.

To compress 1000 hours into three rooms in Cork Street, then, is the intent. Also packed into this exhibition is an enormous frame of reference, spanning Ancient Greek poets, Giotto, Ellsworth Kelly, and a 1933 essay “In Praise of Shadows” on Japanese aesthetics by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki. A vast amount of reading time and working time is packed into the vitrines, and the vitrine-like gallery.

This makes for an extremely literary exhibition. The minimal nature of the physical piece, coupled with enormous hidden weight, makes de Waal’s latest work more reminiscent of literary High Modernism than any other art form.  This is the highly referential realm of Joyce, Eliot, Pound. This was also a period in which inter-art metaphors were stretched to their limits, and Lessing’s distinction in the essay “Laocoon” between literature and visual art (poetry/literature functions in time, visual art functions in space) is telescoped together by de Waal in a similar way to those writers. (And, actually, the way in which visual artists at that time began to refuse). Poetry becomes spatial; Beckett said of Ulysses that Joyce’s “writing is not about something. It is the thing itself.”

The goal common to Pound, Joyce, Eliot and de Waal is to evoke and contain, in a single phrase or unit, time and tradition, and also contemporaneity. “The Hare with the Amber Eyes” imbues 264 netsuke pieces with 5 generations of family tradition. “a lament” (2012) seeks to evoke the lament tradition, about both acknowledging and letting go of grief, but also the angels in Giotto’s “Lamentation”, and thus the Christian tradition of depicting Christ’s sacrifice, and also (“a lament” being installed up high) the position of angels in Giotto’s picture and their flecks of gold. “a lament” consists of a collection small pots- no more than 6 inches high- some flecked with gold, on a high shelf above the viewer.

The disposition and presentation of these small pots is the key difference between pieces. “weights and measures” (2011) is made by a series of discs stacked ontop of each other to various heights, on shelves of various lengths inside a black vitrine. A similar depth of thought is attached to “weights and measures” as it is with “a lament”:
“The stopped shelves in this work are reminiscent of lines in poetry; the stacked dishes acting in a similar way to syllables and phrases. The title refers to Richard Serra’s installation “Weight and Measure”, which de Waal saw in the sculpture halls of Tate Britain in 1992. Serra was concerned with the tension created between the steel elements; similarly de Waal’s vitrine is “a memory of balance”.”
So here poetry has become spatial, and represented in terms of syllable weight (taken from being a metaphor into the physical weight of ceramics). It contains a “memory of balance” 10 years old in the lines of verse given physical form. Do you see?

The problem for de Waal’s explainers, however, is the same as those faced by explainers of Joyce, Eliot, and Pound. It is this: as soon as you throw such minimal signifiers open to such extensive interpretation, then the entire process of reference and signification goes haywire. If you allow that ceramics on a high shelf flecked with gold represents the angel’s lament at the crucifixion, the problem is not in persuading us of that link, but in containing our interpretation to that link. If “weights and measures” references a 1992 Richard Serra installation, why not also the various “Weights and Measures Acts” (which deal with what units to use when measuring out a quantity of goods to be sold- i.e. tradition), weightlifting, or any words you can fit to the scansion that de Waal’s discs illustrate. The problem is referencing the right, specific thing rather than everything in the world, and here de Waal is guilty of the most Nero-like High Modernist excesses and misplaced belief in the referential technique.

The result is a disjoint between what the actual piece of work is and what it is meant to mean or contain. The idea of a simple “signifier” leading to a “signified” has been largely eroded, for better or worse, in art circles giddy with 80s continental philosophy, but the referential technique at work here puts the signifier/fied relationship under a different kind of strain: pulling them apart with such force that the theoretical connecting string is ragged, threadbare, occasionally snapped. The underwhelming force of “a lament” requires too much “filling in”, and some these works demand an intricacy and an attention that they are incapable of soliciting. In some ways all conceptual work is like this and faces this problem, but whenever this kind of separation occurs there is always the risk of being accused of being “just” small pots in a vitrine.
What the majority of what these works want to say is incongruous with what they look like. Luckily, what they look like is something of a saving factor. They are elegant things, each little vase subtly unique and hold a lovely balance of being rough-hewn yet crafted. They are displayed making full use of 3 dimensions and tinted glass to create depth and smoke. The two pieces entitled “three poems of return”- 3 vitrines that make the pots take on the illusion of landscape- are commendable for their use of opaque glass that creates a kind of sea-fog that obscures the horizon and home, through which these small pots rise, like enormous stacks in a particularly tricky strait. The interest is in the multiple viewpoints that create themselves as you study each vitrine, like walking around the outside of Stonehenge and seeing each fascinating alignment. When these works become little monuments, that’s when they take on the past and time and the moment.
So although some of these pieces are unexciting because overwrought, the title work “a thousand hours” is a masterpiece of modern ceramics and sculpture. It is the fulfilment of the promise that, e.g. “on the middle watch” falls short of keeping. “a thousand hours” demands intricate attention and inspection. It consists of two large (above head-height) free-standing vitrines. Each vitrine has three levels of translucent acrylic, through which you can see the many porcelain vessels. The other two levels-  that separate the layers of ceramics and which make up the majority of the vitrine- are fenced in opaque white, spotless and sleek as a car showroom.
It is in this piece where the ideas of space and time really join up, and for all its architectural scale these things can join here rather than in the more intricate other works, purely because of the simplicity that a large scale allows (and occasionally requires). “a thousand hours” requires everything from you, and you give it.
There are two types of time we only really use one word for: time as a continuous thing, in flux; and time as a moment, or instant. One is the axis on a graph; the other is a point on it. 1000 hours is a continuous amount of time; 1000 pots, each representing an hour, is 1000 points. But even though the ceramics are the raison d’etre of this exhibition, the power of these pieces comes from the enormous white planes that make up the side of most of the two vitrines.
These vitrines capture the gallery space- imprison it inside the boxes where you can’t see it. This creates a sense of empty space that the pots can then feed from. In the parts of clear acrylic on the bottom and middle level, the pots seem to be imprisoned or supporting or become an integral part of holding up a huge sleek mass of white. On the top level, above head height, the pots seem to be suspended and hovering on some imaginary plane.
This gives the entire piece the impression that it is not something figurative – by which I mean a representation of something visible, re-played- and nor is it abstract- form thrown open to visible things not in existence until made. It looks like a kind of illustration of something like a natural law. It reminds me of a kind of diagram you’d see in a science textbook, like that one that tries to explain the space-time continuum by showing a ball on a sheet (Google image search for “Spacetime” and you’ll find it). “a thousand hours” seems like a provisional demonstration of something that can’t really be visually demonstrated (maybe it’s of space and time).
Because the eerie and powerful thing is that it becomes a computer simulation of itself. The piece is so clean cut, so angular, and the pots just seem to float without being on anything at all, that it looks like a computer generated image on some kind of graphic design program.
Now this is the odd thing about the sense of space “a thousand hours” gives you. The pots make the whole thing look like a relic of activity happening (over 1000 hours), but the contra-flow is the sense that the computer space is only imagined space. A computer simulation does not exist in 3d space, but it does theoretically live in an endless zone of a kind of fake space which is only there if you need to put something in it, or scroll down to see it.

I am perhaps thinking of older videogames where you could literally fall through the level if the developers missed a spot. If this happened you fell forever through a never-ending void. I remember in one game you eventually landed on a lightless plane that made water-wading noises, like some a weird misplaced biblical reference. If you looked back up at the land you saw it was just a pixel-thin kind of marquee, but turned inside out like a sock, so the mountains become deep chasms with their snow-covered peaks inverted at the bottom.
It is this kind of thing that the big white sides of each vitrine seem to hide. The space-age feel (coupled with the rusticness of the pots) makes you suspend disbelief in the way you do for science-fiction. To the point where you strongly suspect the big white shapes of being as thin as pixels and containing nothing at all but this odd computer-imagined space, one plane of which de Waal has decided to make solid enough to support thrown porcelain vessels.
This conception could and starts to cascade out. The walls of the gallery-vitrine become the same at the pixel-walls of the vitrine. Space becomes continuous for a little bit, rather than being sealed into thick solid shapes by matter. Matter becomes only the appearance of matter. So maybe “a thousand hours” is a kind of instructive diagram after all. This kind of control of space and conception of space is the best aspect of all de Waal’s recent pieces in this show, but it is only the show’s title piece “a thousand hours” that manages to use this kind of freeing conception of space as a medium, rather than re-hashing and playing within the types and conceptions of space we already have in the non-digital world.
**** 4 Stars  Words by Jack Castle © Artlyst 2012
Edmund de Waal  a thousand hours Alan Cristea Gallery, 6th Oct – 10th Nov

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