From A to B and Back Again: Edmund De Waal

By Tooby, Michael | Ceramics Art & Perception, December 2007 | Go to article overview
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From A to B and Back Again: Edmund De Waal


Tooby, Michael, Ceramics Art & Perception


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THE FIRST PUBLIC EVENT ACCOMPANYING EDMUND DE Waal's 2007 exhibition at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, was a dialogue. It was between Edmund de Waal and Dame Gillian Beer. A discussion between the artist and the distinguished Cambridge-based writer and academic, it introduced a number of themes embedded in de Waal's latest project. Most powerfully and, in many ways, most insistent on this occasion, it considered the relationships between de Waal's current work and his personal history.

De Waal is returning to a beginning, a touchstone: Cambridge, and particularly, Kettle's Yard itself. The dialogue between potter and poet is soon revealed to be between former student and his former teacher. The latter mentions her early fascination when realising that de Waal, an undergraduate studying English, had already 'qualified' as an apprentice potter under Geoffrey Whiting. They discussed a quality familiar to many students at Cambridge since the 1970s: Kettle's Yard as an 'alternative' form of study. The house became an educative force, an opposing paradigm to the pursuit of a prescribed course. De Waal found Kettle's Yard a way of becoming; not merely a place where he could feel self taught, but part of a modern tradition. Its juxtapositions of books and objects--pebbles, paintings, pianos and pots all equal in their lack of museum labels--affirmed his own broad educative base as a maker as well as a reader and writer.

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De Waal's Kettle's Yard project has two faces. New and recent work is installed both in the temporary exhibition gallery and in the original house. The gallery work plays with ideas of containment as presentation. Shelves and boxes become sculptural motifs and components of whole assemblages. Porcelain and its glazes, formed by touch, are in tense dialogue with wood and steel. Alongside, in the adjoining domesticity of H. S. Ede's house, new ceramic forms are contained merely by setting: they appear in cupboards and on tables and shelves. These pieces are powerfully sensitive dialogues with the place that helped create his own expressive and intellectual language.

We are thus asked to compare and contrast the two spaces as opposing and complementary ways of understanding context. The physical experience of the work is shaped by architecture, of course, but also by the rhetoric of each exhibition form. De Waal's choices of object for each space work in crucial interaction with the meanings and histories of their immediate settings.

In the accompanying catalogue, a pair of essays respond to de Waal's work. Jorunn Veiteburg summarises his recent projects in museums and houses. She elegantly dramatises the shifting light that de Waal's projects shed on the experience of the domestic made public--however questionable the associations of a term like 'home' might be for places like Chatsworth, the most visited stately house in Britain, or Blackwell House, an 'Arts and Crafts' weekend house for a Manchester businessman, now open to the public.

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