ArtWay

He who has most sympathy with his subject will obtain the best results. Henry Ossawa Tanner

Artists

Waal, Edmund de - VM - Jonathan Evens

Edmund de Waal: some winter pots

Marking Loss

by Jonathan Evens

There are two ways to deal with flaws in pottery. The first is to remake the piece, a possible option for the potter before firing. The second is to incorporate the flaw into the finished piece.

Edmund de Waal explores the first option in his book The White Road (2016) when he describes standing on a hillside of pottery shards at dawn in Jingdezhen, a city in northeastern China where pottery has been produced for 1,700 years. The wares that went wrong had been ‘thrown over a shoulder from the kiln mouth at opening, collecting season by season amongst the stones and the shifting earth in the spring rains.’ Thousands and thousands of pots that hadn’t worked, answering his question of how to make a living when things go so wrong, so often: ‘You work even harder. You make more, and then some more.’

By contrast, when creating a series of winter pots during lockdown, de Waal took the second option. Alone and silent in his studio he made bowls, open dishes and lidded jars needing a return to touching, holding, marking and moving soft clay. The black vessels show the flux of glaze. The white dishes have been fired without glaze so that each mark is present. He has explained that: ‘Some of these pots are broken and patched on their rims with folded lead and gold; others are mended with gold lacquer. Some hold shards of porcelain.’

His inspiration came from two old Chinese bowls from the Song dynasty that he has in his studio. One patched on the rim with iron, the other with a beautiful thin golden thread running from the rim, repaired using the Japanese art of kintsugi. Kintsugi, which means ‘golden joinery’, is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. The idea is that by embracing flaws and imperfections, one creates an even stronger, more beautiful piece of art. De Waal notes that, ‘Kintsugi is not an art of erasure – the invisible mend, the erasing of a mistake – but rather a way of marking loss.’

Both approaches are used symbolically within scripture. Jeremiah is sent to the potter's house in order to see that the vessel the potter was making of clay was spoiled in his hand, and he reworked it into another vessel as it seemed good to the potter to do (Jeremiah 18.1-11). The message from God was that he would do the same with the people of Israel, using surrounding nations to destroy and remake Israel. By contrast, in 2 Corinthians 4.1-12 Paul sees the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ shining out from within jars of clay; bodies that are afflicted in every way, but not crushed.

In the former image the flaws of God’s people lead to their being destroyed and remade while, in the latter, the flaws of God’s people are transfigured by the light of Christ shining out through those same flaws. The difference between these two images could be said to characterise the difference in understanding of God between the Old and New Testaments brought about by the fuller revelation of God’s nature in Christ.

Sam Wells describes prayers of transfiguration as follows: ‘Not so much, “Fix this and take it off my desk!” Nor even, “Be with me and share in my struggle, now and always.” But something more like, “Make this trial and tragedy, this problem and pain a glimpse of your glory, a window into your world, when I can see your face, sense the mystery in all things, and walk with angels and saints. Bring me closer to you in this crisis than I ever have been in calmer times. Make this a moment of truth, and when I cower in fear and feel alone, touch me, raise me, and make me alive like never before.”’

That is, I think, what de Waal was doing with these pots as he marked and moved the soft clay, mending with gold lacquer, patching with folded lead and gold, marking loss rather than erasing mistakes; making works that are stronger and more beautiful by embracing flaws and imperfections. Truly, these are works and prayers for lockdown and pandemic.    

*******

Edmund de Waal: some winter pots, 2020 © Edmund de Waal, Prudence Cummings Associates, Courtesy Gagosian.

Edmund de Waal was born in 1964 in a traditional Christian household; his father was Dean at Canterbury Cathedral, his mother a well-respected devotional writer and retreat leader. A potter since childhood and an acclaimed writer, de Waal has a long-held obsession with porcelain. Best known for his large-scale installations of porcelain vessels, which have been exhibited in many museums around the world, much of his work is around the contingency of memory: bringing particular histories of loss and exile into renewed life. Both his artistic and written practice have broken new ground through their critical engagement with the history and potential of ceramics, as well as with architecture, music, dance and poetry. De Waal continually investigates themes of diaspora, memorial, and materiality with his interventions and artworks made for diverse spaces and museums worldwide. Recent sites include the Venetian Ghetto and Ateneo Veneto for his two-part project, psalm, coinciding with the Venice Biennale 2019. The latter holds de Waal’s most ambitious work to date, the library of exile: a pavilion of 2,000 books written by those forced to leave their own country or exiled within it. The library of exile has toured to the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden and the British Museum in 2020. De Waal is also renowned for his bestselling memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), which won many literary prizes including the RSL Ondaatje Prize and the Costa Biography Award and has been translated into over 30 languages. Other titles include The White Road (2016), The Pot Book (2011), 20th Century Ceramics (2003) and de Waal’s critical study on Bernard Leach for Tate (1997). De Waal was made an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his services to art in 2011.

Jonathan Evens is Associate Vicar for HeartEdge at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London. Through HeartEdge, a network of churches, he encourages congregations to engage with culture, compassion and commerce. He is co-author of The Secret Chord, an impassioned study of the role of music in cultural life written through the prism of Christian belief. He writes regularly on the arts for a range of publications and blogs at https://joninbetween.blogspot.com.

In December 2020 Jonathan Evens published a review in the Church Times of de Waal's library of exile, see https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/18-december/books-arts/visual-arts/visual-arts-edmund-de-waal-library-of-exile.

Edmund de Waal exhibition of winter pots: 3 December – 16 January 2021, Gagosian (Davies Street), 17-19 Davies Street, London, England: some winter pots. The exhibition has been installed so that it can also be seen from the street. Tu – Sa, 10 – 18 h, by appointment. https://gagosian.com/exhibitions/2020/edmund-de-waal-some-winter-pots/

ArtWay Visual Meditation 3 January 2021