Silence for the ceramic cylinders

Bonnie Kemske on “On White: Porcelain Stories from the Fitzwilliam Museum” at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 23 February 2014

Ceramics selected by Edmund de Waal from Fitzwilliam Museum collection, the impossible material, 2013

It takes patience to come to terms with Edmund de Waal’s ceramic installations and museum interventions; it takes the very silence or “stopping still” that he often talks about in his work. Greeted by three immaculate white vitrines holding numerous thin porcelain cylinders, de Waal’s true medium, the visitor to this exhibition must negotiate their way into a depth of form and meaning that the artist seems reluctant to reveal. Over the years de Waal has gone from showing the cylinders in accessible wall displays to tucking them away in shelving, putting them too high to be more than glimpsed, and putting them behind obscured glass. In this way, this ever-demanding artist requires more and more from his audiences. The result is that a de Waal exhibition is not a passive experience but a challenge, an object lesson for us all in being quieter, more thoughtful, and indeed, learning to live with a bit of frustration.

The exhibition is threefold. As well as the three installation pieces, the show includes porcelain from the Fitzwilliam Museum collection with photographs and commentary and beautiful long thin tiles made in Jingdezhen, China, where porcelain originated. The three strands, housed as they are in the ceramics collection, create a discussion about porcelain as material, history, and quality, and the colour white, which is the subject of de Waal’s next book.

The largest installation piece, a thousand hours, first shown at Alan Cristea Gallery in London in 2012, comprises hundreds of ceramic cylinders in twin monumental white and perspex constructions. Visitors may walk between the two blocks, a slightly claustrophobic experience, but one that immerses you in a de Waal silence. The cylinders are enclosed in perspex sections at different levels, none of which are at eye level. Some can be viewed only from below the pots as they seemingly float above you. Other levels are low enough to discourage viewing, so that only the pots on the edges can be readily seen. At a distance from the megalithic structures you can feel the rhythm and flow created by the spacing and intervals of the colours and forms of the cylinders.

In contrast, the other diptych, yourself, you, is intimate, yet gives a sense of exposed vulnerability. Pristine vitrines stand at eye level, inviting intense inspection of the subtleties of the pots’ colours, the irregularities of rims and forms, and the imperfections created by throwing. Of the three installation pieces this one makes us most aware that de Waal’s work is as much the vitrines and other containment arrangements as it is pots. Ceramic vessel forms are generally understood as objects to be used and handled. Sequestering the cylinders in vitrines, de Waal removes the pots’ inherent domesticity and utility, segregating them from the workaday world and the individual’s impulse to lift and handle. The pots become priceless and precious, sealed in a rarefied atmosphere, the visitor unable to even share the same air.

De Waal has always worked with a strong sense of context, both in the works’ immediate settings, as in in plain sight I-III, which is housed in an early 18th-century English bookcase, and in the wider sense of the museum itself. A thousand hours and yourself, you boldly flank the Glaisher Gallery of European pottery, whereas in plain sight is tucked away, placed within a gallery of ornate early porcelain plates and talkative figurines. Here, the simplicity of de Waal’s enclosed cylinders seems not so much challenging as incongruous. What appears refined and sophisticated in the other two installations seems clinical and almost lacklustre in this highly decorative setting.

This exhibition overtly educates as much as delights, perhaps a glimpse back to de Waal’s days as an undergraduate at Cambridge University, when he first came to know the Fitzwilliam. Pots selected by de Waal from the museum collection are displayed in traditional cases that run down the centre of the Glaisher Gallery. They sit on long thin tiles, which the artist had made during time spent in Jingdezhen, China. De Waal has placed the tiles upside down so the glaze is hidden but the imperfections and residue from other firings in the kilns are revealed. Like a traditional museum treasure hunt, drawers below the cases open to reveal nuggets of information and personal commentary about porcelain and the wares. On an 1880 mahogany table sit three additional very long, beautifully crafted tiles, glaze side up. Visitors are invited to touch their soft and delicate irregularities.

In “On White” Edmund de Waal challenges the viewer to take the time to hear the stories of porcelain within “a moment of breath-turn” by presenting a contemplative silence made up of the art of ceramics, reiteration, the interval, and the pause.

Published Thu, 19 Dec 2013 13:30:00 GMT

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