Touching with the eyes

January 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

Edmund de Waal, A Thousand Hours (2012)

Edmund de Waal, a thousand hours (2012)

One of the first things I did this very new year was go up to Cambridge for the day to see two shows at the Fitzwilliam Museum: one on the theme of love and desire in Japanese prints, the other on Edmund de Waal.

 edmund de waal

Saying it was an exhibition of De Waal’s work isn’t entirely accurate – rather, it’s De Waal’s intervention into the Fitzwilliam’s ceramics collection which happens to feature three of his own installations along with five vitrines filled with pieces of Chinese, Japanese and German porcelain he selected from the permanent collection that, according to his arrangement, illuminate various aspects of the history and mythology of porcelain.

De Waal himself has already written an intelligent and poetic explanation of his selections and groupings that I don’t think I can better. But as interesting as his intervention into the collection is, what really took my breath away were his own pieces. (One of them, in plain sight, is tucked away in a not-so-obvious place, and far be it from me to ruin the delight of chancing upon it, so I shall say no more.)

Edmund de Waal, yourself, you (2013)

Edmund de Waal, yourself, you (2013)

I’m not a stranger to de Waal’s work, but I was stunned by the delicacy and, for lack of a better word, the surprising sensuousness of his ceramics. The vessels in yourself, you are ranged in two narrow vitrines – stand at the right angle and it feels, tantalisingly and frustratingly, as if there is no glass, as if you could reach in and gently caress them. They are unglazed, and I found myself trying to imagine what they would feel like. Onion skin? Tulip petals? Silk ribbon? Rice paper? Very fine sharkskin? Strands of hair? Seashells? Would you be able to hear the slightest sound (of waves as in a shell? Of breath? A whisper?) if you slowly dragged your fingertips over their surfaces?

Edmund de Waal, yourself, you (detail)

No photographs can do them justice. If you want to see – and imagine touching and hearing – for yourself, you’ll need to get to Cambridge before 23 February.

It’s worth the journey.


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