Installation view of “Lettres à Camondo,” with petrichor, 2021. Photo: Christophe Dellière, © Edmund de Waal and MAD, Paris, Courtesy the artist and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris

Shapes of Silence: A Conversation with Edmund de Waal

Gathered in large-scale installations and enclosed within minimal structures, Edmund de Waal’s porcelain vessels become vehicles for human narrative and emotion, objects of almost ritual significance haunted by memory. Recently de Waal has begun to engage the present as explicitly as he does the past, using the ancient Japanese art of kintsugi to highlight the idea of brokenness. He has also made sculptures liberated from display and framing devices and meant to be handled. “tacet” (Latin for “it is silent”), his recent show at the New Art Centre, featured mottled stone benches with undulating surfaces celebrating the comfort of touch and luminous, shrine-like installations emanating a quiet tranquility.

Breakage and mending are also important metaphors in de Waal’s library of exile, an installation of books by exiled writers from around the world housed within a porcelain-covered pavilion where visitors could read and reflect on displacement and migration. Launched at the 2019 Venice Biennale, library of exile traveled to Dresden, London, and finally to Iraq; de Waal then donated its 2,000 books to the Mosul University Library, which was destroyed by Islamic militants in 2014.

The theme of exile is personal for de Waal, whose family arrived in Britain as refugees in 1939. Many
of his Jewish relatives perished in the Holocaust. His family memoir The Hare With Amber Eyes (2010) recounts this story of aspiration, loss, and bearing witness through a collection of netsuke that he inherited. These same ideas are reprised in Letters to Camondo, which de Waal wrote while planning his current exhibition of the same name at the Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris. Originally built in 1911 by the Jewish banker Count Moïse de Camondo to house his decorative arts collection, the mansion became a memorial to his son Nissim who was killed in World War I. Camondo died in 1935, and the Nazis subsequently murdered his daughter and her family. Untouched since Camondo’s death, the museum embodies a repository of accumulated tragedies and memories, many mirroring those of de Waal’s own family.

Elizabeth Fullerton: How did the pandemic lockdown affect your practice?
Edmund de Waal:
At the heart of it would be an unambiguous need to be alone more. I realized that my life has sped up and that I need an awful lot more silence . . .

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