Edmund de Waal Part 1: on location

We visit the South London studio of an artist who threw his first pot at the age of five and who has emerged as one of Britain's leading ceramicists and the creator of the beautiful V&A installation, Signs and Wonders

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Video Transcript

Edmund deWaal, Artist and Ceramicist:

What I love is the vessel, something you can hold, something you can look at, something that has an inside and outside; it’s always captivating me.

I suppose I’ve sort of grown up with pots. I was a kid and I persuaded my dad to take me to an evening class when I was five, and I can remember my first pot which was a small white dumpy bowl. There were all these multi-coloured glazes around and I insisted on glazing it white, which shows an early decision, I think.

The man I was apprenticed to was very influenced by Japan and one particular aspect of it, which is the sort of gestural quality of Japanese pottery where you have the clay and the glaze working together in a sort of symbiotic way. So you have a run of glaze coming down over a pot, or you have the colour of the clay coming through the rim of the pot, and that feeling of sort of the naturalness of an object was the main thing I learned from Japanese pottery.

I finally shifted from that sort of dogmatic view of what pots had to be, really because I realised there’s a whole raft of things in my life that I cared about which I couldn’t express through mugs. That’s when I started using porcelaine because porcelaine allowed me to start again. Its a strange material, its quite difficult to throw with actually and I thought I was a great thrower - sit down and make my three hundred tea in bowls a day - and then I used porcelaine and of course its utterly different. So I was a child again. I started to actually enjoy the process again and that allowed me to begin again in a funny kind of way. It was a great chance to begin again with a new material. And the things that I started to respond to were eighteenth century porcelaine, modernist ceramics, bauhaus ceramics, all kinds of other things that had been left out of my life uptil then. It was porcelaine that was the conversation between beautiful, austere Chinese pots and European culture. Porcelaine was in some ways a symbolic material, and that I didn’t just have to make simple, austere, plain white-ish pots to do that, but I could actually use that material, use that symbolism in my work.

I went back to Japan and spent a wonderful, sort of pivotal year in Tokyo where I did two things: I worked completely on porcelaine and began to kind of get this idea of the cargo together in my head, and at the same time, simultaneously I wrote a short critical book on Bernard Leech for the Tate. When these two things kind of unlocked each other, I realised that I didn’t have to follow Leech. I spent my mornings doing that and my afternoons were spent in the studio, and these two great things came together so that when I came back to England I had a new way forward with my work.

Ceramics: its a huge, huge expanded field of different kinds of things, and its perverse to think that you can’t be a serious contemporary artist and make pots. I started to make work which I call cargos to actually symbolise that. I called these groups of pots that I made cargos to actually sort of emphasise the fact that they were groups, they were multiples - not just the single pot - but also that they were in transit in some kind of way between different cultures. I started putting them in a series of very interesting and quite diverse places, trying to work out why groups of vessels, groups of pots had particular kinds of energy when they were in particular places. It wasn’t just about plonking them on tables, it was more about the discovery of them in those places, so I put them in cupboards or on the ground or high up so you could only just get a sense of them. I was really just trying to experiment with the life of pots, and that’s really taken me over. I now feel that that is my practice: I make things for places.

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If you haven't seen  Edmund de Waal's spectacular Signs and Wonders installation at the V&A yet, you owe yourself a trip to the new ceramics galleries. In the first part of this two-film series we visited De Waal in his South London studio and talked to him about his lifelong passion for ceramics, the philosophy that underpins his site-specific installations and his 30 year love affair with the V&A .

In part 2, De Waal focuses in on Signs and Wonders, telling us about the V&A sources that inspired the work, why he chose to set it in the uppermost dome of the building and the fear of heights which made installing the piece such an ordeal.