Edmund de Waal: Signs and Wonders

Edmund de Waal completed Signs and Wonders, his ambitious installation in the uppermost cupola of the V&A last year. In this film, he explains the inspiration behind the work and remembers how his struggle with vertigo dogged the installation process

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Video Transcript

Edmund DeWaal, Installation Artist

It’s a kind of love story with the ceramics collections, and they’re a kind of conversation with the collections of the V&A, kind of a very personal memory of my journeys through the V&A ceramics collections over the last thirty years.

About five years ago, the V&A started planning the complete redisplay of their ceramics collections, and there was an invitation to think about making an installation to celebrate the new galleries. There’s one place in the whole of the V&A which connects the ground floor, the threshold, with those great galleries. As you come in off Cromwell Road, through the doors, if you look straight up there’s a coffered ceiling, wooden coffered ceiling, and then just above there, there’s a dome, and that is the only glimpse you get of the ceramics galleries from the ground floor.

I was about seven or eight and trying to find my way up these endless staircases, getting to the very top of the building. Brown, mahogany cabinets jammed full of ceramics stretching on and on and on and on. What so amazing was that you could see through these great vitrines, you could see pots layered on pots and pots and pots and pots, and almost noone here. It’s a fantastically melancholy place.

What was here was the most spectacular collection of ceramics anywhere, and you could find your way, navigate your way through French porcelaine to German porcelaine to endless English porcelaine, and you could find your little routes of favourite pots and favourite colours. They were wonderful ways of making sense of the collection, and I spent a ridiculous amount of my life up here in these galleries.

What I thought I’d do was to basically work with the collection, have a conversation with the particular bits of the collection that I know really well, and make work which was almost an after-image, like looking hard at something and then looking away - you get that blurring after-image on your retina. The works up there are a conversation with different bits of the ceramics collection, and they all talk to each other up there.

The whole space was full of scaffolding, and this is where the horror began because, of course, as soon as the scaffolding was in we got the call and had to start bringing the pots that I’d made for the installation, and they were hoisted up on a hoist up to the top, five ladders, and I had to get up onto this rickety scaffolding at the top and begin to place the work, and I hate heights, I absolutely have a horror of heights. What I did was to start to place them in three sections and then amongst those three sections to build in almost like musical interludes where particular things were repeated and then there were pauses and themes were picked up all the way round.

So when you’re down here, in this gallery, and you look up, the first thing that you may notice is you can’t see all of the pots. It’s a sort of basic frustration. It’s not like having pots in front of you. We’re always given this idea of pots being straightforward in front of you and to be picked up, so there’s almost a sense of being tantalised. You can’t pick them up, you can’t handle them, and you can’t really see the whole pot, and so what you’ve got already is that sense of a memory of pots, or an echo of pots, or a blurring almost of the image of the pots, so they’re taken away from you and held in suspension above you, and then when you move round you start to pick up the repeated echoes.
It’s not a didactic, heavy-handed piece. It is a piece that you can look at, I hope, from a kind of contemplative way, and then forget about and then get surprised when you next come into the V&A again. It’s about a journey, a journey through a building or a journey towards something.


Signs and Wonders is a huge 425-piece installation piece within a bright red circular girder set into the V&A's uppermost cupola. It takes its inspiration from Edmund de Waal's 35 year year love affair with the V&A which has lasted since his childhood

This two part film which also shows Edmund de Waal working in his south London workshop was created to celebrate the opening of the V&A's Ceramic Study Galleries in early June 2010. An article about Edmund de Waal focusing on some of his favourite V&A ceramics can be found in the Summer issue of V&A Magazine which is published on the 18th June

In December Edmund won the Costa prize for biography with his magical family memoir, The Hare with the Amber Eyes - which also happened to be V&A Magazine's book of the year, 2010.