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  • Johannes Scott

The Art of Ceramic Memory

‘In my opaque vitrines, objects move between profile and dimensionality, blur into a haze and come suddenly into focus. Which is how memory works, of course, shimmering like a mirage heralding us towards the wrong places.’ – Edmund de Waal.

Edmund de Waal is a British ceramist who describes himself as a ‘potter who writes.’ At school in Canterbury, he took pottery classes from a former student of Bernard Leach and later, after graduating in English at Cambridge, found a synthesis between literature and pottery.

De Waal’s early career was shaped by the studio-potter template Leach had bestowed on the British ceramic scene. Decades later, in 1998, de Waal published a critical monograph on Leach and together with his interest in the aesthetic theory of Walter Benjamin, set out to explore the contradictions between tradition and modernity – a contradiction that is nowhere else more evident than in the legend of ‘master potter’ Bernard Leach.

In 2016, in Germany, I experienced de Waal’s dialogue with Leach, Benjamin, tradition and modernity first-hand in his exhibition and installation titled IRRKUNST at Max Hetzler’s two independent galleries, both located in Charlottenburg, Berlin.

The exhibition at the Goethe Strasse Gallery represents an archive of wheel-thrown porcelain cylinders displayed in vitrines and on bookshelves. At closer inspection, these anonymous, miniature pieces all seem incomplete, void of function, and juxtaposed in groupings with porcelain shards, pieces of steel, aluminium, gold, and graphite. These repetitive collections of thermal related materials – as if inventories of the potter’s lost memories from the kiln-firing process in which clay transforms into ceramic – come across as poetic phrases. As if, fragmentary moments of disjuncture are held together by paradigmatic relations.

The installation at the Bleibtreu Strasse Gallery contains a library collection of original notes, manuscripts, and publications from the Walter Benjamin archive in Berlin. The exhibition visitor is encouraged to not only read but to engage by making use of the paper and pens and take notes at the large communal study desk provided. Looking through the library-gallery windows, the venue is adjacent to the primary school where Benjamin received his first education, and in sight of the Jewish author’s 1938 residence, before exile.

The installation includes oversized, black display cabinets within which de Waal’s miniscule pieces can be detected, with effort. The library of books resembles de Waal’s index of porcelain cylinders on bookshelves and recalls Walter Benjamin’s obsession with collecting records of loss. Throughout his life, Benjamin collected quotations alienated from its original, historical context. He intended to write a book entirely composed of these lost fragments, thereby evoking the same loss of meaningful experience that separates tradition and modernity. Benjamin’s thesis is the impasse between traditional art and modern art.

For the exhibition catalogue, de Waal writes, ‘I work with things. I make them, from porcelain. And then I arrange them, find places to put them down, on shelves or within vitrines, in houses and galleries and museums, move them around so that they are in light or in shadow. They are installations, or groupings, or a kind of poetry. They have titles, a phrase or a line that helps them on their way in the world.’

The exhibition title IRRKUNST is a notion taken from Benjamin and means the art of noticing, of recollecting that which had been disregarded, alienated, deprived of its intended socio-ethical significance. Traditional art served as living link, a force of stability between society and its historical-cultural identity. For example, the modernist collector, a connoisseur activity of accumulating collections, like quotation or antiques extricated from its intended purpose, would be an incomprehensible activity for members of traditional society.

Working against the alienating impact modernity has on the intimacy between ceramic tradition and public reception, de Waal foregrounds conceptual fragility in modern convention. For example, precarious, unwarranted materiality – as in ruptures, discontinuities, flaws, and faults – is precisely what the modern index, selectively, suppresses, discards, and rejects. Modernist ideology archives scientific success to show man as natural master to nature. It is in this modernist onslaught that the intimacy of traditional memory is lost.

De Waal, in a subtext, recalls Brecht, who wrote on the death of his friend Walter Benjamin: ‘They are remarkable, spare texts, inventories or listings of people and places that are lost. This need to name is a kind of collection, a holding in one place of presences and absences. They recall Benjamin’s own obsessional need to record: what epitaph can you write for a recorder of loss? These list-poems have the slightly ragged feeling of a grief that is very present. They feel as if they are unfinished, archival.

The installation IRRKUNST represents a body of grief for the memory of discarded items that fell through the signifying index of ceramic convention.

The body of grief is displayed as conventional collection; items are listed in inventories and placed within vitrines and holding cabinets. Yet, a sense of loss and absence governs because the items, in themselves, lack symbolic memory. All that is present is mnemonic context – the items serve as cue and connotation to the adjacent library, which, as printed text, is also without meaning until read, interpreted, and denoted.

IRRKUNST provides the viewer with forms of memory: the library, archive, laboratory, vitrines, and display cabinets all have the conventional function of nominating collective meaning. The viewer, within the imaginary realm of the art gallery, collaborates by exhuming collective memory from within the given context and, by subliminal fantasy, fill the gaps of the modern ceramic index.

The viewer, like a conscious, caring vessel, nurtures, heals, or councils the grief in a performative act of recording – the exhibition visitor participates as ‘collector of loss’. Public reception of IRRKUNST functions as aesthetic archive for disinterred memories.

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