Edmund de Waal —one way or other—
MAK Center | Schindler House, West Hollywood
Through January 6, 2019
By Shana Nys Dambrot
When it comes to history-minded polymath Edmund de Waal’s artistic practice, ceramicist really does not cover it. But it’s a suitable place to begin, since it is mainly de Waal’s exceptional porcelain sculptures, his facility with the nuanced power of variable repetition, and his ability to supersaturate the simplest of forms with compendiums of cultural, material, familial, and geopolitical storylines.
Both in his singular objects, serial compositions, and constellations of arrayed installations, de Waal deploys variations on his guiding star of an idea — the white porcelain vessel. There are black vessels, too, and elements of gold leaf, and sometimes blue wash for the cloudy sky. But white is always the keynote. As a practical matter, white clay was the holy grail of the entire porcelain trade; it remains the luminous soul of de Waal’s studio. White represents purity, but perfection is not de Waal’s goal.
Beyond the sculptures, de Waal is also renowned, and acutely beloved to his fans, for his writing — flowing, pragmatic, useful, and lyrical prose which is not only personal, but also philosophical, poetic, and research-driven, all at once. Touching on topics from trade and patent wars to Medieval alchemy, Asian traditions of craft and cross-continental economics, symbolism in beaux-arts architecture, world wars and pre-Modern European painting, his family’s netsuke collection, the lost mountains of white clay in Asia and the American South, the legacy of John Cage in modernism, a quiet, persistent exegesis of the fundamental qualities of terrestrial existence.
Those sculptures though, they have magic. For the past several decades, de Waal has not only staged hundreds of gallery exhibitions (such as his recently closed white-box etude at Gagosian San Francisco, which incorporated poems into the object compositions), but also more nuanced, site-specific, narratively honorific architectural interventions and important locations around the world. His current project at West Hollywood landmark Schindler House (MAK Center) is, however, his first such undertaking in the U.S.
It turns out, de Waal has long been a fan of Schindler in general, and of this house in particular. They share a love of Vienna and an appreciation of the mightiness of subtle gestures, and how light is. The chance to plan and make a total work of art through interconnected sculptural vignettes that exist unto themselves yet fully unpack the presence of the house itself in such fine and complete language — well, that is as close to living the dream as a man like de Waal can imagine. “Schindler’s house was provocative,” de Waal writes in the essay for the exhibition. “It became a site for contemporary dance, for music and debate. Richard Neutra wrote his book on American architecture while living here. John Cage and Edward Weston both lived here. Visitors, tenants, disciples, lovers came and stayed and went. I’ve loved this place for a very long time. I had a photograph of it in an early studio of mine.”
Responsive in some very direct ways to not only the layout but the materials, historical usage, and creative intentions of its original architect and residents, —one way or other— presents both new and recent porcelain, steel, gold and silver, wood, graphite, stone, and plexiglass vitrine sculptures for wall and table-top, all of which is specifically created and intentionally installed in dialogue with the building itself. A pas de deux between form and space that unfolds across each room, potential crossview, indoor/outdoor gradient, shift in ambient light, and refracted sound in the most subtle, enlivened, intentional ways. Throughout the series of experiences, surprises, rapidly-changing effects, and discoveries among the sculptures, many of which are numbered “case studies” in a wry homage to the great architect, it becomes as impossible to separate the elevation of the sculptures by their surroundings from the activation of the building by their presence, as to tell the dancer from the dance.
The exhibition includes a sound piece collaboratively created for the occasion with composer Simon Fisher Turner, and described as “a layered memory soundscape of Vienna, for which Turner and de Waal explored and recorded ambient sounds in the places where Schindler studied. “The sounds of doors shutting and footsteps along the corridors of the Imperial Technical Institute,” recounts de Waal. Faint echoes of the Opera House, of trams passing… And sounds of my studio.” In this way not only the space, light, sound, and interdisciplinary spirit of the Schindler House is explored, but the vessels become portals through which to explore the influences on the spirit of Schindler himself, the artist, the man, and de Waal’s muse and host in the perfection of this fleeting moment.
MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House
Address: 835 North Kings Road, West Hollywood, CA 90069; Tel: (323) 651-1510
Open hours: Wednesday–Sunday, 11:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m.