Interview with Edmund de Waal
by Han Mengyun

cold mountain, I, Kaolin, gold leaf, graphite, compressed charcoal, and oil stick on oak and ash, in aluminum frame 9 7/8 x 19 3/8 x 2 in (25 x 49 x 5 cm) © Edmund de Waal Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Courtesy Gagosian

Only white clouds on Cold Mountain, 

so still beyond the dusty world.

My mountain home has a grass seat,

the solitary lamp is the moon’s bright disk. 

My stone bed overlooks the jade pond, 

tiger and deer are often my neighbors.

I covet the joy of my secluded dwelling, 

where I can always be a person beyond form.

Hanshan ( Tang Dynasty monk poet, 618-907)

The acclaimed British potter, artist and writer, Edmund de Waal recently presented his new body of work cold mountain clay at Gaogosian Hong Kong. The work is a response to the experience of isolation in the artist’s studio in London during the first weeks of the pandemic lockdown in 2020. An anthology of Hanshan’s Cold Mountain verses accompanied de Waal while he was trying to weather the toil of solitude. Through reading these verses, one is consoled by the described beauty of loneliness, observing the inner self and its worldly surroundings with sensory faculties awakened by the power of serenity.

Envisioning himself as the ancient recluse living on the Cold Mountain, de Waal put down words on kaolin-coated panels and engaged in a process of erasure, mimicking the way Hanshan scribbles on rocks and cave walls, which are susceptible to decay and effacement. Both confront the reality of impermanence with composure. Unlike his previous wall-mounted installations with porcelain vessels arranged in the space of the vitrine, these kaolin panels find a visual and material affinity with painting and cave murals. The matte kaolin surface evokes a sense of time dating back to our primitive urge to make marks in nature.

As a Chinese painter, I immediately respond to the Chinese traditions of art and poetry from de Waal’s eclectic references. His porcelain vessels in nuanced and varying whites or blacks standing next to one another bring to mind the famed painting Six Persimmons by the 13th century Chinese monk painter Muqi Fachang, as both accord to a sense of musical configuration in space and visual simplicity. Interestingly, porcelain, possibly the most familiar material to the Chinese, is given new symbolic meanings once it is laid down in de Waal’s vitrine, the equivalent of a painting frame, a book page, or a duration of a piece of music, which transformed these vessels into a mark, a word or a sound. Such an ancient material is revitalised with a new outlook which encompasses the artistic language of multiple media and traditions.

De Waal’s family memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes published in 2010 denotes a new phase of his practice that first saw the vitrine as an indispensable formal element, which has distinguished de Waal from traditional potters. This poignant memoir recounts the misfortunes of the Ephrussi family during the Holocaust and the surviving collection of 264 Japanese netsuke miniature carvings that de Waal later inherited. At the same time, this book traces his deepening understanding of the vitrine that not only protects and displays these objects but also retains and enacts the memory of both the object’s history in transit and the stories of people who have once owned them. As de Waal’s ceramic vessels coalesce in a vitrine, a chapter of human history comes into being and the long anonymous craftsman is given a name.

Edmund De Waal was born in 1964 in Nottingham, England. He lives and works in London. He received a BA Honors in English literature in 1983 from the University of Cambridge, England, and a postgraduate diploma in Japanese language in 1992 from the University of Sheffield, England. De Waal was a senior research fellow in ceramics at the University of Westminster, London, in 2002. Recent solo museum exhibitions include Signs and Wonders, Victoria and Albert Museum, London (2009); Night Work, New Art Centre, Roche Court, England (2010); Waddesdon Manor, England (2012); On White: Porcelain Stories from the Fitzwilliam, Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, England (2013); Another Hour, Southwark Cathedral, London (2014); Atmosphere, Turner Contemporary, Margate, England (2014); Lichtzwang, Theseus Temple, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (2014); The lost and the found: work from Orkney, New Art Centre, Roche Court, England (2015); and white: a project by Edmund de Waal, Royal Academy of Arts, London.

Han Mengyun is an artist and writer based in London. Her writing has appeared in New Museum Triennial 2021 catalogue, Hyperallergic, American Suburb X, Leap and elsewhere. Both her art and writing practices speak from a transhistorical and transcultural perspective in order to establish articulations of alterity in the contemporary art practice and discourse.


Han Mengyun: The idea of translation in various forms occurred to me when seeing your work: between different languages and cultures, between poetry and its visual and material representation, between art and craft, between the past and the present, and ultimately between Hanshan and you. How do you navigate these forms of translation?

Edmund de Waal: In some ways, I think of translation as a liminal experience that you are on the threshold between two things. You're in a state of hovering, on the edge of something, rather than occupying something. You can think of translation, as in some sense, an active power of taking something over. And I would never emotionally, bodily want to take over Hanshan's poetry. I don't want to take over Japanese tea ceremony. That's not my understanding of how I want to be close to something, and find a way, a space where the integrity of the original work of art, the poetry of Hanshan, and some dynasty teapots, can be entirely by themselves, and have that kind of autonomy as a work of literature object. My own work can occupy a space where I am in conversation with that work. So it's not about turning one thing into another at all. For me, Hanshan is a living, breathing, complex body of work.

HM: Your approach to reinvent Hanshan’s Cold Mountain poems reminds me of Ezra Pound’s modernist translation of Chinese poems to English with resort to a metaphorical interpretation beyond the laws of language.

EDW: I’ve been living with Hanshan’s work for 40 years and studied him at Cambridge in relationship to Ezra Pound. I did an English degree at Cambridge, and studied Ezra Pound and his translations more than 35 years ago. But that idea of liminality is the thing that really matters to me. So I think that's present within quite a lot of different bits of work. So when I'm making an installation, it's absolutely saturated in a poem, or a fragment of a poem, or a piece of music. I'm not trying to translate experientially a poem into a pot. It's just to hold that bodily experience, of remembering a piece of Wallace Stevens, or a bit of Bach, or a bit of Hanshan, and have something which is next to it, liminally connected.

poems from cold mountain, VI, 2020, Kaolin, gold leaf, graphite, and compressed charcoal on ash, in aluminum frame 361/4×26×3 in. (92×66×7.5 cm) © Edmund de Waal

HM: The process of working with clay is also a kind of liminality between the formless and the form, while you’re working wet on wet. The process is not something rational, but it includes your bodily feelings and intuition. Form then comes out of the formless.

EDW: Yes, that's absolutely right. It's also has that other bit, which is really interesting and difficult to talk about, the fact you can't own the process in its entirety. Because you can do so much. You can have lots of skillsets and technical knowledge, but at a certain moment, you have to let it go into a kiln and fire the damn thing. You have to set fire to it and things go right. But it's alchemical. You actually simply don't know, ultimately what's going to happen. That's probably the central metaphor in the making of ceramics: not being able to control something. You can also find that in Rilker's poetry, or lots of other different parallel art forms. This idea that you can do so much, but at a certain point, there are things you can’t. That's something not modernism. Nothing to do with modernism at all.

music in thirteen parts, 2017, 11 porcelain vessels and 2 alabaster blocks, in aluminum and plexiglass vitrine 235/8×551/8×117/8 in. (60×140×30 cm) © Edmund de Waal

HM: In the Chinese tradition, poetry and painting are known as the sister arts, as if they were different forms of the same phenomenon. It’s interesting in your work where I observe porcelain as the third wheel between poetry and painting as you have talked profusely about language and poetry, but at the same time I see a compositional reference to the vertical and horizontal scrolls, the appreciation of the form of words, the isometric perspective and the spatial placement of mountains in Chinese painting, especially in your music in thirteen parts (2017). Were you conscious of this three-way dialogue among poetry, painting and porcelain during the process of making?

EDW: I really do. And they are three wheels or three sisters, perhaps. For me a good sisterhood to be part of. There's obviously a huge aesthetic kind of pleasure in the placing of a poem, or a mark on a page. It's a visceral, somatic thing for me. And it can be in relation to looking at particularly Japanese Zen calligraphy of the early 13th, 14th century when I went to Japan at 17.

There's always been that kind of a pleasurable act of seeing how space is created by that moment of writing. The second thing is because I really spend my life reading poetry. And so I'm always drawn to the western tradition, to fragmentary poetry, to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, the poetry of Celan, the shorter poems of Wallace Stevens, because of the space they occupy on the page. When you look at a fragmentary poem of Dickinson on a white page, I have the same reaction about the negative space around the poem working as if I'm seeing. There is a kinship there, with Chinese landscape painting, or with the mark-making in Zen calligraphy. So there's a connection between how you read spatially. This has been very important to me. That's obviously influenced massively the way I make put objects down, the porcelain I make into vitrines. A vitrines is a page, nothing more. The simple way of making a three dimensional page in space, and then allowing the separate elements to have power within them.

HM: I find the idea of the vitrine as a page very interesting in that it also makes things instantly for viewing but not so much for using. And I wonder if you expect those who own your porcelain work also use it? Or are they supposed to be in the vitrine only to be viewed, not really to be used?

EDW: For decades I made pots, absolutely to use, and that was training in the first 30 years of my making life. And then a long period of making things only in the vitrines, often like in the Victoria and Albert Museum, held very very far away. So they become much more objects of contemplation.

But actually, just now, two weeks ago in London, I opened an exhibition called some winter pots, which are all the pots I made in lockdown. These pots, going all the way back for me into making pots, are entirely about being picked up, handled, and touched. Some of them are mended with kintsugi, some of them mended with lead. And there are different bodies of work. I’m being distracted because I have a rather beautiful 8th Century Buddhist hand on my desk in front of me. Isn’t that gorgeous?

[Edmund and Mengyun were admiring the beauty of the wooden Buddhist hand.]

HM: We have learned an abundance of meanings associated with the color white, be it visual, poetic, material, symbolic, linguistic, or religious, from your book The White Road. What about the color black employed in works such as the second, loss (2018) ?

the second, loss, 2018, 25 porcelain vessels, 9 porcelain tiles with embossed handwritten text and platinum leaf, and 5 steel boxes, in 5 aluminum and museum glass vitrines 1071/8×37×43/4 in. (272×94×12 cm) © Edmund de Waal

EDW: It goes back in two different directions, and two sorts of beginnings there. One is that historically in the West, in Dresden when they were trying to invent and discover the secrets of Chinese porcelain. In the first experiment, they ended up with black porcelain because they couldn't make white porcelain. And I've always loved and been intrigued by this idea of the beginning that there's something for white porcelain which was actually black. It’s a very beautiful idea.

But the other symbolic moment is a poem by Paul Celan called Todesfuge (Death Fugue), which is one of the greatest poems about the Holocaust. And it was a very important time for me. Researching and making work in black glazes really began with that poem. The symbolic resonances of black are very powerful and not straightforward at all. They go in all kinds of directions.

But on one level it’s just an aesthetic decision. Black glazes are very beautiful. I'm interested in how shadows work around black and to see how the shadows congregate. Tanizaki’s book In Praise of Shadows of course is in the background there. (Just in brackets. I also did have a very long conversation with Theaster Gates. We had a really good hour and a half phone call on Friday, about black. So it’s there.)

HM: The use of gold in your work is also peculiar. In the context of kintsugi (golden joinery), the gold was meant to repair broken pottery, dealing with the fragmented, the absent, glorifying the history of an object. But I notice a curious paradox in the way you use gold, which is not all about mending, but sometimes it's a kind of addition to the already complete, or as a line cutting across space, as thin layers…which are very much painterly considerations. As a painter myself, I immediately think of those gestures in painting. So how do you define the role of gold in your work?

either fire or fire, 2019, 4 porcelain vessels, porcelain tile with gold leaf, and marble block, in gilded aluminum and plexiglass vitrine 97/8×171/2×51/2 in. (25×44.5×14 cm) © Edmund de Waal

EDW: That's the nicest and the most poetic connections that you've made. I can't think of anyone has ever done. So thank you for that. The real answer is I'm confused by gold. I bring gold in because of aura. I love the idea of gold and shadows, of hiding gold. All the work with poems in the Hong Kong exhibition have gold behind them. Hidden. I love the idea of gold in the palimpsest of having one layer of something on top of gold so that you know it's there but you can't see it.

So there are lots of different ways. Porcelain is my great dream material of the world, but so is gold. They are the two materials, and paper that moves through the world. So why wouldn't you want to use it in different ways?

HM: The gold really stands out as a hint from the maker and it defines what it is in relation to space. I've seen one of your works where there was a plate glazed with gold on the back, and the golden glow or shadow behind reveals your thinking about space and light. 

a world of clear water, I, 2018, Porcelain vessel and porcelain tile with gold leaf, in aluminum box 133/4×33/8×41/8 in. (35×8.5×10.5 cm) © Edmund de Waal

EDW: Do you use it?

HM: I do. That’s why I'm really into it [laugh], especially with regard to the idea of worship and immortality. But in your work, it’s always in shards and broken pieces, which goes against its symbol of immortality.

EDW: For me, as you know, I'm the shard, the broken object, that is probably the most significant part of that whole landscape of making. And recently when I had an exhibition in Dresden, I mended broken Meissen plates for the Japanisches Palais with kintsugi. There’re central acts of reparation that you can only do with gold.

HM: When you mentioned Dresden in Germany, I thought of Goethe, his idea of Weltliteratur and the Persian poet Hafiz’ influence on his German diction. Your library of exile (2020) is a complex rendering of a similar idea of the Weltliteratur, which is however not as idyllic as Goethe might have expected. When words and forms of the past are in exile, how should one, especially an artist or a writer today, deal with the rootlessness of cultures and the influx of the other, given the problems and complexities of globalization? 

library of exile, 2020, installation view, British Museum, London, UK © Edmund de Waal

EDW: It's a hugely tough and a really searching question. I guess I'll never ever talk about 'an artist' or ‘artists’. I only talk about myself and say that in some ways there is a polarity there. Part of the polarity is the powerful need to find a space where you can overhear many languages, where the polyphonic, the many voices of the world can be heard so that you can be attuned to the profound otherness of other people's experiences. And that's what a library does of course. But the other part of the polarity is to find what you need for yourself. For me, that was finding within those many voices, one commonality, which was rootlessness. That actually was a shared experience of leaving a place, of taking your language with you, and then trying to make a new life, trying to find a new place in which you can start. So exile is both highly other, and highly connected, simultaneously for me.

HM: Because once you're in exile, you search.

EDW: Yeah. I’ve just written a new book which is going to come out next year. And I end that book by saying: "I don't know who I am, I'm half English, a quarter Austrian, a quarter Dutch, completely European. I have a Jewish father, Christian mother. I make pots out of material that keeps breaking. I write books which turn out to be palimpsest. I failed at identifying my identity, but I know that I'm doing these different things. And so maybe that's a really bad answer to what you're asking in relation to Goethe.

HM: You're all of them, but at the same time not. That’s almost a Buddhist idea of non-self, the definition of identity is subject to impermanence.

EDW: Yes, I like that.

HM: Based on the multicultural context of your work, the last question is about one of the Cold Mountain poems included in the exhibition, which has mentioned the legend of Yu Boya and Zhong Ziqi exemplifying the Chinese ideal of friendship and connoisseurship. The zither master Boya (7th–6th century B.C.) smashed his instrument upon the death of Ziqi, his Zhiyin (知音, literally“one who knows the tone”) and never played again. Who would be your Ziqi today for the formal music you play with clay?

EDW: [laugh] I can't do that, because I suppose the genuine answer to that is almost all my work is elegy. Genuine answer is looking at something which has been lost. And it could be family lost in the Holocaust, it could be Celan's poetry, it could be broken Chinese Song dynasty bowls. And then trying to make work in the shadow, in the memory, in response, in that liminal space to go right back to the beginning, that liminal space in order to keep something alive, to bring something into continuity. I haven't broken the instrument, but the instrument has been broken for me, and then I'm trying to make work in its aftermath. It's a very beautiful question, which I'm not answering. 

 on living in an old country, II, 2019, 7 porcelain sheets, porcelain shards (some with gold leaf),

2 steel shims with gold leaf, 4 steel boxes, and alabaster block with gold leaf, in aluminum and plexiglass vitrine 233/4×351/2×125/8 in. (60.3×90×32 cm) © Edmund de Waal

 on living in an old country, II, 2019 (detail) © Edmund de Waal

This interview was conducted before the publication of Edmund de Waal's new book Letters to Camondo. Please click here to watch the artist/writer talking about this book.

[Note: This interview was originally conducted in English and translated into Chinese by the interviewer Han Mengyun. The Chinese version was previously published on The Thinker, 54, 15 July 2021, pp. 14-17.