Edmund de Waal is a potter and writer of international reputation. Until this week I’d never heard of Edmund de Waal and then he pops up twice on the telly so he’s clearly become an important figure in the cultural landscape. De Waal makes small, undecorated, almost humble porcelain pots; lots and lots of them. When collected together for display he describes the pots as sculpture and also talks about their painterly effect. However de Waal refers to himself as a potter. Temperamentally though De Waal seems to be at the opposite end of the spectrum from the UK’s other famous potter (imagine having two talented siblings, one with OCD, the other with Tourette’s, its easy to guess which one the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones prefers).
What de Waal’s work illustrates, I think, are two truths about the Art world. One is the power of repetition. De Waal’s pots are arranged side by side in vitrines, (I’m sure when I was a student I used to read about artists like Joseph Cornell displaying their work in glass cases or boxes, now its always vitrines). Although, in fact, de Waal’s pots are all individually worked and therefore each subtly different from the other, their meta-form is the same. From what I’ve seen of de Waal’s work, on a TV screen, it is this tension between the apparent sameness and actual uniqueness of each object that gives the work its texture and power. But so does the scale and so, I think does the sheer repetition involved.
Its easy to imagine de Waal’s pots being uncovered in an archeological dig and being taken for ancient vessels to be used in some ritual act. But in the absence of any shared secular or religious framework within which art has a commonly understood role and purpose, or even general agreement about what constitutes a work of art, one way for artists to give their work meaning is through reiteration. It suggests that he or she is surely onto something if this particular shape or colour or act means so much. It also echoes the practice of the scientist, or engineer perhaps, testing a theory again and again to establish a hypothesis. A lingering effect maybe of the enlightenment.
What the programmes about de Waal also illustrated for me was the power of the market. Without that shared understanding about arts place and role in society, it is the market and investors that have moved in to establish a marker of what is art and what is ‘good’ art. In both of the TV programme’s we see de Waal preparing for exhibitions. One of them is in New York and he frets before the exhibition opening about his work failing in this centre of contemporary art. But his work is being shown at the Gagosian Gallery. How likely is it to fail with Gagosian’s imprimatur? Fairly unlikely I expect. For buyers of art at this level Gagosion is the mark of a safe investment and once the buying starts, then its important to maintain the value of the investment. Witness the Mugrabi’s who doubtless on one level like all the Warhol’s they’ve bought, as many as 800 but that’s a lot of money tied up in one artist’s work and reputation which will need protecting, if all that monetary value is not to be lost.
In his Reith Lecture’s Grayson Perry has been taking apart the art world for the uninitiated and spoke in his first lecture about the importance of the public galleries, like the Tate, in establishing the reputation of artists and their value for collectors. Edmund de Waal seems too modest and reflective a personality to be described as an Art world superstar but his Gagosian show surely signals that he now has his place in the art world firmament. Hats off to de Waal but I wonder if his work will lose something now, an essence of what its really about and why he makes all those pots. In the first programme which included the Gagosian show, there was reference to the prices, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, de Waal’s work suddenly began to command after the opening. After Gagosian is price what de Waal work will be about?