Edmund de Waal

Year’s end (and what counts)


Not just year’s end, mind you, but world’s end, if you believe the Mayan prophesy: tomorrow marks the end of the 5125-year-long cycle in the Mesoamerican calendar, so we will either undergo a spiritual transformation (and enter a new era of development) or face cataclysmic destruction. On the radio this morning they were talking about dates which possess a magical alignment of numbers, such as 12/12/12 (which, if I can remember all of two weeks ago, was a relatively normal Wednesday), or today, 20/12/2012 (a perfectly pleasant day, but in no way transformational). What does all this counting, this numerological grasping to make some kind of sense of it all, give us? Depending on your outlook, either a feeling of control, or a deathly dread. In 1965, the Polish artist Roman Opałka started painting numbers. In the top left-hand corner of a canvas he began with 1, and continued, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and so on, number by number, in perfect horizontal rows, until he had filled an entire canvas. Each new canvas started the count where the previous one had left off. Each canvas was exactly the same size, each crammed with tiny, perfectly-rendered numbers. After each canvas was completed, Opałka photographed himself in front of the painting. Each painting was accompanied by a recording of the artist speaking the numbers aloud as he painted them. In 1987 he wrote: Time as we live it and as we create it embodies our progressive disappearance; we are at the same time alive and in the face of death – that is the mystery of all living beings. The consciousness of this inevitable disappearance broadens our experiences without diminishing our joy. There is always the omnipresent idea of nature, of its ebb and flow of life. This essence of reality can be universally understood; it is not only mine but can be commonly shared in our ‘unus mundus’.


Opałka said, all my work is a single thing, the description from number one to infinity. A single thing, a single life. A life’s work. He died on 6th August 2011. The final number he painted was 5607249. I move through time to November, 10/11/12 to be precise, the final day of a thousand hours, the potter Edmund de Waal’s installation for the Alan Cristea Gallery in London. Of the show, de Waal wrote:

‘a thousand hours’ has at its heart a meditation on time, both the time it takes to make something, and the time it takes to see something … I have made a vast installation of a thousand vessels housed in two great vitrines, placed so that you can walk between them. There are pots below you and high over you. Some are easy to see and others disappear into a haze behind opaque glass, out of reach. They are uncountable. I hope it records hours of pleasure, tiredness, exhilaration: my sense of the fleeting moment and its afterlife. image

The fleeting moment and its afterlife: as the year begins to disappear, the new diary already opened to the first clean week of January 2013, I try to gather those fleeting moments, which might at some stage reappear as lines of poetry. What Opałka started as an exercise in counting became a way of recording his existence: the paintings wouldn’t mean quite the same without the photographic record of the artist – at first a young man, aging as the numbers grew, until he was old – and his voice, speaking the years. With de Waal’s project, counting is translated into object – the vessel – which represents a period of making, the physical act of sitting at the wheel and bringing the object to life. The potter says that the vessels are brought together to slow down time, and walking through them, between two vitrines, I could see what he meant. I felt as if time had halted as I stood in the middle of the piece, surrounded by vessels behind their hazy glass, caught in memory, out of reach.

 image I end with an image by Jasper Johns. Invective will take a short break for the holidays. The next post will be in the new year, assuming we survive tomorrow …

Rag and Bone Shop (The Cabinet of Curiosities)

As someone who is fascinated by objects and their provenance (and has great difficulty getting rid of things I can no longer justify the need to keep) I feel a great affinity with collectors. There is something obsessive about a collection that focuses on one specific item or theme, for example, collections of Elvis memorabilia or Susie Cooper polka dot china (but only in blue). I like that kind of single-mindedness. For those collectors, the joy of collecting is in the search, the striving for completion (mixed with a secret desire never to complete, for to complete would mean there would be nothing more to search for).

I am a great admirer of Francis Alÿs’s Fabiola installation, which I saw at the National Portrait Gallery in 2009, and which has toured the world – this strange collection of over 300 images of Saint Fabiola, a 4th century Roman matron. Two aspects of the installation impressed me: 1. All the images of the saint are identically posed, based on a nineteenth-century French Salon painting, ironically now lost; 2. The artist spent fifteen years trawling flea markets and junk shops all over the world seeking out these images, rendered in a variety of genres, and all by amateur painters and craftspeople. It is Alÿs’s singular and obsessive act of collecting that most moves me; his search for this (not so) obscure saint, this one image of her copied and copied again, and then presented by him in one place. A world conference of Fabiolas. So I was thrilled on my recent trip to the Saturday market in Bruges to find my first Fabiola, in the form of an oval brooch. I resisted buying it, just in case Alÿs has an itch to add to his collection. It was enough just for me to see one out of the context of his installation. Presumably, once you start looking, you see them everywhere …

And you start to wonder how they got to where you found them. Flea markets are a great place to ponder this question. Things travel from one corner of the world to another, in suitcases or pockets. Some things never lose their power, even out of context. At the Saturday market in Bruges, I was momentarily halted in my tracks by the sight of a selection of Nazi memorabilia spread out innocently on a rug on the grass, part of a more general and random selection of goods offered by a jovial middle-aged Belgian dealer. Objects tainted by association. I had recently finished reading the excellent book The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, so as I wandered the stalls, his summary of the life of objects came to mind:

How objects are handled is all about story-telling. I am giving you this because I love you. Or because it was given to me. Because I bought it somewhere special. Because you will care for it. Because it will complicate your life. Because it will make someone else envious. There is no easy story in legacy. What is remembered and what is forgotten? There can be a chain of forgetting, the rubbing away of previous ownership as much as the slow accretion of stories.

Of course, his inheritance, the collection of netsuke which is at the centre of the book, was hidden (under a mattress) from the Nazis who invaded his great-grandfather’s mansion in Vienna; so they are linked by history to these grim Nazi souvenirs (one of the less attractive aspects of our collecting culture – the need to grab trophies from those we’ve defeated).

As a collector whose habits are both specific (Chinese ginger jars and mid-century Scandinavian pots) and random (anything that catches my eye, from a rat’s skull to a Victorian grave marker), I appreciate the need to surround oneself with curiosities; objects which represent the variety of the world. I have always liked the idea of a wunderkammer, a cabinet (or in Renaissance times, a whole room) which would gather objects both man-made and natural, ancient and rare, works of art or geological samples.

Or even things common and ordinary. The best (and most obsessive) book on this type of ephemeral collecting is Collections of Nothing by William Davies King, in which he lists (over two pages) all the varieties of tuna fish for which he has collected labels from their cans. It is crazy, but also fascinating, as a way of recording how we branded and packaged items for sale at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Of no value now, but in years to come …

Eavan Boland describes one of her poems as ‘a small inventory of my views’. Perhaps poems are also a way of gathering these disparate objects together, another kind of ‘cabinet’. I will leave you with a quote from William Davies King’s book:

Collecting is a way of linking past, present, and future. Objects from the past get collected in the present to preserve them for the future. Collecting processes presence, meanwhile articulating the mysteries of desire. What people wanted and did not want drives what collectors want and do not want in anticipation of what future collectors will want or will not want. The mathematical formula connecting these equations of desire is mysterious and difficult …