Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson /Edmund de Waal’s pensive exhibition, recently up at Galerie Max Hetzler in Berlin, was inspired by the artist’s intensive reading of German Jewish philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood Around 1900. Benjamin, who committed suicide in 1940 at age 48 while fleeing the Nazis, grew up in the Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf borough of Berlin where the gallery is located; a nearby square, Walter-Benjamin-Platz, is named for him.
The show is entitled “Irrkunst” – a German word coined (or at least prompted) by Benjamin to describe art that indulges or explores what others have ignored. Benjamin developed the notion of getting purposefully lost in order to access aspects of life that otherwise go unnoticed. A room of the gallery collects notes and manuscripts of Benjamin’s that provide intellectual context for this notion (his reading list included Proust, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and Heidegger as well as Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie), and displays the artist’s handwritten wall notes, which illuminate his integration of Irrkunst into his process.
[Image at top: Edmund de Waal, installation view at Galerie Max Hetzler in Berlin.]
The core of the exhibition, however, consists of wall-mounted vitrines that array basic minimalistic and monochromatic porcelain objects – erratically shaped vase-like cylinders and less frequently plates, often a serene blue-green, sometimes lighter or darker – in various combinations. The constituent elements themselves inexorably recall Giorgio Morandi’s contemplative still lifes that focus on the vase, and convey a comparable notion of time’s suspension and almost willed inertia.
In stacking or lining up the horizontal set pieces and subtly altering their form and number to reflect gain and loss, damage and repair, de Waal establishes in each of his contained scenes the conceptual representation of imperfect repetition – hence time and the process of living – on a generational scale. He imparts the sense of an entire life whose changing pace and activity is captured in the divergent physical details and permutations of like objects accumulated in different spaces. The person storing the objects from year to year would barely register their cumulative significance, but viewers get it now.
In some of de Waal’s pieces, his visual language has a simple binary quality – vase-or-plate aligns with dot-or-dash, or 0-or-1 – that intimates an elegant biographical code with a decipherable and assured rhythm though not clear and specific content. If its austereness implies a flattened existential trajectory, it also asserts the stark importance and capability of remembering and recording life, however quiescent.
As Peter Schjeldahl has said of Morandi, de Waal “engages the world one solitary viewer at a time.” Depending who’s looking, his shelves may be heartbreaking or pathetic, quaint or profound, or some combination of these qualities or others. But it is unlikely that they will be meaningless. That is aesthetic victory.
“Edmund de Waal: Irrkunst,” Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin, Germany. April 29, 2016 – July 16, 2016.
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